There is a fantastic conversation going on about the relevance about the new “alt-classical” genre. For anyone unacquainted with this term, it is a broad categorization of integrating “pop” sounds,( i.e. rock influenced chord progressions, or in extreme cases, drum machines creating beats) in the context of classical music. By classical music, it is meant that the music is created and performed by classically trained composers and performers.
Some compelling posts have been circulating the internet lately, among the most notable are Matt Marks, Brian Sacawa, and the 8th Blackbird blog. All three have made poignant observations, but what I will address here is the notion of alt-classical being a real movement in the classical scene.
A few years ago when group such as Alarm Will Sound, Red Light New Music, ICE, and 8th Blackbird were just getting started, their vision was (and still is) innovative and had the promise of bringing about real change in concert music. By taking music by renown composers and exceptionally talented emerging composers and playing in venues outside of a traditional concert hall setting, it was not surprising how well received these programs were. These groups (among others) sparked a shift in music presentation and created new outlets (and hope!) for emerging composers. Unfortunately, like most innovative ideas, this performance model has been exploited by an ever-increasing amount of groups. The unfortunate thing mentioned is that the quality of programs suffer from either low-caliber composers on the program or the performances themselves are lackluster and downright boring. It is in this dangerous realm where the label “alt-classical” resides. Not in that pop influences are cropping up in music by our generation raised on popular culture, but in the lazy approach to either composing or performing, or in some cases both!
Matt Marks makes the suggestion that alt-classical is without context:
Now a single song on a pop album or a single 5-10 minute pop-style alt-classical piece tends not to be the equal of a major classical work, in terms of complexity – or: stuff goin’ on. But as part of a larger work it can be similarly complex and cohesive, even if the other songs/pieces are not utilizing similar themes and/or contributing to a grand architecture in the classical sense. Where Gabriel and I agree is that many of these new alt-classical works fall short of being great works of art. But in my opinion it’s that they fall short of achieving the deepness and complexity of pop music, for two main reasons: the lack of audio production as a major component and the lack of context as a part of an album or larger work.
I agree on the basic comparison Matt makes here, but like a solid pop track, a single alt-classical work should be able to stand on its own without a larger context. For example, one of my favorite albums has been Boxer by The National. This album has everything that makes a pop album great: single songs that need no context, but are given one through the musical construction of the album as well as the production value.
My main problem with the alt-classical label and what it represents is low quality and amateur writing/playing that seems to have infiltrated what could be a real movement. I’m not talking about hobbyists either, these guys/gals are graduates of some of the top music schools, so why is the music so sloppy? Integrating pop components in classical music is logical in this day as classical music has made its way into pop music by groups such as Radiohead, Bjork, and others. In fact, I would argue that the classical influence on these artists is what makes them great, so conversely, shouldn’t having pop music masterfully interwoven into a new concert music piece work in a similar manner?
The answer is yes, these areas should be mutually influential on each other to make great art, but the problem lies in the lack of vision on the part of the creator. So, are there examples of well executed integration between these disparate elements? To quote Matt Marks again:
…recent large-scale works that blur the line between pop and classical and are incredibly complex and meticulously organized. Examples that come to mind are: David T. Little‘s Soldier Songs, Corey Dargel‘s pop-album/song-cycle hybrids, Ted Hearne‘s Katrina Ballads…
These guys do a masterful job blending genres and if alt-classical is going anywhere meaningful, I hope more composers that posses real skill will emerge, but for now, this new genre is inundated undiscerning ears and poorly organized works and programs.