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The Underground Classical Music Movement

Groupmuse

Last year, Slate magazine published an article arguing that classical music is dead in America. The author, Mark Vanhoenacker chronicled declining album sales, lower attendance figures in symphony halls, and a collection of other data showing the genre’s not-so-gradual fall from grace. For classical music fans, it makes for a depressing read.

Dirty Projectors playing with yMusic at Carnegie Hall
Dirty Projectors playing with yMusic at Carnegie Hall (via Brooklyn Vegan)

And yet, looking back on it now, I have a hard time reconciling Mark’s words with my own experiences in the past few years. I didn’t actually realize how many good classical shows I’ve been to recently. Last November, I saw a quartet on a floating stage at Bargemusic. In December, I squeezed into a packed church to see modern composer Nico Muhly. Last month, I wound up in a stranger’s apartment watching concert pianist Eunbi Kim (who we’ve written about before) play works by Fred Hersch, Toby Twining, DBR, and others. And two weeks ago, I made it to my first Groupmuse — a gathering of more than 150 young music nerds in a converted Brooklyn warehouse head-banging to Bach’s Cello Suite.

I know anecdotal evidence doesn’t match clear data trends, but it’s pretty clear there’s something that doesn’t add up here. For one thing, the throngs of people at all these shows made it pretty obvious that classical music is far from dead. Maybe it’s just changing.

Blurring Boundaries

In January 2013, I went to see one of my favorite indie pop bands — the Dirty Projectors — and a couple surprising things happened. First of all, they were playing at Carnegie Hall. Second, the opener was a sextet called yMusic who perform modern classical music.

yMusic are part of a new generation of classical performers who seem to be embracing the ethos of indie rockers. You’re more likely to find them wearing tight jeans and t-shirts at an outdoor music festival than in gowns and tuxes in a symphony hall. Of all the ways they’re redefining classical music, it’s their collaborations that really stand out. In the past couple years, they’ve played with the Dirty Projectors, Jose Gonzalez, My Brightest Diamond, and they’re about to release an album with Ben Folds.

The funny thing is just because they’re embracing pop collaborations does not at all mean they’ve given up on classical music. One thing I loved about their recent set with Jose Gonzalez is that they played modern classical compositions to kick things off. They’re making classical music hip again. Their first full-length album, crowdfunded through Kickstarter, featured both pieces by contemporary composers, such as Judd Greenstein, and hip indie rockers including St Vincent, Son Lux, and My Brightest Diamond.

The Rise of “Indie” Classical

yMusic’s last album was released by New Amsterdam Records, a modern classical music record label based here in New York and often credited with being at the center of the growing independent classical scene. New York Magazine’s Justin Davidson talked to NPR about the rise of classical entrepreneurs, saying, “they’re part of this generation of people who get out of music school with all of these incredible skills, and all of this culture, and all of this creativity — fully aware that nobody is going to hand them a career.”

Basically, these people don’t necessarily feel like there’s a place for them in the symphonic orchestras of today — and that world doesn’t necessarily resonate with them — so they created their own indie scene around it, complete with record label, interesting venues, and cross-genre collaborations.

Now, lots of this isn’t new. Before yMusic, there was the Kronos Quartet, and before New Amsterdam, there was the Bang on a Can All-Stars. But there is something different about this movement in that it’s not quite as easily definable. The boundaries between classical and other genres are falling steadily by the wayside. And with them go all the rules from what venues to play to instrumentation, dress code to audience demographics.

The statistics that naysayers are pointing to in order to show declines in sales and attendance don’t encapsulate the incredible wealth of alternative acts and venues that may consider themselves “classical” — or at least part of the wide range of undefinable modern orchestral, instrumental, and heavily-influenced-by-classical music that exists today.

That’s Not Classical!

One of the real challenges in accounting for all these new acts is how to define them. What actually constitutes “classical music”? Many of today’s artists are not simply performing the works of the traditional masters — Mozart and Beethoven. Instead, they’re more likely to explore works by new composers like Nico Muhly or composing their own works in a classically-influenced style.

London-based record label Erased Tapes is home to many of these genre-bending instrumental artists like Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. Frahm is a classically trained pianist who creates intricate pieces combining piano and electronics. Arnalds creates similar pieces, but more sweeping in scope, occasionally with a full complement of strings. The two are often classified as neoclassical or indie classical, but the overall vibe of their music shares less with Mozart and more with modern rock or pop music, including modern production processes and lots of digital or electronic sounds. Their work speaks more of minimalist composers Phillip Glass and Steve Reich by not following traditional harmonic structures.

Arnalds has a new project coming out with award-winning classical pianist Alice Sarah Ott called the Chopin Project — an effort to re-interpret Chopin works using the basic structures of Chopin’s pieces as departure points for new songs. Like so many of these other modern classical acts, it’s looking for a new way to explore instrumental music while not being hamstrung by too many rules or strict traditions.

Music Students Seeking an Outlet

Groupmuse is a spectacular thing. Started in January 2013 by Sam Bodkin, it’s basically a loose web of classical music lovers who host shows in intimate spaces, like a cello performance in a living room or a string quartet in your office.

The founder of Groupmuse, Sam Bodkin defines classical music as music that can be notated and thus performed with a certain amount of reliability and consistency. A key part of their programming is that at least 50% of every performance needs to be pre-1950s classical repertoire, but the rest can be up to the artist.

When I was at my first Groupmuse a few weeks ago, I asked a number of audience members why they were there and how they found out about this growing underground scene. The response was both surprising and obvious. Most of the people I spoke to were either a) performers themselves, b) music students, or c) ex-music students wanting to stay connected. Despite the wide age range (17 to 60 or so), everyone seemed to be connected by having a very personal attachment to the music.

Given how many of us were raised either playing Mozart on some instrument, or listening to our brothers’ and sisters’ recitals, or having to endure a parent’s Sunday morning tradition of listening to Vivaldi, it’s not surprising that so many of us continue to want a relationship with that sort of music. We might not want to dress up and head to the symphony, but we’re totally down to hang out with friends over a beer while listening to a Bach Cello Suite

All in all, when I look out at the world of “classical” music today, I see a vastly more complex web of music than the doomsayers are recognizing. Modern composers inventing new sounds, trained performers finding alternative venues, pioneering indie musicians blending genres to create entirely new pieces. It may not be easily classifiable as “classical”, but one thing is certain: instrumental works are not going out of style anytime soon. It just looks a little different with every passing year.

It is now up to the symphony halls and conservatories whether they embrace this change and work with it, or deny it and continue to struggle by.

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Ian Temple

Ian is a pianist, entrepreneur and professional musician. He started Soundfly to help people really find what gets them most excited musically and pursue it. He's toured all over the world with his experimental trio Sontag Shogun. Check out his most recent course Building Blocks of Piano or follow him on Twitter at @ianrtemple.

  • daniel merrill

    In the UK i would give a nod to the astounding Laura moody whose classical chops are definitely solid, yet her use of extended techniques on cello combined with contemporary song writing approaches make her, at least for me one of the shining lights in how a classical musician can break out of the mould.

    But i totally agree with this article, and would argue it has not died, it has just evolved. Music is in many ways a reflection of the structures of societies, and for many now it is difficult to appreciate a traditional concert hall performance of classical music because the classic concert hall setting is something they no longer relate to – the centralised establishment perspective is something that few feel comfortable with. As much as i love listening to classical music, i feel alienated by the conservertoire and concert hall. I gre up listening and understanding music elsewhere… Most of us did.