(I Think) I’ve Seen the Future of Classical Music (Sabbatical Journal 1)

And it doesn’t want to be called “classical.”

Or anything else, for that matter.

Back to that in a bit. It is a gorgeous day in New York City.  Bright and sunny, fresh snow (and, yes, the subsequent slush).

Here for a semester plus a bit, I’m developing a new course (or courses) for DePauw on career skills for classical musicians and new trends in classical music presentation.  The latter includes the intermingling of formerly discrete genres (i.e., classical, jazz, indie rock, etc.) and what for 20th-century-mindset classical musicians are non-traditional venues.

Like bars and clubs and coffee houses. It’s fascinating.  There’s a ton of it going on in New York, which is why I am here, as a kind of informal, self-appointed ethnomusicologist doing field research. (And participating a bit, too.)

I arrived last Thursday, January 13, and after dropping my bags off at a friend’s apartment, headed directly to the Times Square Westin for most of the day’s pre-conference sessions at Chamber Music America’s 33rd Annual Conference “The Next Generation: Traditions and trends.”  I was just a bit late for a “The Next-Gen Musician,” a panel discussion moderated by WQXR‘s Terrance McKnight, with composer/performers Gabriel Kahane, Missy Mazzoli, and Tyshawn Sorey.  And, wow, was it ever the perfect start to my research here.

Somehow I had been thinking that my job was to research new ways of presenting classical music.  New settings, less formal.  Side-by-side with other genres. But this group smacked my thinking upside my head, big time.

All three of the panelists were impatient and frustrated with the very idea of genre labels for music.  It’s clear they live in a new, post-genere paradigm and are waiting for the rest of us (or younger generations) to catch on.  Kahane spoke of “creating a space free of genres” (that might be a paraphrase, my notes aren’t clear), a “clean slate” where whatever needs to be expressed can be. Their music draws on and combines elements of music from the multiple-genres paradigm.  What little I’ve heard, though, is really more than an eclectic mix or classcalizing of other musics.  Something new is being born.

He was picking up on McKnight’s comment that today’s composers don’t need to express the emotions that Bach and Beethoven, for example, did so well.  That was a really great point, explaining, among other things, why so many of us go back to Bach and Beethoven.  Which McNight later said he does, along with Ellington and host of others.

Missy Mazzoli praised the Ecstatic Music Festival as a place that is genreless. Sorey spoke with a frustration bordering on resentment about how difficult it is for a drummer/composer to get performances; later he explained with what seemed to be more than a touch of resigned-to-deal-with-other-people’s-realities that he has his music organized into separate “tracks” (solo, chamber, jazz, etc.) for the sake of presenters.

“My music can function anywhere,” he said, and that is a key point.  Kahane (reminding me of Christopher Small’s book Musicking: A Ritual in Social Space and other writings) that the rooms in which we present music are political statements, and emphasized that it is as important to think about “the frame of what we present as well as what we present.”

They talked about a lot more than I can describe in one blog post.  Especially fascinating was Missy Mazzoli’s description of having her self-described “chamber-rock” band Victoire perform a piece she originally wrote for traditional classical instruments and thereby having the music reach a new, indie-rock audience.

Over the following three days, I heard many young musicians perform and speak. They don’t like genre labels.  Genre labels don’t make sense to them.  And neither does the idea that some music is “better” than others.  But what to call it?  And how to promote it outside of areas like New York where this phenomenon, whatever it is, is well-established?  Big questions, the topic of much discussion by musicians, managers, and presenters alike.

More to come.






Filed under CMA 2011 Conference, Gabriel Kahane, genre-free music, Missy Mazzoli, Next-Gen musicians, sabbatical journal, Tyshawn Sorey

8 responses to “(I Think) I’ve Seen the Future of Classical Music (Sabbatical Journal 1)

  1. Good to know the New York scene is just as virant as I’ve always read and heard. Sadly, genres are here for now, until the rest of the world catches up with genre-benders and border-crossers. Organizing into different tracks for presenters in venues is about the only way to get booked (at places where you might want to make more than pocket change).

    I’m not so sure it’s heartening to know it’s still an issue on the East Coast because it’s sure still the case in the Midwest. That’s probably been the singular driving force behind how I’ve had to market il Troubadore though with that group it’s more on the side of packaging programs rather than “genre” tracks.

    I know it’s been interesting just trying to convince what would be the perfect presenters/organizations (namely Sci-Fi Conventions) that an original Klingon Ballet would be a perfect fit for their events. You would think that’s a no-brainer, but even well defined “genres” (or at least shows that are so well defined by the words making using to ‘name’ them) it’s sometimes difficult for folks to grasp the concept. Or maybe, it’s too easy to grasp since the connotations (e.g. “ballet”) really do bring up very specific ideas.

    What I think has been most interesting is how more evenly new things get distribute on both left and right coasts (an on the third coast to an extent) whereas in the middle the newly emerging ensembles (at least from what I’ve noticed) are much more closely tied to specific demographics (and by that I do also mean ethnic demographics). Example–the West coast has no lack of bands that have co-evolved with the very strong Tribal Bellydance scene there and at times just as wildly eclectic with its ethnic instrumentation and ethnic musical influences while north of us in Chicagoland and those states along the Canadian border, most of the Middle Eastern ensembles are far much traditional.

    Not that tha’s a bad thing–it’s nice to know that one of the most successful touring and critically acclaimed Classical Arabic Ensembles in this country is based in Chicago and that serious Arabic Art music could even survive (and in some cases flourish) in the country at all. But there really ar some interesting regional differences.

    In the end, genre lables are probably going to be here for a long time–and even something “genre-less” — recalling Data’s words in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation upon the enterprise finding a “dimensioness” anomoly –“Isn’t the lack of dimension a dimension in and of itself?”

    Looking forward to reading your ethnographies! 🙂

    • Jon, great comment as always. And how did you write it in seemingly less time than I wrote it? 🙂

      • Everyone tells me I have several dissertations in my head just ready to burst forth like Athena from Zeus’ brow–ok, maybe not in so much poetic terms! But seriously, I think these are things and issues that I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and just have so much to say about them.

        Almost like a stream of consciousness thing, ideas just flow easily for me I guess. Wish I was more like this when writing papers at DePauw! 😛

      • Better late than never. And now you know what you have to say.

  2. Haha–true. It’s just now with a bigger teaching schedule and only slighly less hefty performing schedule, I have far less time to say it. 😦 And this is reminding me so much of hat line from John Cage’s “Lecture on Nothing”

    “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.”

    In the meantime, I can live vicariously through what you say as a result of your current circumstances an experiences–I’m a tiny bit envious!

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