You should know that there’s a polarizing debate bubbling among classical music circles. It started with a small group of musical misfits, and now the movement is gaining momentum as it spills out of concert halls and into dark nightclubs, pubs and watering holes. There haven’t been any riots yet, but that’s looking inevitable. The debate is over indie classical, and even the name stirs controversy.
“In our music world, everyone wants to put you in a box,” explains Charles Wetherbee of the indie classical Carpe Diem String Quartet. When presenters were having a hard time labelling the ensemble that mixes classical with jazz, rock and fiddling, the term “indie” was thrown at them. It stuck. Violist Korine Fujiwara is at ease with its vagueness. “The word ‘indie’ almost defies definition,” she says.
Indie classical is so broad and new that nobody can agree on what it means. The conversation often turns to terms like crowdfunding, minimalism, cross-genre and (sometimes) populist. More often than not, indie classical is performed outside of the traditional concert hall, the musicians aren’t wearing tuxes and audiences may even have drinks in their hands. There’s also a good chance you’ll hear a Radiohead or Arcade Fire arrangement for classical instruments. To me, it means exactly what it sounds like: music that straddles both the pop and classical world.
Who’s into indie classical? Mostly young people. Picture the folks with Instagram photos sepia-toning their life, drinking coffee made with 100 per cent arabica beans (fair trade, naturally) and fantasizing about living in Brooklyn. Did I mention that they’re young?
Nico Muhly, the 31-year-old American composer who has become the hesitant poster child of indie classical, is left kicking and screaming when this label is slapped onto him.
In a flurried exchange of tweets and blog posts last year, Muhly dismissed indie classical as “making the PR person’s job easier.” He went on to complain that the label takes away an artist’s ability to describe his or her own music.
There lies the great indie classical flaw. The name does a better job at describing a philosophy than elements of the music itself. One wonders whether any composer in history would be happy with their label. Would Mozart be satisfied with being merely called “classical”? Regardless, CDs on record store shelves will always have genre labels above them. As long as record stores exist, that is.
As for the Carpe Diem String Quartet, they’re more concerned about audiences than labels. Indie classical is reaching a whole new set of fresh ears, while still satisfying the old ones. According to Wetherbee, “we [classical musicians] have been sitting in our little world for many, many years, bemoaning the fact that few people want to come walk through our door. Why don’t we walk through their door?”
[Listen] Listen to Christopher O'Riley and Matt Haimovitz performing Radiohead and Arcade Fire on Concerts on Demand.
Do you think that “indie classical” is a useful label? Or is it no more than flashy PR hype? Share your opinion in the comments section below.
Nico Muhly blogs about indie classical
Making Overtures: The Emergence of Indie Classical from Pitchfork
Indie classical on Tumblr
The pernicious rise of “indie classical”
In defense of “Indie Classical”
on Aug 15, 2012