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An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore as the Contemporary Art Museum.
Roll Over, Beethoven
By Reimagining Format, Alt-Classical Musicians Are Going Mainstream

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

In Silver Spring, a cellist plays in duo with electric guitar, their music wrapped in an envelope of reverb and static from the computer processors onstage. In Baltimore, a saxophone and bass clarinet perform acoustic compositions by acclaimed 20th-century composers in tandem with new electronic pieces by younger ones, interspersed with a live contribution from a DJ. And in Washington, a composer who wants to form a new-music group turns, not to conservatories, but to Craigslist.

Classical music is thought of as a world of formal wear, red velvet seats and Mozart concertos. But young classical musicians here and elsewhere are increasingly exploring additional ways to express themselves. Once upon a time, young conservatory musicians wanted to grow up to play as soloists with major orchestras. Today, many of them are forming bands instead.

The ensembles of the new alt-classical world are poised somewhere within the Venn-diagram intersection of traditional classical music and contemporary culture. It's hard to define exactly what kind of music they play.

"It always seems to be so many adjectives," says Gina Biver, a Washington composer and founder of the Fuse Ensemble. "You just say contemporary art music or modern art music; that's close. We have scores written out. All our musicians are classically trained. We have cellos and contrabass, but I also play electric guitar."

What's certain is that, following in the footsteps of groups like the Kronos Quartet and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, these ensembles perform any and all music, from Steve Reich to Radiohead, Javanese gamelan to the Renaissance composer Josquin, in instrumentations that might include anything from violin to (in the case of Washington's Great Noise Ensemble) amplified Coke cans.

And unlike traditional classical groups, you can't even tell what they are by their names. Instead of the Juilliard Quartet or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, we have Alarm Will Sound, eighth blackbird, itsnotyouitsme.

This isn't some lunatic fringe of experimentalism. The spirit of these groups is permeating, and invigorating, the whole classical music world. Armando Bayolo, who founded the Great Noise Ensemble through the abovementioned Craigslist announcement, knows his model: "I really feel groups like Alarm Will Sound and eighth blackbird represent the future of classical music."

There are two main aspects of the alt-classical idea. On the one hand, it represents an attempt to break down the traditional concert format, which can seem stiff and off-putting to the younger crowd whom all musicians these days would like to attract. The New York performance space Le Poisson Rouge, a club-style venue that features contemporary and classical music acts, is drawing attention nationwide. Locally, groups look hopefully at Busboys and Poets, or the Millennium Stage, or the basement of the Harman Center, while the Sonic Circuits Festival, a celebration of the eclectic and electronic, holds some events at the visual arts center Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring.

"The crowd [at Busboys and Poets] is so mixed, all the young people, the vibe in there," said Nick Kendall, a 31-year-old violinist with the bluegrass-jazz-uncategorizable, classically trained string trio Time for Three, which played there last year during a Kennedy Center residency. "If I could sustain a living playing in those kinds of places, I would do it all the time."

But the second main point about alt-classical groups is that they are increasingly featured on mainstream, traditional concert series and orchestra programs. The Library of Congress series, committed to new music since its inception, has presented Alarm Will Sound and the Absolute Ensemble, both "bigger groups that are at home in so many worlds," says Ann McLean, one of the library's three senior producers for concerts and special projects. Young musicians today, she says, "go back and forth with more ease than you would have heard five years ago."

This season, the library is offering a particular concentration of edgier groups, such as Brooklyn Rider and the Jack Quartet, both string quartets with a bandlike mentality and a funky, contemporary vibe. The Corcoran, already a new-music home, will bring in the NOW Ensemble, a New York group that includes two composers among its seven members, on Monday. On Saturday the Barns at Wolf Trap is presenting the pianist Christopher O'Riley (of NPR's "From the Top"), who will play arrangements of Nirvana, Tori Amos, and his particular signature, Radiohead.

And a couple of weeks ago, in Baltimore and at Strathmore, Time for Three opened the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's subscription series with a concerto written for them by Jennifer Higdon, which was commissioned by no less an institution than the august Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach, the NSO's future music director and a big Time for Three fan.

Trained at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, where they began playing together in informal jam sessions to let off steam, Time for Three has both blue-chip classical credentials and bluegrass ones: They tear through that fiddler's standby "Orange Blossom Special" like nobody's business. The piece is included on their next CD, which comes out in January, their first with a major label. (The group will perform in The Plains, Va., on Sunday.)

Time for Three's violinist Kendall could be a poster child for what the critic Mark Swed, in the Los Angeles Times, has called "a new breed of super-musicians." Growing up in Washington, he started studying violin as a child with his grandfather, a pioneer of the Suzuki method. He also longed for a drum set, but his family wanted him to stick to Beethoven, so he played on trash cans and plastic buckets instead. His "hip-hop trash-can drumming band," as he calls it, used to play in an alley off M Street in Georgetown, across from Ben and Jerry's. "We made a lot of money from tourists," he says.

His work with Time for Three is a way for Kendall to explore this funkier, more freewheeling side. So is his upcoming gig with the Village Underground Band. But this doesn't mean he rejects classical music; far from it. Kendall is a founding member of the Dryden Quartet, along with NSO concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef, NSO principal violist Daniel Foster (his cousin), and his sister Yumi Kendall, assistant principal cello with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He is also a founding member of the East Coast Chamber Orchestra (ECCO), 17 string musicians with high-powered solo and orchestra careers who meet twice a year for a musical retreat to delve into works of the standard repertoire at their leisure. (ECCO will play at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 14.) Time for Three, Kendall says, has also stimulated his solo concerto performances. "Being in a group that writes its own music, I have a completely different perspective," he says. He adds, "I played the Sibelius concerto last summer. It completely changed. I'm listening to harmony in a completely different way."

O'Riley, 53, is of an older generation, and didn't set out to create an alternative to the norm; he just began playing the music that interested him. But he is far from the only musician to demonstrate the permeability of the borders between alt-classical and alt-rock. Alarm Will Sound devoted an album to the music of Aphex Twin, while Glenn Kotchke of Wilco plays with the Kronos Quartet and Bang on a Can All-Stars; the singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens has just released a CD of a "symphonic" composition called "The BQE"; and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood played an orchestral piece with a pickup classical ensemble on the New York series Wordless Music.

And thanks to the niche O'Riley has developed, he finds himself playing more club dates than classical recitals. "The point now is to see the event as a little more elastic and spontaneous," he says.

Clubs have become more appealing even to groups that perform a more traditional repertory. The young Chiara Quartet (which plays at the National Gallery on Wednesday and at Strathmore on Friday) has for two years been working on an initiative called "Chamber music in any chamber," lining up bar and club dates in addition to its regular concert work. "One of the best things about playing in alternative spaces," Greg Beaver, the Chiara's cellist, said in an e-mail, "is the comfort and casual nature of the audience-artist relationship. The traditional artist-as-god relationship that many classical audiences are accustomed to just isn't there."

In Washington, the alt-classical scene is slightly more muted than it is in Baltimore, where the Contemporary Museum is hosting Mobtown Modern's third season of intriguingly curated new-music concerts, and the blog Aural States is presenting the New York-based So Percussion on Oct. 28. Nonetheless, it's filtering down. Witness the rebirth of the Contemporary Music Forum, Washington's most-established contemporary music group, as the hipper-sounding Verge Ensemble, which stepped up its national presence last year (with, among other things, a performance at Le Poisson Rouge).

Like most garage bands, alt-classical groups have to make the most of limited resources. "A lot of the vibe we've developed," says Bayolo of the Great Noise Ensemble, "is that we've been forced to work in a tough economy with very little money, as what I call guerrilla music makers." The ensemble's musicians are still working without pay, though the question of performance space has been solved since the group took up residency at Catholic University. (Their next concert is Oct. 30.)

The residency is appropriate in that Bayolo specifically cites the catholicism -- with a small C -- of his musical tastes. All music, to this young composer, is created equal, but the established format is too restrictive. "The notion of music as religious relic is what I'm trying to fight against," he said.

As different as they are, these new groups do see themselves as part of a larger sea change in the field.

"I think there is 100 percent similarity," Kendall said, "in that we all come from the same breed, we all trained in the same way but we all are experimenting and coming up with our own individual voice. I think it is so exciting."

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