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
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.