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What's in a name

Partly spurred on by a debate on Greg Sandow’s blog (that is, my husband’s), I wanted to put in my own two cents defending the term “alt-classical” (which I used with some emphasis in this recent article). Some people scorn it as a too-trendy label; some scoff because they feel the phenomenon is already so mainstream that to people in the music world it seems like old news.

The fact is that labels are as misleading as they are necessary. Necessary because it gets tiresome to have to resort to long descriptions (like “the new trend of young composers and performers embracing non-classical idioms, instruments, and approaches”) every time you want to invoke a concept. Misleading because any label is gimmicky, reductive, and inaccurate. Take “minimalism,” one of the least satisfying labels in existence, and describing perhaps the most important single musical trend of the late 20th century. Its two major proponents, Steve Reich and Philip Glass, both reject it emphatically, and indeed it is not adequate to their music; but it’s helpful to have something to call their music apart from “Music that appears to do the same thing over and over, and is organized around combinations of repeating patterns rather than conventional notions of narrative development.” (And that sentence isn’t any more accurate a description than “Minimalism,” either.)
(read more after the jump)

Some people feel that to call a new trend by a label is somehow to segregate it from the main current of what’s going on. And sure, the new trends going on in music are just plain music, good or bad. So was “Minimalism,” whatever you choose to call it, and so was “serialism.” The reason that we writers search for names for these things is to attempt to call attention to the fact that something is going on, some kind of shift or new development, that is different from what’s gone on before and is worth paying attention to. And for better or worse, the “alt-classical” phenomenon that so many insiders say is old news is just breaking into the mainstream awareness.

In fact, the response I heard to my "alt-classical" article cast a strong light, for me, on just how divided the music world is. On the one hand is the small group of musicians who are abreast of all recent developments and know this has been going on for a while. On the other are the readers and administrators who let me know they were excited to hear about this new phenomenon. Part of the point of putting names to things is to enable them to be apprehended and discussed more easily. Chances are, in any case, that whatever name finally adheres to the musical currents of the past decade, to describe them for posterity, we don't know it yet.

By Anne Midgette  |  November 25, 2009; 6:05 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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I think it would be useful to have two terms, one to differentiate the approach to performance from the traditional classical mode - i.e., the Chiara Quartet playing Beethoven in bars. The other would be to differentiate the music from the traditional classical mode - i.e., Nico Muhly composing pieces of pop-song length for diverse instruments. Often the two overlap, but using the term to encompass those very different activities waters down its meaning. Plus, if you had two terms, you could differentiate between Nico Mulhy presenting his music at a bar vs. Zankel Hall.

No, I do not know what the two terms should be.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | November 25, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

Some interesting reader comments on the downside, as well as the upside, to the current “alt-classical” scene at:

For example:

“The badly planned evening [$40 tickets] was topped by one the worst crowds I can remember at Walt Disney Hall. So many people there had no clue about etiquette. Talking, texting, walking in late, flipping through their program. This was amateur night with a two drink minimum for such a sorry bunch of losers."

Posted by: snaketime1 | November 25, 2009 10:42 AM | Report abuse

My problem with alt-classical, which I also raised on Greg's blog, is twofold. Coming from the mouths of administrators (or record labels), it instantly reeks of "let's be phat with the yoof, foshizzle!" which any real young person will see through in a heartbeat.

The other issue I have with it is that show me a young composer who has been interviewed (this can probably be counted on one hand) recently who HASN'T had some kind of alt-classical label, or hasn't had the excited coo-ings that this is a composer who also listens to Radiohead. The whole meaning of alt- is pointless when it is in fact the mainstream of young composers that they are polyglot in their tastes and influences.

But I accept I'm on the losing side here.

Posted by: ianw2 | November 25, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Anything with "alt" in it conveys an impression of clueless extras thinking they are having close encounters of the third kind while they sit under pyramids, ingesting homeopathic medicines and waiting for the couple getting married while sky-jumping to land. Everyone is 23 years old, and is wearing white, including white roses, and smiling fixedly. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and birds are chirping in the trees.

To make a positive suggestion: why not "art music" to denote music that aspires to a certain standard and that has a certain degree of complexity (meaning more than one felicitous phrase), that does not involve immature individuals singing about their hormonal problems, preferably not singing at all, and that is written for an audience with more than a 5-minute attention span, that does not need a mosh pit to find joy in the music?

Posted by: gauthier310 | November 29, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse

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