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.
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