…Twitter today, and noticed a retweet by @altclassical, from composer/curator Judd Greenstein, regarding an article published in New York Magazine. In it, author Justin Davidson details what he calls the “New New York School” of composers, who are linked by their love of “…amped-up minimalism, percussion-heavy beats, shimmering textures, loops, drones, and washes of electronic color.” He mentions that these composers, essentially the first of those of us born into a world with no dividing line between popular and art music, have fallen flat in a world without these delineations (as his subtitle suggests).
Upon first reading, I was in agreement with Davidson; I tend to find that there is a lot of concern over “style” with these indie-classical composers (read: hipster-classical), often at the expense of “substance.” After some thought (on a drearily long commute via train/subway/walk/bus/train from Boston to NYC to Long Island…blech!), though, I started to consider just what sort of implications making this kind of argument had.
Those who know me personally know that I have a hard time with indie (read: hipster) culture. Hell, right now, if you check my Facebook profile, you’ll see a picture devoted to my loathing of hipsters. It takes a lot for me to sympathize with this New New York School, simply because it feels too much to me like they’ve replaced “elite” with “cool,” as in, “You no longer have to be from an elite echelon of society to appreciate this music. All you have to be is cool enough.” Which to me, might as well have replaced one oppressive regime with another.
(Of course, I don’t necessarily blame the composers themselves, so much as the way that they are marketed. I was doing sound for a Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players concert at Merkin Hall, and was looking at the poster for the Ecstatic Music Festival, where I saw this picture of Dan Deacon. I’ve never met Dan Deacon, nor have I heard of him until the Ecstatic Music Festival, and I bet he’s actually a lot of fun to hang around with and somebody from whom I could learn a lot [I trust So Percussion’s judgment implicitly]. Still, I assumed that they just found some random photo of a jolly hipster to throw up on the poster, in order to demonstrate what market segment this concert series was aimed at. It made me angry that the apparent solution to classical music’s problem with its cash cows keeling over was to simply employ the same tricks toward the Brooklyn trust fund set, a group of young people with lots of capital to blow. Again, I’m sorry for assuming your press photo was stock footage of hipsters, Dan Deacon! At least you have a cool headshot…I’m too broke to get mine done!)
Anyway, it’s tough for me to side with the New New York School. But, I find it a little caustic of Davidson to assume that because their priorities are different than those of their forbears, that they aren’t producing quality music. I think that what Davidson is trying to get at is a basic paradigm shift from the modernist/postmodern composers of the generation before this NNY School. What used to distinguish a composer from, I dunno, a songwriter was that composer’s self-awareness of how they fit into the grand scheme of classical music’s narrative. Composers used to have to saddle all the centuries of context, angst, guilt, and history of classical music in order to gain the seal of approval from their teachers and colleagues. Nowadays, there is a lot of talk in university environments about being able to write music in “whatever style you want,” but we all know that this isn’t exactly true. The subtext of that statement is still, “you can write what you want, so long as you shoulder the burden of the lineage and write appropriately.” At the end of the day in today’s society, there are still definite ideas being implanted in to our social fabric about what/who a composer is, and what kind of music a composer makes. Davidson’s article is a perfect example of that.
I think that this New New York School is one of the first generations of composers to really put the idea of “writing what you want” to the test. They are relying on the music itself to determine whether or not what they’ve written is intelligent, not how you listen to it. A great example of this is Missy Mazzoli’s article for NPR, where she demonstrates the same level of upset that any composer would be if their music’s intelligence was called into question.
While I don’t immediately agree with some of their artistic choices, I feel that these composers’ statements about intelligence in music free of the context of the classical tradition is an important one to make, in that it paves the way for future composers to actually get some space from said tradition enough to process it and to think about its engagement. Hopefully, we’ll create an intelligent music that won’t have to be marketed to us as “intelligent,” “pedigreed,” or “cool,” for us to find meaning in it.