The pernicious rise of “indie-classical”

If you think classical music is snobbish, just take a look at indie culture.

Last weekend Andrew Mellor wrote an emotive piece about concert hall snobbery and class positioning in classical music for the New Statesman’s Cultural Capital blog. His observations on the particular obsessions of opera and concert programmes, “stuffed full with adverts for private schools”, were spot on. I have already blogged about the distressing cult of the concert hall, and how a new generation of musicians are looking for ways past this via a radical recontextualisation of classical music. Having been a part of this myself, I would say that this movement is mostly motivated by a more utopian desire to build a better musical culture for classical music’s new age, rather than solely as an angry reaction to the outmoded performance practices of past generations. Only a day before Mellor’s piece, I joined over 100 musicians in a performance of John Adams’s epic orchestral poem Harmonielehre in Peckham Rye Car Park. 

But I do disagree with Mellor’s focus on how the exercise of superior knowledge is something peculiar to classical music. Mellor writes: “At so many concerts and operas in the UK, if you don’t look and sound like you know what you’re talking about you may well be stared at, judged and made to feel uncomfortable by someone who thinks they do”. But this kind of behaviour is far from the sole preserve of the “arrogant dinosaurs” of the classical music world.
 
Hipsterdom, rooted in the contempt for consumerism of Nineties indie culture, has created an aesthetic predicated on the perfection and superiority of taste. Hipsters have recently displayed a knack for picking up on all kinds of “retromania” trends – from lo-fi photography to collecting vintage typewriters. In his damning critique of indie music for the literary magazine n+1, Richard Beck examined how hipsterdom has produced a pastoral culture – exemplified by the wild carousel music of experimental indie band Animal Collective. Much of this pushed at a kind of cultural decadence: “So long as they practiced effective management of the hype cycle, they were given a free pass by their listeners to lionize childhood, imitate their predecessors, and respond to the Iraq war with dancing”. 
 
In fact it’s worth looking at how classical music has the potential to become yet another site for hipster posturing. One way of exploring this is to examine the spate of recent articles hyping the idea of the “indie-classical” genre.
 
Earlier this year Jayson Greene wrote an article on "The Emergence of Indie Classical" for the music website Pitchfork, the hipster publication and indie music kingmaker par excellence. In his “examination of the ever-melding worlds of indie and classical music”, Greene’s enthusiastic rhetoric was turned up full-blast: “indie-classical has grown past the point where it’s some miraculous new fruit on pop culture’s Big Tree,” he gushed. Complete with recognised labels and names, including Nico Muhly, Hauschka and Owen Pallett, “indie-classical” is a “high-functioning cottage industry now”. 
 
“The new generation is pouring in: eager, collaborative, as invested in indie rock as they are in the nuts-and-bolts arcana of composition,” Greene exclaimed. “Lately, it’s become hard to even tell an indie rock musician and a composer apart.” This kind of self-congratulatory literary excess, obsessed with naming musical influences, is singular to the publication – Pitchfork above all others knows how to work cultural capital and its whole signature style is geared towards investment.
 
Of course this may just illustrate a pseudo-scientific propensity among music journalists to come up with spurious names for pop genres and trends. Recently I’ve encountered “hypnagogic pop”, “digital maximalism” and “witch-house”. I’m still not sure what any of these really mean, and certainly you’d be hard-pressed to find any musicians who would willingly describe themselves as part of these “scenes”. Nevertheless the sentiment behind these terms is clear – they form a significant part of a music critic’s cachet. The composer Nico Muhly has blogged  about this: “I did a show in London that I thought was pretty great, and then online it was all indie-classical this and indie-classical that and I was like, do you know? Forget that. Nothing is gained by that description”.
 
So the term “indie-classical” may not mean much, but the very desire to coin such a term is interesting. I am concerned that the prevalence of the “indie-classical” branding comes as part of a more problematic attempt to subject classical music to the shallow posturing and exclusionary logics of indie scenes, where Pitchfork has built a culturally anxious readership. While, in part, this is just an inevitable side-effect of broadening audiences, classical music already offers a tempting heritage, social ritual and professionalised elite performance. It has even cultivated the idea that it is somehow an “underdog” compared to today’s popular music trends – it could not be a more perfect hipster’s wet dream. Watch out for the new snobbery.
The new snobbery: Pitchfork Music Festival (Photo: Getty)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories