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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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