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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State