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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear