Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 17, No. 4

Muhly, Mazzoli & Crossover Composition

by Crystal Chan / December 1, 2011

Version française...

Flash version here.

“I wanted to create music for a fake religion,” says Missy Mazzoli, describing a composition-in-progress. “My neighbour here in Brooklyn built his own house out of bottles, glass, and concrete. A homemade cathedral. There was something really spontaneous, joyful, exuberant, and obsessive about this art. That got me thinking about what the musical equivalent would be, about how religion still dominates a lot of music and has for 2,000 years or more. I love ecstatic religious music but felt alienated because I wasn’t raised religious. I wanted to be a part of that in some weird little way.” The piece will be based on Bach chorales but she’s “transformed it into something that is weird and new.”

Mazzoli is an ‘indie classical’ composer (a term she uses). The term has floated around for a few years; ‘crossover’ has for even longer. It has associated artists and record labels (New Amsterdam, Cantaloupe, Bedroom Community, even one launched by Sergei Prokofiev’s grandson named Non Classical). Its definition and usefulness is debatable, but the term attempts to classify an increasing number of ‘genre-confused’ artists like Mazzoli. Like her home cathedral inspired piece, most of her music is a bride’s mix of something old, something new. Conservatory-trained at Boston University and Yale, Mazzoli also studied with Louis Andriessen in Amsterdam and her work has played at Carnegie Hall. But it has at pop venues, as well. And she has a band, Victoire—albeit one which plays from scores and features strings and woodwinds instead of a singer.

Nico Muhly is another indie classical composer based in New York. A Juilliard graduate with ties to Philip Glass, he’s frequently in the spotlight, most recently for the premieres of two operas in 2011. Between classical music commissions (among others, he has written for Chris Lane: read a profile of the organist on page 48), he writes for pop musicians (including Björk, Grizzly Bear, Sigur Rós’s Jónsi) and soundtracks. Muhly, like Mazzoli, mixes classic forms with new ideas; one of his operas, Two Boys, centres on internet chat rooms. Or take Keep in Touch, a viola chaconne interwoven with a tape part recorded by pop musician Antony Hegarty. Mazzoli’s Dissolve, O My Heart for solo violin is also inspired by the chaconne, specifically Bach’s D-minor; it opens with the same iconic triad.

These two pieces and others are receiving their Canadian premieres at a Warhol Dervish concert, which will also see the Canadian premiere of a Kronos Quartet commission by Ottawan Richard Reed Parry, an Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre member. Although not formally trained, Parry’s instrumental compositions have gained ground. In fall 2011, the Kitchener Waterloo Symphony released a disc featuring Muhly and Parry. Mazzoli, Muhly, and Parry—and a constellation of fellow composers dubbed ‘indie classical’—are all young (Mazzoli’s 31; Muhly, 30; Parry, 34), social media and pop culture savvy, and curious about bending genres.

The problem with considering indie classical as a musical genre is that, unlike others, its music doesn’t have a shared sound. That’s what you get when plurality of inspiration is the point. “It’s more of a social movement than a musical one,” Mazzoli explains. Waters get even murkier when you consider the distinction between pop music written by composers and instrumental music written by pop artists. Or, composers who are in pop bands but whose works in the two genres are not interdependent. This identification crisis—a crisis mainly for critics rather than musicians—questions the role of the composer above other musicians: a band’s songwriters and performers are fused in pop but divided in classical, so as borders blur, composers are the first to re-navigate their place. Labels such as indie classical are created to define the shifts. But what, really, is so new about what’s happening here that it necessitates new labels? Mixing old and new has been seen before, as have composers who veer towards and away from populism. Is indie classical just as oxymoronic and vague a name for a musical genre as contemporary classical?

Musical Aliens
Twentieth-century instrumental music is often described as alienating. Stravinsky sounds alien, serialism sounds even more alien, and audiences get scared away. But musicians feel alienated, too, especially from the academic establishment. Mazzoli argues in an NPR blog editorial that academia is a gated community whose snubbing of pop-influenced music dissuades, among other things, ethnic and musical diversity. Sources of funding also hold composers at arm’s length. There is less and less financial support from institutions to go around. Although this all happens more slowly and more invisibly in Canada than in New York, parallels are growing.

These two, Ouroboros-like factors—the lack of support from financial backers and the established arts community—seem to have sparked the movement. Musicians who are increasingly unable or unwilling to rely on shrinking grants, foundations, and donors take cues from pop’s cultivation of public support. They develop more band-like schemes (of course, the difference between smartening up and selling out is hotly contested). Mazzoli describes such an unconventional money-raiser: “I’ve been hosting a lot of fundraising parties. I’ve learned that what people want more than anything is access to you and the art in a meaningful way. I’ll perform a section of a work a month before the premiere and use this as a way to talk about the work so that people that want to contribute to the project feel that they have a special ‘in’ on it. It breaks down a lot of barriers, very quickly.” And, forced to get creative about saving money, musicians ask friends for in-turn and low-pay contributions of talent on their projects instead of hiring externally.

The perceived disinterest from academia also encourages musicians to look beyond their music school mentors and colleagues to find a new community. Sometimes they look outside classical music, or even music, sniffing out shared interests and ideas without regard to professional fields. Muhly describes such a self-made community: “I make music with people I like; I happen to like lots of different people. I’d love to collaborate with an architect! I don’t see it as any big breaking out or crossing over [from classical music].” He may not have worked with an architect, but he has worked with a perfumer to create a ‘scent opera,’ which premiered at the Guggenheim. As composers work with more varieties and numbers of colleagues, in turn a wider audience hears their music—including those that may be interested in future collaboration. Finally, as composers write increasingly ‘for themselves’ and their newfound communities of colleagues, they feel less restricted to styles favoured by academic grants.

All this alienation and resulting cross-pollination encourages a DIY attitude. “This do-it-yourself movement has come out recently out of necessity,” Mazzoli believes. “You’re told that classical music is dead. There are no record labels or outlets for your music. Funding is drying up. We’ve all heard that for our entire lives. So we’re looking to each other and to different models of funding and producing concerts. I’m very happy to be part of a group of young musicians who are interested in that, who are banding together to do something new, interesting and fun.”

Postmodern Playground
Of course there’s nothing new about the establishment’s distaste for genre bending or multidisciplinary exchange. The difference here seems to be a matter of scale. “We have a much bigger playground of information to work with,” explains Warhol Dervish co-founder and violist Pemi Paull (an LSM contributor). “There’s a realization of how much variety there is in the world. When I was growing up Ravi Shankar was Indian music. But now you can listen to 10,000 Indian musicians, anytime you want.”

As is also the case outside music, the gap between each new standard becomes progressively shorter. For a long time, music could only be heard live. But then it spilled out onto records, then to tape, CD, downloads, streaming. As many have remarked, the move to digital is an important one as listeners are no longer encouraged to listen to an album in its entirety. A 2011 Nielsen-MIDEM study reports that even downloads are on the out, with more listeners streaming videos to listen to music than all music downloads combined. Since it is more or less instant, streaming indulges musical curiosity even more easily than downloading. Listeners can jump from one of the ‘10,000 Indian musicians’ to another—then on to a Bach chaconne, interpreted a thousand ways.

All this to say that indie classical composers, now 30- and 20-somethings, are among the first whose careers are unrolling at a time when easy access to all of recorded music is the norm. Youtube, the major source of video-music streaming, was only officially launched in November 2005. No matter that these numbers are not specific to classical music. In fact, that may be the point. Culture is a society’s personality. These composers, like all artists, create works that reflect the sum of their ways of life and thinking.

From music by long-decomposed composers to music premiered an hour earlier; from music made in Lhasa to music made in Chicoutimi. Musicians are eager to soak up as much as possible of the music that they now have unprecedented access to. Until recently, Paull observes, “The singularity of your activities was sort of a benchmark of how good at it you were [as a musician]. Now, it’s invaluable to learn different kinds of music.” In turn, it’s easier than ever for composers to find trained musicians who can and will play diverse styles.

Closing yourself to the world beyond your music is actually considered a handicap. Muhly, who holds a Columbia English literature degree, does not even cite music when I ask what inspires his compositions. “For me, the absolute best thing to do is to read voraciously,” he says. “Books, magazines, anything, and not about music. Reading cookbooks is exciting to me, reading historical novels is exciting to me, reading technical manuals about making knives is exciting. If you fall into a sort of rabbit hole on the Internet, that can be fun too. It’s about being a visitor in a foreign space, which is, I think, the essential experience of listening to music.”

“There’s this old fashioned image of the composer as the silent genius who holes up in a cabin and writes things and then sends them out into the world,” Mazzoli agrees. “But I think that that’s really outdated.” For many musicians today, composing seems to be as much about absorbing culture as it is about creating it.

“Music that only you can write”
It was, however, exactly this appetite for varied influences that Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Justin Davidson attacked in a March 2011 New York Magazine piece. Naming, among others, Muhly and Mazzoli as part of “an omnivorous generation of composers” who “go merrily Dumpster-diving in styles of the past and of distant parts,” he concludes that “with their range of choices oppressively wide… [their music] bristles with allusions and brims with ambition—yet it somehow feels stifled by all that freedom.” Is this the future that Alex Ross described, when “reproduction will displace production” and “new music will consist of rearrangements of the old”?

When The Wall Street Journal asked him to comment on Davidson’s argument, Muhly replied: “That’s just a boring ages argument… [like] people who are horrified that now that you can get Thai green chillies in the supermarket, every hausfrau can cook up a curry. It’s the end of the world! It’s always been the case that young artists have more access to more things and the only question is whether you have the skills to use them.”

It’s true that in other streams of music, such as rock or jazz—or classical music before the 20th century—innovating on established forms is not considered uncreative pastiche. Mazzoli believes the sum of varied influences can in fact be the key, paradoxically, to a unique voice. “You have to write the music that only you can write,” Mazzoli says. But that springs from “the sum of all your influences and experiences—which are really unique to you. I try to write music that is really of my time and place in the world. I’m not trying to recreate things that happened in the fifties, sixties, or even the nineties. My music comes from a lot of different places. The music that I like the best—whether it’s classical or pop or whatever—always has this element of familiarity mixed with a lot of great surprises.”

The greatest surprise of all may be how we classify indie classical in fifty years. A marketing and media attempt to popularize instrumental music? Chronologically in a music history book some pages after minimalism? A death knell for classical music as a mainstream genre, the parallel to what Dylan or Davis going electric signalled for folk and jazz? Forgotten?

Regardless, Mazzoli has one hope; that, “in the future, people will really still be listening to the music.”

Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps the music can speak for itself.

Warhol Dervish plays Muhly, Mazzoli, and Parry at Sala Rossa, followed by The Youjsh (another genre-busting ensemble). December 18 at 9 p.m. For more information on Warhol Dervish and the concert, visit www.violalotus.tumblr.com

This article is the first in a series exploring new music in a social context. Next edition—The rise of start-up ensembles: what’s behind the musical entrepreneurship trend?

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale