Classical Music is Dead*


Posted in music, our shallow deep thoughts by Sugar Vendil on 01/23/2011

My curiosity was sparked…no, ignited! after reading Classical Resolutions: Missy Mazzoli Defies Dogma, Demands Diversity on NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog regarding ‘acceptance within the increasingly isolated, grumpy and dogmatic world of “classical music.”‘ Mazzoli writes about the struggle of composers to be taken seriously as classical musicians, including her own:

Some critics have claimed my recent album Cathedral City is not classical music, even though it is fully notated, uses several instruments straight out of the orchestra, harmonies straight out of Stravinsky and was written by a composer straight out of music school. Huh?

What’s interesting about this is that even after the final product, which is the sound, the fact that it is ‘fully notated,’ the fact that there are sophisticated elements involved, and that the composer came ‘straight out of music school’ are what is supposed to imply serious classical music. The album received a positive review from Pitchfork, yet the ‘classical’ label is desired. About Monk and Britelle’s albums, listed under the world and pop genres on iTunes, respectively, she asks:

Why is the classical music world not clambering to claim this excellent music for its own? Because its creators use repetition as a compositional tool? Because they write triads? Is it the electric guitars? The drums? Is it that the composers don’t look or act like the “composers” we read about in music history class? Let it go!

First off, I always thought Britelle listed his albums under pop because they would reach bigger audiences that way, and perhaps Monk’s label could have been thinking the same thing. Anyway, this is intriguing because 1) we would think one would find it liberating to not be considered ‘classical’; 2) it seems important for one to be considered ‘classical,’ or one step above pop music (totally understandable, considering the exorbitant amount of money we’ve spent on music lessons our whole lives); 3) this post is about not worrying that one’s music is smart enough, yet a concern is expressed about being considered classical enough.

I can completely understand this contradiction. For example, I’ve never gone to conservatory and sometimes I want to audition for something academic or ‘respectable,’ (such as Ensemble ACJW or BANFF)  or apply for a doctorate (even though I don’t want to be a professor) while we are overloaded with work at NCP, which is one of my life’s passions. The classical world is a world I’m a part of and of course how I’m perceived as a musician matters to me. Sometimes, however, I sit back and think, ‘Whatever. I do what I want!’ and try not to care about how good I seem to others. Because everyone’s too busy worrying about themselves, right?

I empathize with the desire to be taken seriously. But I really want to know–composers! Thoughts? So I’ve emailed a couple of composers and hopefully they’ll send me their input. This post will be updated as I receive responses, which will appear below. And I want to hear yours too…hello, comments section!

Composer Feedback

Ryan Manchester:

I agree with the idea of composers writing the music they truly want to hear regardless of who accepts it. The problem now is, and has always been, authenticity. In the academy, that is more apparent because how can one be truly authentic when writing such esoteric music? Today, many genres are mixed together in a single piece and creates many layers that can serve as distractions from a personal voice. Not to pick on New Amsterdam Records because I like the idea of mixing many different influences, but some of the albums still need work. The compositional technique is there and strong, but the feeling is lost and many times feels and sounds stale.  Conversely, Matt Marks’s The Little Death Vol. 1 is music for crazy people, but each track is successful in revealing the composer’s intent.  It is a very fine, subjective line when innovations in new music start to catch on because the composers are still experimenting with ways to successfully write.  It will be exciting to see the developments in successful genre blending. Regardless of opinion, successfully challenging the notion of style such as New Amsterdam has done, should be encouraging for all composers no matter what style.

Izzi Ramkissoon:

The fear of traditions falling have prevalent since the times of Copernicus who discovered the earth is not the center of the universe and then he was persecuted for being thoughtful, deeply interested or serious about astronomy.

Who cares about being a labeled as a classical composer or being intelligent?  The term classical composer is a conservative old fashioned point of view and in a subtle way an oppressive term, used to control and alienate people from elitist circles.  If any music is to survive it is necessary not to alienate people with the smug attitude of fear but to communicate relevant ideas to both large and small communities.  The implications of being a classical composer has severe limitations that relate to a different generation and attitude of musicians.  Is classical music still for the aristocracy? or is it for a wider audience.  Things change.  Things change like slavery in the United States, women’s rights, systems for social organization etc.. if things never changed we all might still be slaves and peasants with dukes and arch bishops.

An intelligent composition is that one that requires the capacity to use abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, learning from past experiences and problem solving, that’s just the Wiki of intelligence.  So, using that as a reference point an intelligent composition is any piece of music created utilizing these abilities.  I would also add creativity, individuality, expression, since intelligence does not always communicate musical emotion and the performance art aspect of music.  Some individuals think the only way to produce an intelligent composition is through classical methods, but there are other ways to make something sound intelligent other than notation.  For example Miles Davis, a jazz artist, sounds intelligent with his music and so does electronic artist Squarepusher in his approach to editing.  Are they any less intelligent in their composition techniques than Philip Glass?

In regards to the term serious: I do believe everyone would like to be taken seriously in their life, so would composers.  That shows respect for the amount of time, effort, thought and work put into any given piece of music.  The time and effort spent on creating an electro-acoustic multimedia composition is very different than the time spent on a classical piece of music.  A different set of skills for a different era of music.  Music must be relevant to the time in which it was created.  I would say classical performers are allowed preserve the tradition of music because we love to hear them, but composers of today write music that is relevant, thoughtful, and imaginative and captures the feeling of today.  Also, if a performer chooses to be a part of history, rather than play it, and play new works, be aware of modern musical practices. This has also been an obstacle for modern composers.  They deal with the same persecution Copernicus dealt with.

I wrote a lot more about this subject.  But, I’m really just ranting about newly graduated young musicians who only know Bach, Beethoven, or Bartok.  Nothing wrong with that I learned about them too, but learn about Earl Brown, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Jimi Hendrix, Aphex Twin, Morton Subotnick, etc.. and have an open mind.  There’s so much more to music as an art form.  Music is a performance art.  Love classical, love hip-hop, love russian folk song, love music, stop the discrimination.

Brooks Frederickson:

The difference between a “serious” composer and a “not-serious” composer is the same difference as calling something a “song” or a “piece of music” – nothing more than just a way for people to categorize music.



Posted in review by The Nouveau Classical Project on 01/13/2011

Via Deceptive Cadence, NPR classical’s blog:

When The Runway Meets The Concert Hall

12:20 pm

January 13, 2011


Sugar Vendil and JY Lee at "Reconsruction"

Sugar Vendil (right), founder and artistic director of the Nouveau Classical Project, at a concert with cellist JY Lee. Their clothing was designed by students at Parsons The New School For Design.

When a classical musician is asked to show up in concert attire, that almost always means black and plain. No gaudy jewelry, no excessive ruffles and no bright colors. The basic uniform for musicians (female singers excepted) is meant to remove the focus from the performers and put it solely onto the music.

Pianist Sugar Vendil is turning this convention on its head. In 2007, she founded the Nouveau Classical Project (NCP), a New York-based initiative that fuses music with fashion. The organization works with stylists and designers to bring fashion to the forefront with garments that match the music.

“I’ve always come up with really weird ways of combining fashion and music,” Vendil says. She’s loved fashion since childhood. “To me, fashion is a way to express myself. It’s the one thing we have to do every day. We have to get dressed. I don’t think of fashion as something superficial. It’s another form of expression.”

Designer Jonathan Cohen, who is creating the costumes for the NCP’s upcoming performance at the MATA Interval Concert Series (which spotlights young composers), says music has always influenced his design choices.

“I play with deconstruction a lot,” Cohen says. “For example, in some pieces I will leave an unfinished hem, while the inside has couture-like finishing details. It’s a classical element with a rock edge to it.”

The musicians of the NCP have worked in everything from feathers and masks to hooded capes. For them, the addition of fashion enhances the performance experience.

“Any sort of costume or style can bring a performer deeper into character,” says soprano Amanda Hicks, who has been involved with the NCP since its inception.  “Each piece creates a slight change in demeanor and atmosphere for the audience. The clothes, jewelry and headpieces definitely add to the depth and level of the performance.”

Their audiences approve. NCP concerts are largely attended by a younger crowd — many of whom have more of a background in fashion than in classical music. But Vendil says that after the concerts, people talk more about the music than the apparel. Much of the repertoire is from the 20th century, but works by new composers are also featured.

The Nouveau Classical Project is just one of many recent initiatives in New York that are putting a new face on classical music. Musicians, composers and ensembles all over the city are ignoring convention and doing what feels good to them.

Danielle Schwob: Music For Releasing Ghosts: I. Consolation (performed at “Form/FIGURE”)

“I’ve been here since 2001,” Vendil explains. “Back then, people didn’t do this. Now, young people are all starting to do their own thing.”

The NCP’s slogan “Classical music is dead” pokes fun at the doomsday predictions that pepper classical music journals and blogs.

Angela Pickett at "Reconstruction"

Angela Pickett (viola), of the ensemble Sybarite 5, at the “Reconstruction” concert.

“Everyone’s trying to save this art form like it’s the whales or hungry children,” says Vendil. She thinks classical music culture needs to open itself up to the rest of the world, not the other way around. “Classical musicians hide behind the screen of trying to save the current art form. But a lot of things have changed.”

The NCP’s next show is on Valentine’s Day, and the theme is black.

“It’s kind of an anti-Valentine’s Day thing,” Vendil says. “Black is typically used to hide the musician in classical music, but in the fashion world it’s a staple. We’re taking black back in this concert.”

Photos by James Bae

Last NCP Event at Nabi Gallery

Posted in events, music by The Nouveau Classical Project on 01/11/2011

Join us at our beloved Nabi Gallery for our first event of 2011. Get to know the composers from our upcoming concerts with our hand-picked playlist AND by meeting them in person!  Hell, buy them a drink! Oh wait, you don’t have to! You can simply hand it to them after you pick it up from the OPEN BAR! Tickets are here. View photos from our last listening party.

This is going to be one of the makeshift music venue’s last events. Owners Val and Min-Myn Schaffner, who will close the gallery at the end of the month, generously provided a home to numerous up-and-coming artists over the past three years or so. Nabi is a rare gem, maybe even the only one of its kind, in a city where venues can cost thousands of dollars to rent. The gorgeous space not only provided a stage for musicians, but an intimate vibe where audiences could feel close to the artists…and not in the claustrophobic way that small venues can tend to be at times. The artists welcomed at Nabi are (I use the present tense because it is not closed yet!) also graced with the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Schaffner, who watch the concerts  whenever their schedules allow them to do so.

We are so grateful to the Schaffners, to whom we owe so much, for having Nouveau Classical as part of its musical family, and we are sad to see Nabi close…but on to bigger and better things! We wish the Schaffners the best of luck with their next venture, which is sure to be a successful one, given the way they have made such a significant impact on the art and especially the music community in New York City.

Thank you, Val and Min-Myn, for your everything! We are where we are today because of your generosity and the support you provided during NCP’s early-er stages.

Check out the concerts we held at Nabi, here and here.