Classical Music Reinvented (Again): Brooklyn Comes to L.A.

Brett Campbell on April 30, 2013
Cameron Carpenter

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Philharmonic hosted its Brooklyn Festival, providing a West Coast showcase for the music of some of America’s hottest young composers, dozens of whom have congregated in the New York borough over the past decade.

On Monday, the festival hosted the West Coast premiere of a song cycle featuring the music of maybe the most prominent of the young American composers, Nico Muhly, along with the well-known, avant-pop songwriter Sufjan Stevens and Bryce Dessner, a key figure in the Brooklyn scene’s classical/art rock intersection, as guitarist with the rock quartet The National and the improvising new music quartet Clogs, and a composer for both classical and pop music forces. The festival also included Brooklyn based electronic/rock bands The Antlers and Chairlift, and other works by acclaimed young Brooklyn composers, including Ted Hearne and Andrew Norman.

But the fertile interaction of classical and rock music evident in the Brooklyn Festival is hardly confined to that borough, or even to New York. It simply exemplifies a reality in which contemporary musicians work, and signals an imminent future in which even classical music’s flagship organizations — symphony orchestras and opera companies — will be forced to reconsider the genre boundaries that so long destructively divided classical and pop musics. It would have been great if the orchestra to stage the Brooklyn Festival had been in New York; but for the moment, Los Angeles shall lead.

The Lure of Dumbo (and Bushwick and Williamsburg)

The Antlers

So what is it that makes so many members of this generation of classical composers so free to create compelling works that integrate rock and pop so seamlessly? And why are so many of them in Brooklyn?

“There’s this incredible concentration of artists here, and a really creative, funky culture breeding all sorts of great art and music,” says Brooklyn resident Alan Pierson, who directs the renowned new music orchestra Alarm Will Sound as well as the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Pierson conducted a festival concert in the Los Angeles Philhormonic’s venerable Green Umbrella new music series that featured music by fellow Brooklynites Tyondai Braxton, Matt Marks, and Samuel Adams, whose dad John lives in Berkeley and has written some nice tunes, too.

Part of the reason Brooklyn looms large is also the size of New York City: There’s lots of space and potential audience for alternative music concerts, and it’s much easier to generate publicity buzz in a town with New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and other media outlets that regularly cover parts of the new music scene.

But the 20- and 30-something composers, whose music otherwise has little in common, share another trait that extends beyond Brooklyn to many composers of their generation across America: a disdain for the distinctions between contemporary classical music and the artsier side of today’s indie rock bands. In contrast to earlier generations of composers who seldom actually performed their music, many of the musicians play regularly or occasionally in rock bands or other ensembles, and move effortlessly between what once seemed to be separate worlds, but now appear to be merely different poles of a continuum of adventurous contemporary sounds.

“The boundaries between the classical and rock worlds are hard to distinguish,” says Chad Smith, the L.A. Phil’s vice president of artistic planning. “What's unique is the concentration and melding of worlds happening there. A lot of these composers are writing for classical ensembles like string quartets during the day and in the evening, they’re playing in bands around town. These composers and performers — that distinction is thrown out the window, too — are writing music that's authentic, like a painter using a much broader palette of traditions to create this unique thing. All of these disciplines are talking to each other.”

Because they are performing in these different contexts, many creative Brooklyn musicians from different traditions wind up naturally forming musical partnerships. “There's a sense of community here that one doesn't necessarily feel in other parts of the city,” says Brooklyn composer Kenji Bunch. “Right now in Brooklyn, there’s a community of people who have this co-op mentality: I will help myself if I help my colleagues.. Your band gets a gig, you have to find a couple other acts to book the night, so you look for friends who know friends who might have something that could work well with your band. It’s a warm, friendly, supportive group of people who all like to play music and like to see each other do well.”

Why Now?

“It's not like pop artists in past haven't written classical music or classical artists haven’t written rock and roll pieces,” says the LA Phil’s Smith, “but the success rate of those pieces has not terribly great and they were often cringe worthy — either a pop artist making classical music that's simplistic or classical artist making pop music that's reductive. What's interesting about Brooklyn now is the sense of authenticity to the music that's being created there.”

The starting point for anyone interested in the emergence of this cultural movement is clearly the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and their ensembles. The ensembles already show significant non-classical influences: They are keyboard and tuned-percussion heavy, and both feature electronic amplification, with the audio engineer an actual member of the Glass Ensemble.

It’s not just that Reich and Glass had jazz, rock, and other “world music” in their ears, it’s that their style had many points of contact with those musics. The basic elements of a minimalist piece are often very like a groove, as has been mentioned many times; the way it becomes layered or complicated over time is similar, in some ways, to jazz/rock improvisation; and the music can either be trance or dance-inducing.

“Almost all the sort of indie rock / classical crossover stuff you're seeing today has ideas from minimalism in it,” Pierson explains. “I think minimalism created a language which didn't exist before... kind of a common tongue between rock and pop and classical. It’s become such a part of the culture and influence on all sorts of artists in the rock world and generations of composers in the art music world.” Minimalist techniques have long pervaded film soundtracks, TV commercials, electronic dance music, and other popular music that today’s composers grew up hearing.

“The boundaries between the classical and rock worlds are hard to distinguish. A lot of these composers are writing for classical ensembles during the day and in the evening, they’re playing in bands around town.” - Chad Smith, L.A. Phil

Those influences were modified by succeeding generations of composers who emerged in the 1970s, ‘80s and later, preeminently John Adams and the composers and musicians associated with New York’s Bang on a Can organization. In a conversation with SFCV’s Jeff Kaliss, composers Dylan Mattingly and Matt Cmiel reflected on that influence:

We’ll be blasting John Adams while we eat dinner, for people that have never listened to classical music.

I think I remember we were playing [Adams’] Hallelujah Junction over the speakers at one of those parties, and I think we were basically headbanging to it.

The Planetarium

Bang on a Can also provided a crucial bridge between the original minimalists and today’s composers, many of whom were directly influenced not only by the minimalist-influenced music of David Lang, Julia Wolfe, and Michael Gordon, but also by the Bang on a Can Marathon and the Summer Festival. The 12-hour annual Marathon now draws more than 5,000 people and has, from the very beginning, included artists from widely varying genres. (Festival 2011 included Reich and Glass and the Bang-on-a-Can All Stars playing an arrangement of Brian Eno’s ambient music classic Music for Airports, alongside indie rock, electronica, edgy folk singers and many others.) The cultural impact of the Marathon, now in its 26th year, made New York a center of second and third-generation minimalist music. Sufjan Stevens was 12 years old when the Marathons began. Nico Muhly was 6.

To gauge the impact of all this stuff on musicians, listen to “Earth” from The Planetarium, a co-creation of Stevens, Muhly, and Bryce Dessner. Here they collaborate with a string quartet and a trombone group, which play soft, sustained chords over Stevens spacey tenor vocal, while Dessner bows guitar notes with a cello bow. This ambient-music style develops a more minimalist groove in the central section, in which Dessner gently solos, and Muhly’s keyboards also come to the fore. That’s a prelude to establishing a rock beat with the drum set, which brings the piece to a full-voiced conclusion.

BOAC’s composers are entrepreneurial, self-directed musicians who operate outside established institutions. That philosophy and example is conveyed to scores of emerging composers in the group’s summer workshops at Mass MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art), often nicknamed “Banglewood.” and other mentoring relationships. (Lang, for example, has taught at the Yale School of Music since 2008 and Wolfe has taught at NYU since 2009).

“I think minimalism created a language which didn't exist before ... kind of a common tongue between rock and pop and classical.” – Alan Pierson, Alarm Will Sound Brooklyn’s composers are animated by that spirit; they seem unconcerned that their music may not fit traditional classical venues. “It’s a place where creative musical and artistic entrepreneurs can make exciting things happen, but not through established organizations,” says Pierson. They also often perform their own music, whether it leans toward the pop or classical side. Various ensembles, record labels like New Amsterdam and BOAC’s Cantaloupe, and even venues like the O-M-W (Original Music Workshop) building have emerged to provide outlets for Brooklyn’s creative combustibility. And the BOAC Marathon has provided a model or idea for other new music festivals such as Ecstatic and MATA in New York (the latter founded by Glass and Lisa Bielawa), Switchboard Music Festival in San Francisco, and Cincinnati’s annual MusicNOW festival (founded by Bryce Dessner in 2006).

Technology has also played a role in breaking boundaries and facilitating cooperation. Thanks to the internet, “composers aren’t as siloed,” Smith says. “They can easily share what they’re working on, like their ensemble’s performance last night on social media. It allows a real dialogue and real community and it becomes physical in a place like Brooklyn.”

By the end of the 20th century, those forces had converged to sweep aside many of the post-World War II ideologies that made popular music influences unwelcome in classical educational bastions. “For decades, there was this doctrinaire approach and if you deviated, it was seen as cheap or simplistic,” Smith says. “What we found is that today, that argument is so old fashioned. The generation of composers that is writing this kind of music in Brooklyn, in L.A., Paris, Tokyo, Reykjavik, wherever — have a stylistic freedom they can bring to the compositional process.”

It’s a Generational Thing

Plenty of 20- and 30-something composers around the world (including former or current Brooklynites not represented in the festival, such as Missy Mazzolli, Judd Greenstein, Christopher Tignor, Redhooker, Gabriel Kahane and many others) have been roving this broad territory: Michigander SharaWorden (lead singer of My Brightest Diamond), Seattle’s Jherek Bishoff, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood in England, and many, many others make non-pop music that feels much more like a natural artistic venture than a self-conscious experimental statement.

“It’s a really organic crossing over,” says the L.A. Phil’s Johanna Rees, who co-planned the Brooklyn Festival and monitors the pop-rock scene for the Philharmonic’s non-classical shows at the Hollywood Bowl and Disney Hall. “Suddenly we’re in this moment where it’s all coming together in a beautiful way, where even the purists can say this feels good, exciting, challenging, authentic — the guy who went to Yale playing with a high school dropout. This generation of composers doesn’t have those kinds of divisions.”

“The generation younger than me who grew up seeing these things happen, they don’t even think twice: Why wouldn’t there be an accordion in a rock band and a bari sax in a chamber ensemble?” – Kenji Bunch, musician

And because these new compositions are so closely tied to minimalism, indie-pop, and other styles that appeal to music lovers of many tastes, they have avoided the marginalization that once seemed the unavoidable fate of new classical music.

Kenji Bunch, who’s 40 and both composes and teaches, as well as playing in both new music ensembles like the Flux Quartet (which he co-founded) and the bluegrass band Citigrass, has seen stylistic freedom expand first hand.

“It's a generational thing,” he explains. “I went to school in the early ‘90s and back then, it was this huge thing for people to blur those lines. This wonderful eclectic mix of stuff is a standard occurrence now. That annoying word, ‘crossover,’ has become obsolete. Using it shows that you're of a certain vintage, when in fact there’s the generation younger than me who grew up seeing these things happen and they don’t even think twice: Why wouldn’t there be an accordion in a rock band and a bari sax in a chamber ensemble.” I think it’s great. Why not be able to choose from a broader palette of instruments and styles and find your voice based on a larger collection?”

What seems natural to today’s young composers and so revolutionary to previous generations wouldn’t have surprised earlier classical composers. In fact, Pierson thinks the 20th century’s rigid separation of pop and classical music was the aberration, not the norm.

“I look at that wide open landscape that allows that sort of cross pollination to happen as being not so much a revolution as a restoration,” he says. “Looking back at music history, you see lots of connections between art music and vernacular music. Then there was a period starting post World War II or earlier where it seemed like serious music couldn't engage with the vernacular. I see what's happening now as a restoration of sanity that puts art music in contact with the rest of the world as opposed to isolation from it.”

It Can Happen Here

After 22 years in New York, in fact, Bunch is leaving Brooklyn to return to his hometown of Portland, Oregon. Having used the Brooklyn incubator to forge partnerships with new music performers and organizations, technology allows him to maintain his New York music connections and live a more balanced and affordable life closer to his family, while immersing himself in a fertile indie classical scene.

While no other cities currently possess the critical mass of composers, musicians and other institutions that make Brooklyn such a new music hotbed, so many new voices are emerging around the country that it’s only a matter of time before other hotspots coalesce.

Angelenos might even resent the fact the the LA Phil had to look to Brooklyn rather than its own composers for a showcase, although Green Umbrella will present a concert of young LA composers next season. The LA Phil’s Rees grew up in the Bay Area and sees similar new music nodes emerging here as well as in Los Angeles. “In each of these communities there's always a hub,” she says. “Maybe in Brooklyn it’s more concentrated geographically, but it can happen in the same way here.”

When I was growing up in the Bay Area, the hub was SoMa and the Haight. Here in LA, there’s a lot of cool stuff happening right in front of us, in places like Echo Park, in a lot of shows in unconventional spaces like churches, community centers, these 100-200 person capacity rooms. You start going to shows and cafes where you’re running into people you know who have the same kind of musical openness, and you feel that same kind of energy. That's the exciting stuff.”

We may all be Brooklynites soon.