Le Poisson Rouge

In the Indie Classical Lounge

Brett Campbell on July 3, 2012
Le Poisson Rouge

A generation ago, with her Yale pedigree, Missy Mazzoli might have taken a teaching position at a university, gotten her works performed by its ensembles, and pursued grants and commissions.

Instead, after graduate school, Mazzoli moved to the burgeoning indie rock and indie classical haven of Brooklyn. Inspired in part by Meredith Monk and Philip Glass, in 2008 she founded Victoire, an ensemble devoted to playing her music — and not necessarily in “classical” venues. The group honed its chops at arts centers like Brooklyn’s Galapagos and alternative music clubs like New York’s famed (Le) Poisson Rouge.

“For our first tour outside New York, we played a tremendous variety of places” that mostly welcomed indie rock bands, not classical music ensembles, including “a kind of punk gallery outside Detroit,” Mazzoli recalls. “The audience was standing around drinking beer, and they couldn’t have been more appreciative. It was so inspiring.”

Since their debut gig at John Zorn’s New York venue The Stone, the band has released an acclaimed CD and performed from Berlin to Amsterdam to Sweden to Chicago — including touring the Netherlands with the rock band The National and playing Paris and Belgium with indie rock darling My Brightest Diamond.

Mazzoli’s nontraditional path certainly hasn’t held her back. She’s written an opera (Song from the Uproar), garnered commissions from Carnegie Hall, eighth blackbird, the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Kronos Quartet; scored a composer in residence gig with the Albany Symphony; earned a Fulbright grant; and directed New York’s wondrous MATA Festival.

Clearly, the classical music world has embraced the new model of composer that Mazzoli represents. Now 31, she recently returned from a festival at that most traditional of classical spaces, the Sydney Opera House, performing with rock bands like Efterklang and using her music school skills to arrange and orchestrate their music for symphony orchestras. To these musicians, the distinctions between “classical” and rock venues — or music — don’t matter anymore. “To me at this point, it feels like the norm,” she says. “The future is here.”

Independent, and Loving It

For generations, the main places to hear contemporary classical music have been the big institutions, primarily at downtown and university concert halls and opera houses, and sometimes in churches and other rather formal settings.


That’s all changing. Young composers today are increasingly finding — or creating — outlets for their music in rock and jazz clubs, coffeehouses, and other alternative venues. That’s bringing their music to listeners who otherwise might never have encountered it. It’s also expanding the range of classical (or contemporary or “postclassical”) music being created today.

“The world has changed so much in the last five years,” says Stephen Schick, professor of music at the UC San Diego, who was the percussionist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars of New York City from 1992 to 2002 and who directs the percussion group called red fish blue fish. “Young composers and musicians don’t necessarily accept the traditional definitions of music or venues. We’re seeing a tectonic shift in the way music is presented.”

Of course, composers have always sought new audiences and alternative spaces when conservative institutions turn a deaf ear to new sounds. Henry Cowell and Edgard Varèse created maverick new-music scenes in California and New York before World War II. In the 1960s, the early minimalism of Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass, rejected by the then-regnant academic establishment, found a more welcoming audience in artists’ lofts and galleries.

Schick recalls playing in warehouses and other rough spaces with the Bang on a Can All-Stars (who were influenced by the minimalist composers) when high-art temples like Lincoln Center wouldn’t have them. Adventurous music found homes in clubs like New York’s Knitting Factory and others throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and Poisson Rouge and Galapagos attract crowds today.

“The audience was standing around drinking beer, and they couldn’t have been more appreciative. It was so inspiring.” –Missy Mazzoli

The BOAC organization created summer workshops for young composers at the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art (nicknamed “Banglewood”) and has been teaching the latest generation of composers how to find alternative spaces for their music. “A lot of places that make their reputation on having music that is uncategorizable are really thriving,” says BOAC’s David Lang, who emphasizes the importance of composers creating their own opportunities.

Heartland Happenings

Once relegated to major culture centers like New York and San Francisco, composer-friendly alternative scenes have sprung up in “flyover” places around the country. In Bowling Green, Ohio, Kurt Doles curates a series in the Clazel Theatre, a former single-screen movie house from the 1920s that’s now a bar/club with a good-size stage. “I think the aesthetic that works best in that situation — minimal/postminimal/totalist/whatever you want to call it — is the driving force, though the folks from the International Contemporary Ensemble seem to disprove that on a regular basis, cracking out [Greek experimental composer Georges] Aperghis and such in clubs to astonishing effect,” Doles says.

“It’s not just happening in big cities,” says composer Frank J. Oteri of New York–based New Music USA and founder and editor of its NewMusicBox online magazine. Oteri travels around the world for conferences and other gatherings of composers; he’d just returned from Greece when we spoke last week. “It’s happening everywhere. We’re living in an era where new music can’t be contained” merely in the traditional venues. “The Pandora’s box is open.”

Composers have changed the way they view their own roles, says Adam Fong, who worked with San Francisco’s Other Minds and now directs Emerging Arts Professionals, a network that catalyzes growth and connections for emerging leaders working in the arts. “Classical musicians and composers are learning to behave more like jazz musicians. They’re in four and five ensembles, writing for their own ensembles, and playing in each others’. That’s what jazz players have been doing for years to make a living — behaving like independent contractors, booking gigs, say, every Friday night for a month, rather than hoping to get picked up by an agent or presenter or A&R [artists and repertoire division of a record label] rep. That model is out the window.”

It’s not surprising that younger composers would gravitate to rock clubs. “This generation grew up with rock ’n’ roll,” Fong notes, “and so the idea of playing loud music to fans in a noisy club isn’t quite the anathema that it might have been to an older generation.”

“Classical composers are … behaving like independent contractors rather than hoping to get picked up by an agent or presenter or A&R rep. That model is out the window.” – Adam Fong

Schick, who’s 58, agrees that what older classical listeners view as alternative venues seem natural for younger composers. “I’m the youngest part of the last generation that believed that you had to make a decision between classical and popular music, that you couldn’t do both. The younger composers don’t think Now I’m putting on my indie hat. They’re just being themselves.”

Lowering the Barriers

Alternative spaces offer other practical advantages over traditional concert halls, where “rentals can be prohibitive, there are rules about recording, union regulations … I know those workers need to make a living too, but for emerging performers who want people to hear what they’re playing or composers who want a recording, it’s a problem,” Oteri explains. “You can get a good recording in a club now, and it’s way more affordable to do. You can make a deal with the club operators for the door [the cover charge listeners pay to enter] and not have to pay upfront to rent the space. The fact that these clubs are open to a broader range of music is a great thing for composers.”

In pop-oriented clubs, composers can find relaxed, receptive listeners. “What you get are people essentially coming into their familiar territory, so they don’t feel fearful,” Schick explains. “It’s a public space, a bar they’ve been to many times. They know they belong there. There’s none of that apologetic concert behavior — am I clapping at the wrong time? Am I dressed right? And because [the composer/musician] is the visitor and they’re the host, rather than feeling like a foreigner, they have a generosity toward you and your music.”

Playing their music in front of audiences who might be more accustomed to rock and pop music also gives composers instant listener feedback, which is harder to gauge across the barrier of the concert hall stage.

“In traditional classical environments, musicians and composers often don't need to face the opinions of strangers,” says Mazzoli:

Whereas if you go and play in a rock club, you have to perform and sell CDs, and you get to hear what people say. It’s harder than giving recitals and being in a classical environment, but I’ve had great experiences in touring with indie bands and putting my music in front of an audience that’s never heard me and doesn’t usually go to classical concerts.

Their reactions vary. Some are really captivated; some don’t know what to make of it. The point is to be in front of people who wouldn’t otherwise hear you. Because that’s the idea — to get your music out there. It’s more important for me to reach people and have a wide audience than to have the perfect acoustic or an audience that sits down and claps politely or doesn’t make noise. I prefer people to react. That’s what I love about playing in a bunch of different places — you don’t know what you’re going to get. As a composer, I think you have to go out there and face the market.

Mazzoli, who played in punk bands in high school, learned much from pop musicians. “I’ve taken tremendous inspiration from friends in rock bands,” she says. “Why aren’t classical musicians taking the best of their ideas, opening for other bands, doing an extensive tour you set up yourself — simple ideas that haven’t caught on in classical music?”

“People go to an indie pop concert and see this scene that’s open and hopeful. It’s so vibrant and optimistic and the classical scene seems so nervous about its future...” – David Lang

“People are being drawn to that world because of the audience enthusiasm,” explains Lang, who completed the journey from indie classical pioneer to establishment-certified star when he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2008. “People who want to use their talents to do something fresh look around for where to put that energy. They go to an indie pop concert and see this scene that’s open and hopeful. It’s so vibrant and optimistic, and the classical scene seems so nervous about its future, that my students think I’m going to go where people are having fun, where there seems to be some sunshine. So it becomes a self-fulfilling circuit. If the traditional classical music scene was attractive, then that’s where they would be going. But it isn’t.”

Overcoming Limitations

For all the new opportunities the new spaces offer composers, they have their limitations, such as the size of ensemble they can accommodate. “The stage may be too small or there’s no stage at all, there’s no piano or it’s not good enough, or the acoustic is inconsistent,” says Fong.

Variable audiences and acoustics can make certain kinds of music fail in alternative venues, Schick says. He recalls performing a characteristically quiet Morton Feldman piece with Bang on a Can in a space where the audience didn’t even realize it was happening until it was halfway over. Oteri says that the alt-classical singer Corey Dargel remarked in a recent article in NewMusicBox that he’d rather have his music performed in a concert hall than a club because the audience is more primed to pay attention.

On the other hand, many concert halls aren’t set up for the kind of electronics that work well in clubs. Oteri remarks, “People say these alternative venues are going to dumb down contemporary music, but I don’t think it’s true. You have to know your venue and know your audience.”

“You should have a lot more freedom when writing a string quartet in a way that lets the music really unfold compared to looping a few grooves on a laptop. I really just want to write music that comes from my heart.” – Mason Bates

“Obviously, you’d rather hear a string quartet in Carnegie Hall than in Poisson Rouge, but if you work with amplification like Kronos Quartet does, I’d rather hear you in Poisson Rouge,” Mazzoli says. But conditions are improving, she reports. “Even 10 years ago it would have been hard to get a good sound in a bar or a club, but my band just did a tour with My Brightest Diamond in Paris, and the sound was incredible, better than we’re used to in most concert halls.”

While clubs offer attractive opportunities for young composers starting out, staying there is tough, economically. “You can do anything anywhere now,” Oteri says. “The question is, can you sustain doing anything anywhere? You get no rehearsal time in clubs. You get the door but you don’t get the fee you’d get from a classical music organization, nor will they pay travel expenses. If you’re trying to make a living, then forget it. It’s great to give more people access to new music, but we want to make it so that [professional musicians] aren’t starving to death.”

“There’s a real danger that people won’t be able to make a living out of it,” Fong agrees, “and therefore this movement won’t have the permanence to make an impact or mature as a scene. How do musicians and composers make a living, and what structures need to be there so that people can see a future for themselves doing this work?”

The Composer–Performer Option

One way composers can make it work is by performing their own music, as pop performers do. “You get more performances if you perform yourself,” says Mazzoli, who sometimes, but not always, performs in her own work:

You book more gigs and get played more. It’s less of a barrier for a pop audience that is not used to a scenario where the composer is not performing. It’s a paradigm people understand: This is my band, I wrote the music, and now I get up there with my band and I play it for you. They get that — it’s one less barrier.

I always tell my students to find a way to perform their music. Even if you’re the worst piano player in the world, write yourself an easy piano part. I learned this from watching the Philip Glass Ensemble and noticing that Glass gives himself easy piano parts and gives Michael Riesman, who’s a terrific pianist, the hard ones. That’s what I do in my band. I work with a pianist, Lorna Krier, who can do anything, and I give her the hard parts because as the composer I have a lot to worry about onstage, like making sure the rest of the band is together, talking to the audience. …

Composers who don’t perform their music can still succeed in these alternative venues, adds Lang, who is not a performer. “There’s a mentality that we have to follow the road set in front of us. We have this culture of record labels, funding organizations, and other gatekeepers…. Composers should ask themselves what it is they need to exist and, if it doesn’t exist, then build it themselves.”

Making It Work

That’s what Mason Bates is doing. Bates is probably the composer most identified with blending today’s electronic dance music with classical forms, especially in his Mercury Soul productions (read more here) in San Francisco and beyond. He performs electronica and is a DJ, but most of his music is commissioned by orchestras that work in traditional venues. “Music is always affected by the space it’s heard in,” he says. “For me that’s always almost in some kind of concert space, even if I know it’s eventually going to be performed in a club space. The challenge is less in altering one’s music than in carefully curating the events” so that audiences can best appreciate them.

“What separates classical music from most other music is its high-detail resolution,” Bates explains. “It’s so nuanced that if you’re playing in a club, you need a way to get people to quiet down and listen. You should have a lot more freedom when writing a string quartet in a way that lets the music really unfold, compared to looping a few grooves on a laptop. I really just want to write music that comes from my heart. So I want to find a way to inhabit these [dance club] spaces and not be inhibited by them.”

In his Mercury Soul concerts, he notes, “We spend 98 percent of our energies moving the audience from the perception of much more diffuse electronica to the more-focused perception of classical music and back in a way that’s inviting and not schoolmarm-y. It’s a complicated endeavor to do that in a space where everybody’s drinking and having fun. It’s a different mind-set than a quiet, reverential concert hall.”

Bates uses interludes that he calls “Mercury moments” in which the electronica is faded down and the live music (including decidedly not-easy-listening “new music” by composers like Esa Pekka Salonen and Thomas Adès) fades up, accompanied by lighting cues. He says the audience response has often been “rapturous.”

Lang, however, cautions that traditional organizations can still provide viable outlets for new music. “I’d be happy to write more orchestra music. It’s not to say the world as it exists needs to be destroyed or replaced, but that it’s a choice. Now, a lot of people do that out of fear or lack of imagination, as if those institutions were built a million years ago. The composer’s job is to build fresh institutions for their vision. Everybody needs to figure out how to make the world they want.”