Monday, December 27, 2010

year in review

We can do lists and best-ofs and countdowns but it’s not a bad idea to talk about what 2010 might have actually meant for classical music, and to get a bit broader, for music history. Don’t get me wrong—it’s great to talk about favorite performances and CDs, but sometimes I wish critics would take on the bigger task of speculating about The Scene. And really, I think 2010 was a benchmark year for classical music. Finally coming to fruition is the shift that began a couple years ago, when a crystallization of composers, performers, organizations, and critics started to tilt the axis away from capital-C capital-M, hooty-tooty Classical Music towards something simultaneously more accessible and more artistic.

2010 marked a major coming-out party for a new generation of composers who have assimilated all of the basic things that anyone under 35 has: an understanding of the Internet and social media, and what that means for music production, performance, and composition. We had CD releases from Corey Dargel, Timothy Andres, Nico Muhly (2, and one on a big classical label), Ted Hearne, and Tristan Perich. All of these made it to at least one important critic’s top-10 list, and all of them corresponded to watershed performances in New York or Chicago.

And, despite being composers of the digital age (I would say MP3 age, but sounds way too 2003), each of them released a major, disc-length work. The typical model for a CD produced by a young composer is a mish-mash of orchestral and chamber works, recorded in different venues in different years. But all of those mentioned above understand the merits of making a serious artistic pronouncement, devoting themselves to crafting thirty- or sixty-minute works. Something just as important: all of these CDs were specifically and artfully produced and marketed in the manner of pop, not classical albums. This not only broadens the potential listenership (I can’t think of anyone who would consider this to be “new” or “contemporary” music in the same way that Stockhausen is new music), but really enhances the artistry. They feel like albums in the way that Kid A or Sgt. Pepper’s feel like albums—the recording as complete artistic experience.

We have also seen the emergence of a new scene, or movement, or whatever word you want to use for it. There is a natural grouping between labels like New Amsterdam and Bedroom Community, composers like Muhly and Judd Greenstein, and pop/classical people like Owen Pallett and Jónsi. But now, it has an official banner name: Ecstatic Music. The first Ecstatic Music festival will launch in only a couple weeks, but the hallmark have been there for a while.

What are those hallmarks? Collaboration is a big one, and one that I’ve spent an exhausting amount of time researching (in connection with Muhly and Bedroom Community). Ecstatic Music is as much a compositional effort as it is one of performing marketing, production—a holistic approach to blending different styles and methods of presenting music to a new public.

It’s so obvious that I don’t know why anyone didn’t name it sooner. Ecstatic Music is not grouped by a technique or an –ism, not compiled by any dogma or ideology. It is a spirit of creation in the best sense of the word, and thus perhaps the first new musical Zeitgeist of this century—musicians brought together by shared emotions rather than shared principles.

And regular old classical music trudges onward and upward. We witnessed the beginnings of three major tenures at three major symphony orchestras, with three different models. Dudamel at L.A. is plenty of flash and some substance, and it’s beginning to seem that the true innovations will be coming from Deborah Borda and the administration. The situation in New York is the exact opposite: Alan Gilbert is leading a strong push for artistic innovation, and the management seems to be along for the ride. Riccardo Muti will continue to do what Riccardo Muti does, and it remains to be seen whether Chicago can continue to succeed on his and Deborah Rutter’s outdated model of how to run a symphony orchestra (I’m speaking artistically; financially, they seem to be doing quite well).

Major organizations like Lincoln Center and Carnegie are stepping up their game, and New York is having a kind of institutional renaissance. The interplay between Lincoln Center, Carnegie, and Le Poisson Rouge has determinedly exploded any notions of Uptown/Midtown/Downtown, if there were any left. Ensembles like ICE and the JACK Quartet have captured large and enthusiastic audiences working within the structures of Lincoln Center and Carnegie, but also in touring around and playing clubs—and just as importantly, playing a broad range of contemporary music which reconciles or ignores the differences between high modernism and minimalism, serialism and pop.

We also suffered significant losses. Two of our greatest writers—Alan Rich and Reinhold Brinkmann—passed away in the last year. Rich’s death was particularly felt by me; I had only recently discovered his blog, and his writing provided an essential impetus to finding my own critical voice. Members of the old guard as disparate as Wolfgang Wagner, Bernard Coutaz, David Soyer, and Henryk Górecki will be fondly remembered.

Still, though, it was a good year, and definitely the perfect time for Seated Ovation to get its start. We began last December in San Francisco, swung by New York, and then parked in Chicago for a while. After much Chicago/New York commuting, we have finally landed ourselves in the musical paradise of Berlin. The scene here is always changing; I can’t even begin to speculate on what classical music meant for Germany in 2010.

But it’s almost obvious what it meant for America. We are moving towards the scene I have always wanted, the one spoken of in Alex’s Listen to This, where there are no boundaries between genres, where each concert is attended for the quality of the performer and the quality of the music performed, where classical institutions can program festivals which bring together Sigur Rós and Bach's Clavierübung. This is a scene only possible with the (unfortunate) destruction of the record store and the rise of iTunes, eliminating the need to segregate music written over a span of fifteen hundred years and encompassing every possible array of sound into a walled-off space marked “Classical.” When these walls are finally brought down, we won’t need to hook people on classical music, because its awesomeness will be all-too-apparent from the get-go.

Here’s to 2010, and to a great 2011.


  1. Will,

    "The one spoken of in Alex’s 'Listen to This', where there are no boundaries between genres..."

    Well, classification is, to my mind, HELPFUL; to Ross it builds barriers. At once he says that ‘the core audience… mainly want to hear symphonies of Beethoven and concertos of Rachmaninov’, but then suggests that ‘it no longer makes sense to generalize’. That contradiction uncovers the confusion of the book. Ross cannot help admitting that he is both a score-carrying core audience member and a pursuer of the new wave or, more bluntly, a geek one minute and a new radical the next.

    Who are we to believe?

    I personally grow tired of his constant wrangling over what the music is and who should or could be its audience. If the music is all, Ross should take his own advice and listen to it.

  2. Hey Will,

    Thanks for the nice words about the festival, etc., and I agree with you re: the musical world toward which we're hopefully progressing. Just a point of clarification - we are not intending to suggest that the term "Ecstatic Music" be used to describe the music on this festival, or the music that any group of people are writing, more broadly. You should feel free to use whatever term you like, of course, but just know that this was not our intent. The name of the festival is just the name of the festival; we leave audiences to bring whatever associations they like to that name, but our intentions are not to name anything beyond the festival itself.