By Ricky O’Bannon
The South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, which kicks off in Austin, Texas today, might not be on the radar for most in classical music, but when creative musicians and artists are increasingly finding inspiration from surprising places, the festival known for rising rockers and indie bands makes for a fascinating venue to observe.
In the epilogue of his history of 20th-century classical music, The Rest is Noise, critic Alex Ross turns his attention to the 21st century where he predicts labels of high or low culture and distinct genre divisions — if they ever were distinct — becoming increasingly permeable.
“There is no escaping the interconnectedness of musical experience,” Ross writes. “Young composers have grown up with pop music ringing in their ears, and they make use of it or ignore it as the occasion demands.”
What Ross describes in The Rest is Noise (and what he touched on recently when writing about Icelandic singer Björk, one of his regular muses) is an acceleration of cultural exchange that picked up speed in the last half of the 20th century. Previously there might have been several largely separate schools of music — classical or pop, tonalists or atonalists, high art or low art, etc. — that for the most part viewed as distinctly separated from one another.
Those barriers became increasingly blurry though in the latter 20th century. Musique concrète — the idea of repurposing recorded sound into classical electroacoustic music — finds its way into everything from The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper's” to hip-hop sampling. Rhythmic and soundscape ideas of classical minimalists like Philip Glass or Steve Reich found their way to popular techno and electronica DJs, which in turn might influence the rhythmic language of a contemporary classical composer like Mason Bates.
If there was once a mainstream and separate smaller streams, then as experimental composer John Cage put it in 1992, we live in a time when those many streams “have come to a delta” or even “beyond a delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.”
Young classical musicians like violinist Leila Josefowicz profess a love for both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Kings of Leon. When a 14-year-old kid who might write the great music of tomorrow has access to the near entirety of recorded music no matter its genre, era or geography via YouTube, they are going to put those pieces together in unexpected ways. What more, they might not see those building blocks as that different from one another.
It can be rather inconvenient for music critics or musicologists to appropriately label these moments when Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is named the BBC Concert Orchestra’s composer-in-residence or indie rocker Sufjan Stevens writes symphonic works — particularly when the artists themselves don’t like the limitation of those labels.
“Indie classical,” “neo-classical” or “post classical” has become a popular term to describe a space where genres meet. But those labels are loathed by composers who often are given them like Nico Muhly. Essentially, the “indie classical” name is offered by music critics to avoid words like “crossover,” which is synonymous with “watered down” and “bad” for a lot of the classical community. Even without a proper name, it’s clear that musicians increasingly don’t see ideas from the usual genre lines as exclusive or incompatible.
With that in mind, SXSW — a place where musicians of any number of music backgrounds hope to showcase themselves — can be a fascinating place to stand along the river bank as these streams meet and flow into that ocean John Cage described. In prior years, the festival has drawn the likes of Steve Reich or the genre-bending avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, whose music would be as comfortable in a classical concert hall as it would be a grungy rock bar.
Below is a look at some of the artists performing at the 2015 SXSW music festival who either repurpose classical ideas into genre gray area or apply their classical training in inventive ways. (Click titles for more information on performance dates and times.)
Gabrielle Herbst was formally trained in Balinese dance, gamelan, clarinet and piano. She studied vocal performance at Bard College as well as composition under composer Joan Tower, Marina Rosenfeld and Zeena Parkins. Herbst has written for chamber orchestra and wrote an opera, Bodiless, which premiered in 2014. She was named a Con Edison composer-in-residence in 2012 and was a composer-in-residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2013.
Like several on the list, Herbst is performing under the name of a recent project in GABI. GABI is a series of vocal compositions, which were originally the result of Herbst experimenting with a loop pedal and her own voice. The project turned into a debut album “Koo Koo” in 2014, which adds percussion, viola, violin, trombone and electric guitar to the vocal works.
Parker is a trombonist based in Austin who is the artist-in-residence for the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia and is a faculty member of University of Texas-San Antonio. He has commissioned or premiered more than 100 new works, and he is performing at the ATX Composers Showcase at SXSW.
Parker is behind a number of projects and ensembles included Recycled Sounds, which created recycled instruments and installed them in unexpected locations around Austin. He also writes Trombone Experiments, which is a blog dedicated to emerging and experimental techniques for brass players. As a member of folk-reimagined, he paired with violinist Molly Emerman to perform works that combined trombone, violin and electronics. Below is a selection of a piece from that series, Musa by composer Ian Dicke that pairs amplified violin and trombone over a sound collage of bossa nova sounds for a series of concerts in Brazil.
What started as a jam session between high school cellists getting away from their prescribed repertoire grew into a self-described “indie chamber orchestra” called Mother Falcon. Based in Austin, Mother Falcon is the headline act at the SXSW Composer Showcase that features a hodgepodge of classical influenced local acts ranging from groups that would sell records in the indie rock section like Mother Falcon to the Cordova Quartet, who performs traditional string quartet repertoire.
Musically the group is as mixed a bag as their instrumentation. Some tracks sound like straightforward indie rock, others veer into jazz and hip-hop while others are entirely instrumental (like the overture below) that show off their classical training. Likewise their projects have a similarly wide appetite that includes original music, a cover of Radiohead’s “Ok Computer” and the debut of composer Peter Stopschinski’s re-composed version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Mother Falcon also runs an annual music lab in Austin that brings high school students who play symphonic and rock instruments together to experiment and be mentored.
Overture from Allhambra by Mother Falcon
Pennies by Mother Falcon
Noveller is the solo electric guitar project of composer and filmmaker Sarah Lipstate. Lipstate, from Brooklyn, was trained on classical piano and music theory before taking up the guitar. The music of Noveller stems from ambient drone music, which can trace its roots back to avant-garde composer La Monte Young. Young is regarded as a pioneer of minimalism, but where Steve Reich or Philip Glass focused on a flurry of notes and patterns, Young looked to elongated tones and high volume. Young might not have earned himself many direct disciples in the strictly classical world, his ideas had a lasting impact on drone rock musicians in the popular realm.
One of the more remarkable aspects of Noveller is that it is performed in its entirety by Lipstate on solo guitar through live manipulation of guitar pedals and effects.
Probably the most straightforward classical ensemble on this list, The Recycled Instrument Orchestra of Cateura deserves highlighting as it may be symbolic of one of the biggest storylines in classical music of the past decade. Namely that while North America and Europe discuss how to make classical music accessible to audiences who often see the music as exclusive or elitist, classical music is growing with tremendous energy in Latin and South America’s lower and middles classes thanks to programs like El Sistema in Venezuela.
Based in the Bañado Sur community of Paraguay in one of the poorest slums of Latin America, the orchestra is directed by Favio Chavez who uses music made on instruments from repurposed garbage as an educational program to help motivate and elevate young people from desperate conditions. The orchestra will perform at SXSW along with a documentary about the group titled Landfill Harmonic.