“Alt-Classical”: Is This the Future?

Hot on the heels of James MacMillan’s red-hot piece in these pages calling Emperor’s New Clothes on Pierre Boulez, plus Dilettante Music‘s digital composer-in-residence contest, and Norman Lebrecht’s poll of the living composers creating the most durable work (John Adams is no.1, then Part, then Reich), here’s more contemporary food for thought. Greg Sandow of Artsjournal’s blog about the future of classical music has run a post about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s two new composers-in-residence. They are Mason Bates and Anna Clyne. Not likely to be familiar names if your view of new music is simply what the BBC Symphony Orchestra usually dishes up at Maida Vale; nor is the genre that Greg assigns them:


The capitals are because we may find it useful to remember this term sometime in the future when the UK’s new music decision-makers wake up and smell the coffee. It’s short, of course, for ‘alternative classical’ and it means, basically, that these people are writing music that doesn’t send audiences running out of the concert halls to buy earplugs.

Mason doubles up as an electronica DJ and worked with the Youtube Symphony Orchestra on that famous occasion. 

Anna is British: she was born in London and has a degree from Edinburgh University. She says on her website:

“My passion is collaborating with innovative and risk-taking musicians, film-makers, visual artists and, in particular, choreographers. Creating new works through a fluid artistic dialogue has consistently fuelled my art-form from new perspectives and has maintained a fresh and exciting creative environment. Inspired by visual images and physical movement, my intention is to create music that complements and interacts with other art-forms, and that impacts performers and audiences alike.”

Her list of compositions and collaborations is distinguished, but based, it seems, entirely in the States; and today she lives in New York. Greg links to Carnegie Hall’s site, where you can hear the whole of the piece that she wrote for them.

Would I be surprised to learn that America and its musical decision makers were open and receptive to her ideas while, quite possibly, the UK wasn’t? Not remotely. James MacMillan made the point in his article that the UK is far more open to diverse genres and styles than Germany and France, but I think we still have a way to go to escape the insularity and party-line-toeing that has dominated the big commissioners for decades. MacMillan did not mention the name William Glock in his article, but the BBC’s directing of public taste through the 1960s and early 1970s is a topic that requires a whole book to itself (and isn’t confined to music. Apparently they also refused to broadcast Enid Blyton.)

Greg says:

“I’ve called that style alt-classical in endless posts here, pointed out that it has an audience (in New York, quite a large one), and challenged mainstream classical music institutions to wake up and start programming it. There are many, many, many composers who write in this style — and now (in a clear break from the past) they’re embraced by the Chicago Symphony. And evidently by Riccardo Muti himself, a music director I wouldn’t have guessed would go in this direction.”

I think the most important difference emerging from Greg’s post is that we are hearing the opinion of Riccardo Muti. And in Norman’s poll, the crucial moment was the blog comment from Sakari Oramo. These are the people who absorb the music from the inside and must learn how to perform it, a process which, if you’re to do it well, entails feeling a work within yourself and your body, making it part of you like your bone marrow or your blood. I remember spotting one of Britain’s better-known musicians glowering over a score in a venue cafe last summer and making some jolly disparaging remarks about it when we asked what it was. (It was Birtwistle.) When top conductors start speaking up and championing other types of musical expression, we’re more likely to listen. 

Norman’s poll, revising his original idea of only placing an extra five names on top of five pre-ordained ones, refreshingly includes George Crumb as joint no.5 with Boulez and Dutilleux, and relegates Birtwistle to no.13. Magnus Lindberg is nowhere to be seen, and apparently there’s a minimalist schism: fans of Glass (no.4) and fans of Reich (no.3) do not mix. I am also fairly shocked to see that not a single woman is mentioned in the top 13, but that is an issue that needs proper discussion another time.

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