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Hindi Classical

from Thursday, June21st of the year2012.

This blog post is a result of many months of casual thought and casual conversations, boiled down into a perhaps more casual than usual blog post. Maura Lafferty graciously agreed to sort of have an organized discussion between our two blogs, so I would encourage you to read her post before you read mine.

My online life is wide-ranging but a little bit curated. I try really hard to stay actively involved with my friends on Facebook — and by friends, I mean people I know outside the context of that social network. I follow a few hundred people on twitter, and I actively follow a few dozen blogs about music, linguistics, computers, art. I follow them in a slightly old-fashioned way: they’re all tabbed, rather that RSSed, so I have to manually see if anybody has updated. I sort of prefer it this way, and sometimes I get far behind, so I like to check back in on things that are not technically “new” but which I might have missed over the course of travels or inattention. I removed the google alert I had on myself, and I had never taken out any others, so I can safely avoid anybody with my name in their mouth coming out of random air, as well as my friends’ names. The press thing is tricky, because sometimes a press outlet’s social media staff will @ me in a link to a review, so I become kind of aware of things in the periphery, but for the most part, I’ve been pretty successful in avoiding both preview and review press, and during the operas, the opera blog-o-sphere.

One thing that hasn’t been expurgated from my feed is a relentless and sort of obsessive focus on genre that people constantly throw around. I did a show in London that I thought was pretty great, and then online it was all indie-classical this and indie-classical that and I was like, do you know? Forget that. Nothing is gained by that description, even if it makes the PR people’s jobs easier. It attracts haters and lumps people together in a way that belies how actual communities of musicians function. Bedroom Community is a great example of how this can work well — there isn’t a Bedroom Community sound, there isn’t a manifesto of stylistic concerns. We like one another’s music, and we like one another’s processes as collaborators, and that is so much more important than trying to think of a name that could possibly encompass, like, that genius thing Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason made together and Puzzle Muteson’s album.

I realize that this comes from, in part, the printed (or formal?) press as well as the blogosphere. Reviewers and previewers get an enormous pass if they can describe a composer’s work as being part of some sort of Genre: post-minimalist, new complexity, Darmstadt School, chamber pop, whatever, or this new hellery, Indie-Classical. The other day, Maura Lafferty, who is a new music marketing person, tweeted a link to this article. I’m gonna address all those things specifically but let’s go through this carefully.

There are, I think, two global problems with genre obsession: one on “their” side and one on “ours.” On “their” side (and by they, I mean people who write about music either professionally or casually), it’s a shorthand for actually talking about how the notes and the rhythms work. On “our” side, it can become, for composers, both a social and musical crutch, where one ends up writing to one’s press-generated biography, rather than from a musical core.

Part of my objection to terminology is personal. I’ve been writing basically the same music since I’m 14. It’s gotten better, and it’s taken strange turns, but the thing is the same. What people call it has, obviously, changed with the ages, but the idea that anybody gets to define what I’m up to, for some reason, seems even more grotesque than misunderstanding it. I suppose part of this comes from a background of (admittedly East Coast American) hybridity: I’m a half-jewish homosexual who grew up in Providence with roots in Vermont. Even that sentence seems strange; I don’t think I would have coffee with somebody who self-described like that on the internet, and that’s the point: we are how we do. It’s an active life, it’s not these terrible sentences and hyphenations.

Another source of vexation is the counter-argument I see sometimes which is that musicians should be able to describe their music. I agree! Sort of. I can tell you what all of my influences are, and will do that with great pleasure. But I am not going to write a press-release for myself. And here is where we get to the “our side” problem. Once one has been been described a certain way in the press, there is a temptation to continue writing that way despite one’s better instincts. If somebody writes about your music — even as a compliment — as, like, “a natural and enormously successful fusion of the music of India and the classical techniques of the West, Hindi-Classical!” the temptation is to start writing as if that were the starting-point, rather than just some journalistic shorthand. It’s horrifying because it has nothing to do with anything. Also, how hard is it to just write about how the music sounds without invoking anybody else’s name or slapping a name on it? An exercise: talk about Beethoven Op. 111 without talking about any other composer. Talk about Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody without talking about any other composer. You can even talk about Nixon in China without talking about Satyagraha or Akhnaten; it’s respectful to John Adams to be able to do so. You can talk about Bach without invoking the Baroque; you can (and should) talk about Mozart without invoking the Classical — which is not something Mozart would have had to deal with in his day. He might have had to have dealt with some provincial horseshit about the current musical fads in Vienna or Salzburg or whatever, but we can all (with the possible exception of whatever his name is who writes even more disparaging things about Brooklyn than I do, Snuggles, in LA), in hindsight, realize how dumb that is.

(An comedic aside. I used to live in Deepeste Darkeste Chinatown, and moved, a few years ago, about four blocks north. Now, the zip code is still the same, but for real-estate purposes this neighborhood is distinct enough to have its own series of mortifying hyphenations: NoChiTo, for North of Chinatown, or, my favorite, Little Chittaly.)

All of this is in reaction to a series of tweets I got, and a link to this article. The article itself is worth reading and contains some good advice and some, in my opinion, shocking advice; the page itself I cannot speak about; a lot of the advice is really sound and practical, but her website is insanely frustrating, you can only sort by keyword, and am I wrong or does it look like the website you end up with if you make a typo in a url? Like www.nytmies.com; look at them side by side? Am I wrong? Or like Canadian Pharmacy. The comments on the article are amazing, too, because they advise people to use QR codes — I urge you to click around on the videos if you want to gain further insight into this particular genre of thought and its attendant design.

One of the big arguments on this page (which you’ve all read, right?) is that our Authoress, let’s call her A, was standing at the Mercury Lounge between shows and somehow ended up talking to somebody who poƒƒeƒƒ’t a show flyer. Already it’s problematic because who stands around at the bar at the Mercury Lounge with show flyers?! A comments that the artist “lost [her] forever” because:

Because not one sentence was included about what genre of music this artist played much less what his music sounded like, who he was compared to (sound alike). In other words what I could expect by coming out to his show. In short I had no idea what this artist sounded like.

Ooh, girl, did it ever occur to you that perhaps he was dead 2 u because he gave you a flyer at the bar at the mercury lounge? He could have spoken to you, struck up a conversation. If you took the flyer, it means you have more room in your apartment than I do. I will confess, I don’t think I have so much as beheld a show flyer since maybe 2001, and I think that turned out to be a 9/11 truth manifesto zine.

Now, the part of this post that I really liked, actually, was the next one, which I will quote here in full:

Me: What do you sound like?
Artist: I sound like absolutely nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Me: (annoyed and now understanding why he’s not where he wants to be as an artist) Really? So you have invented a new genre of music, and you don’t sound like anyone else in the history of music?
Artist: Yes
Me: Can you at least tell me what type of music you play?
Artist: It’s old school Hip-Hop
OK finally we were getting somewhere and, I totally understood his point, but here’s the problem with having an approach like his:
People are constantly looking for a context to put things into. And if you don’t provide them with one, they will move on to the next thing that their little pea brains actually can grasp.
The critical that was missing in both scenarios was: The Pitch

Yes gawd! She’s right, in a sense. It’s true that artists who are terrible about talking about what they do are doomed. (I would posit that artists who follow all of her advice will sound, in conversation, like people who are trying entirely too hard in a gross, off-putting way— we’ve all met those people where an interaction is so buzz-word coded and business card and godforbid a QR code gets involved. You get the sense that they’ve written a bio and are writing the music after the fact.) But it’s also true that artists should be able to describe the universe in which their music exists quicker than they should be able to describe what it is specifically that they write. I have had so much better luck by describing what I’m reading, what I’ve been listening to, what I like, what I am like, than describing my music. I’ve lured strangers to shows by having conversations with them about a book, somebody else’s music, that genius Diaghilev biography. That starts to create the game universe of my music, rather than just being like, “I am a pretty princess for the following reasons.” Context does not mean genre, which is something that lazy journalists do, as I said, to avoid talking about notes and rhythms.

When people ask me specifically, “what do you sound like,” I usually deflect, and try to talk about the music I love. Even in a crowded bar (not the Mercury Lounge specifically), I’ve gotten away with, “Well, the music I love the most is the music of the English Renaissance, so, old choral things, but also kind of American Minimalism from the 60’s and 70’s, so it’s electrified and sacred and fast and slow at the same time! You should come to the show!” Which is not to say that anybody should call it Electrified and Sacred.

I always think about this genre conversation in the same way. Anybody who tells you what “kind” of food they cook is running some kind of scam. The restaurant group Momofuku has been so successful by constantly resisting those definitions: it’s Korean, American, French… you could hyphenate it and identity politics it until your hyphen key falls off, and you still won’t get close to describing what it means to pan-fry dduk, make a sausage “bolognese,” after a fashion, add the numbing szechuan peppers-corn, and choy sum in a single dish. Can’t we talk about how insanely delicious it is (or insanely whatever: not delicious, too spicy, too obvious, not enough sear on each side of the tteok, and yes I did just transliter8 the Korean in two different ways suck it) instead of the hyphenation parade? And if they did have a single word for what it was, wouldn’t you be suspicious, as if they had hired somebody to come up with the same word?

If you asked somebody what kind of restaurant they ran, and they gave you some hyphenated shit, would you go? Wouldn’t you be more intrigued and charmed by them if they told you a very quick story about a Persian mom and an Italian dad but how even that doesn’t matter? And how you should come and meet Kevin, the bartender, and how there’s this thing they’ve been doing with polenta fries? You’ve all heard this conversation in college, right, where a white person meets a person of color and asks a question similar to, “Wait, so, if you’re from India, and you eat Indian food at home, do you call it Indian Food or do you call it, like, just Food?” The big point here is that genre is a performance, and the name of the thing is the last last last thing that should ever matter. People who are cooking in states of various translation (French woman living in Cambodia with a Spanish husband, Greenlandic woman living in Spain) don’t hyphenate what they call their dinner, it’s just Dinner. In music, the active performance of genre seems to exist after one’s press-bio, rather than before. My argument has always been that genre is a constant process, and you, the author, have no say in it. You can impose decorations on it, manipulate it through education, through the Hague, through Christ, through G-D, through England, through Tanglewood, through all sorts of fabulous and edifying things. But the Thing is the Thing.

So that’s my little sqreed about that. I’d like to open it back up to Maura, though (and of course to Ariel!), and of course to all of you, in the comments thread, and ask a few more questions. I’m wondering if I’m missing some enormous point about how I should just lean back and embrace this name that gives me a dark itch. Or it could also be that artists should never, ever, worry about how they’re described by PR, as it’s not our job, and instead we should be writing music. Another question I have is about the very word “Indie,” and specifically how that can ever really mesh with classical music, which relies, oftentimes, on enormous institutions shuffling around large amounts of money. Our heroes from the 60’s, who stopped taking money from the academy because they weren’t going to get none, are very recognized by major presenting organizations around the world; it’s still socially groups of friends, the Glass and Reich ensembles, and even the Bang-on-a-Can universe, but they’re not having, like, a bake sale on Prince Street to fund an album. I wonder when an “indie” filmmaker stops being one? Does Indie Rock stop being Indie when a band sells out the O2 arena three nights in a row? Okay bye.


  • Well said.

  • I’ve always thought that as human beings, we’re predisposed to lumping and grouping because it makes the world more comprehendible to us (indeed, that’s like, on of the most critical ways in which we communicate with and learn from each other), but as creative individuals we’re predisposed to bust up those groupings when we find them ham-handed, inaccurate, or inadequate.

    Think about the inherent tension for press and, realistically, anyone trying to communicate verbally about an ephemeral experience. Using words to describe art is ALWAYS downsampling; using the lowest common denominator to find ways to invoke in the mind of your audience a glimpse of the experience that you yourself experienced. There are responsible ways to do this, there are less responsible ways to do this (tweety genre crap like “indie-classical” that causes the exact effect you describe of people creating TO a genre rather than FROM their creative core).

    The fun part is that the artist wins this conflict, always and forever – the press are the ones chasing after new terms, more hyphens, to describe a fragmenting and decreasingly useful genre-sphere. The less fun part is that, when we run out of words that can excite people into seeking out music, when all our current methods of communicating musical similarity run dry, will anyone ever even talk about music?

  • Okay, here’s the thing: “knowing” (aka naming) and experiencing are separate capacities. You are talking about experience: Is it good? Is it exciting? The genre-namers are talking about “knowing.” We humans cannot fully experience when e think we already “know.” Words are being used to contain and limit and, most of all, to market. Nico, I think you want to connect, which means not knowing in advance. You don’t want to be named, you want to be heard. You are flying in the full face of capitalism with a big ole K. Maybe it’s time to stop reading blogs and reviews and criticism and make more music, but nobody could make more music than you. I bow down.

  • The need to categorise and assign labels is understandable – it provides audiences with an expectation of the type of music they’re going to buy, or if it’s live, listen to. Indie-classical is such a inadequate descriptive term though: it evokes nothing so much as the image of white boy jangly guitar bands that have somehow fallen into the orchestra pit. Which might be an interesting sound, but it’s nothing like the music you, or other classical composers, are producing.

  • Your description of the dynamic interaction between genre labels applied by critics on the one hand, and the choices a composer makes when she sits down to write music on the other, reminds of nothing more than Taruskin’s account of Stravinsky’s Neoclassicism. I don’t have jstor access, so I can’t quote the relevant passage in “Back to Whom?”, but iirc Taruskin argues pretty convincingly that Stravinsky’s increasingly austere style dépouillé after the 1920s was a conscious response to calls by French critics for an art devoid of emotion, and an attempt to live up to the Neoclassical label that had been applied to him. And the result was… perhaps not salutary for Stravinsky’s musical output? Arguably?

  • I think that if music (or art, or literature, or…) is categorised, there is a chance I might miss something I would like if I were turned off by the category. The urge-to-categorise thus ends up being “cultural triage”, ensuring that only things I have liked before are in my cultural menu. I was surprised that I enjoyed some music in the “hip-hop” category which, culturally, is a ways away from what I’ve listened to before.

    Resist Categories!

  • Pipaluk López Jensen
    June 21st, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    E’er since the first usage in such a context, We have watched the regal word, Independent, as it has fallen victim to a hijacking pandemic. It seems a firm antonym of genre… or a forced attempt to manufacture a narrative wholly opposite The Artistic Process. Pointe being, it never worked, ever, for anything related to Labelz™. Neither did it’s abbr., so pretty please just stop it. Stop, stop, full stop ( . )

  • “Or it could also be that artists should never, ever, worry about how they’re described by PR, as it’s not our job, and instead we should be writing music.”

    Yes, but the problem is that if we want to break out beyond our group of friends or even get our friends listening to what we do, we often end up having to do the PR work ourselves before we can hire someone to do it. That’s the sense I gleaned from the Ariel (Pink?) article: we have to properly PR to the PR to get the PR. Ein Teufelskreis, as it were…

  • thank you!

  • Thanks for writing this.

    As to your last point on the word “indie”: I think people have semi-forgotten that it was once a truncation of the word “independent”. It seems to me that it’s come to mean any musician loosely connected with rock music (or maybe not even) who has a fanbase smaller than Lady Gaga’s and a certain degree of artistic integrity.

  • […] about it immediately. I would talk about why “indie-classical” is an awful term, but Nico Muhly already did it a lot better than me, so go read his blog about it. And I find the second sentence to be kind of offensive in its simplicity? Like, if you were going […]

  • Bah. Yes, the term indie used to mean independent, what in the sixties and seventies when bands had to self-promote because no record label would sign them. Now the term has been loosely fixed to what (in my opinion) is generic, uninteresting “rock” music, played by guys with lank hair and skinny jeans. Not exactly the sort of associations serious composers would want tagged along to their work. I absolutely respect Nico’s shuddering whenever it’s applied to his music.

    However, there is too much of an emphasis on finding that ‘right’ term to describe a new movement that’s happening. I think among critics it’s like a kudos to find the term that catches on. Like Jack Kerouac being heralded for coining the term ‘beat generation’, which, ironically, he disliked, for exactly the reason that one term could never sum up the feelings, thoughts, writings and wanderings of him and his friends.

    I think with all the constant tweeting, blogging, printing, talking, airing in this media-driven world we all ascribe to, terms are being coined quickly and spread quicker. Critics want a term to exist because it makes their job to describe easier. Maybe it’s lazy journalism? And weren’t terms such as baroque, classical, etc, made up way after all those responsible for the music were dead and gone, because back then there was no twitter or a kazillion online music journals in need of a catchy phrase? So frustrating as it is to have these terms bandied about at the moment, they’re probably transitory. It’ll only be after we’re all dust that the term to describe the young composers working now will be settled.

    I suppose the point Ariel is getting at with the 15 min pitch idea is that people need guiding points to give them an idea of what it is that you (artist, composer, musicians) do. What I find hideous is she makes it so manufactured. I think the idea to pick a few words that sum up to you an overall feeling for your work is fine. Leave it ambiguous, or string it all together to make an nonsensical word (like the Germans. They love stringing words together to make one massive word.). Who cares? Just keep doing what you’re doing, and the main thing is don’t stick to even what you describe yourself as. It’s boring when people always get what they expect anyway. We are ever evolving, and so should our work.

    What I also find really interesting is how, the composer, this time Nico, is totally IGNORED when they say “that’s not what my music is, don’t describe it that way”. The same thing happens in art. I went to a talk where an academic was describing paper and 3D collages as ‘paintings’, mainly because they were hanging on the wall. I questioned his use of the word ‘painting’ in context of his discussion, and that some could be called sculptures too, or essentially whatever you bloody wanted, and that perhaps it came down to what the artists intentions were, who in my opinions would actually have the authorative definition? I was told noone ever really knows what the artists intentions were. Which is total bollocks. We’re talking about post-war artists here, most of whom would write manifestos for independent (indie) artists publications. And HERE, we’re talking active talking, tweeting, blogging, discussing composers, protesting the categorisation or description of their work, and it’s like it doesn’t matter. Because ten, a hundred, a thousand people are all saying it is indie-classical, so you know, that’s democracy. There’s only one composer and he’s drowned out by the masses. It almost feels irresponsible.

  • “Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic…”

  • The single most bogus / lazy / criminal thing, I think, about where genre-tagging seems to find itself these days has to be the hyphen game. Peter Campbell addressed this earlier. If you ask me, terms like indie-classical, or why not post-punk or any other nu-
    or post- or -core or whatever, are designed to make you think you ALREADY KNOW what this music is, so long as you ALREADY KNOW what those morphemes on either side of the dash are all about. What could be more vague? And worse, it’s got that air of falseness or pretending to it, like, “It’s not Classical, it’s not Indie…it’s Indie-Classical!” It definitely suggests subordination.

    But there is one thing I think is essential: it seems that today’s musicians, composers, songwriters, arrangers and producers etc. are (the world over, it seems) more exposed and more interested in a wider swath of more variegated music than ever before, and that this new music that we can’t define seems to have been born out of those exposures and interests. Or maybe that such omnivorous musicians are just finally becoming more popular, and thus encouraged, or something. When I was in high school we framed everything in terms of “indie” (or underground) and “mainstream” and everything else was under one or the other um-br-el-a, like “pop” was mainstream and “punk” was indie and yet a punk band on MTV was mainstream and if you liked Missy Elliott she was cool and an honorary indie and it’s basically kids picking their teams for dodge ball.

    I’m not sure I think the problem is necessarily genre; there totally are musical traditions that came about and developed over time, like you can’t pretend that jazz isn’t a distinct thing, regardless of whether or not the word is adequate. It’s more a problem of lazily employing genre, of listening to hallmarks instead of music, and worst of all (related to not listening) is sensationalizing it. Coining a new style might not make you friends with many musicians, but it’ll probably keep your name of the books if the tag sticks, and that’s all most people care about.

    P.S. Claire, I’m pretty sure Kerouac was just disappointed because he meant beatific.

  • UM, would Ravi Shankar be considered Hindi-Classical?

  • I have a file on my computer called ‘wake up’. It is the music I used to get my sons out of bed bed on Saturday mornings. Consisting of LP’s and 45’s (I’m kinda old) played on the record player, played rather loud and starting at 6:30 in the a.m. they would, either, come bounding out for music and cheerios or be found with pillows pulled over their heads trying to silence dad’s noise. My idea of wake up music could be a guitar riff from a record, drums, a walking bass line, harmonies – anything that I liked to allow it to be categorized in the genre of the music I call ‘wake up’. There are hundreds of songs in the wake up file; some are hard to love, others easy to hate. But they are mine.

    Now, I can’t tell you what indie-classical music sounds like, I can tell you is that it is a short cut for the masses.They read an article about an indie-classical musical performance, they’ve had a good experience with that genre before, they’ll likely go again. A code for the masses.
    They would not go, however, to hear my Wake Up music (they don’t know what they’re missing!).

  • Please tell me these posts (and responses) are being collected for a book. This is fabulous stuff, Nico. Recent article in New Yorker about genre fiction focuses the discussion on ‘literature’
    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/05/28/120528crat_atlarge_krystal, but your writing expresses so beautifully the problems with categorization on levels both personal AND public. As a choreographer who just “wrote a play” (wtf??) [having read the review, my mother called and was so confused; had I stopped dancing?] I have always wanted people to just come see the work. Period. “and that’s the point: we are how we do. It’s an active life, it’s not these terrible sentences and hyphenations.” Thank you. Bless you. I listen to/read your work with open heart, open ears, and great joy.

  • […] Follow-up to “In defense of Indie-Classical” and Nico Muhly’s post “Hindi-Classical.” […]

  • I can’t help thinking that what is picked out from a book about John Cage in this article is so so related to what this debate is about:

  • Dogs, cats, hamsters, fish, parrots – who do you prefer? Or maybe what that exotic animals – snakes, crocodiles, lizards, monkeys?

  • BTW, the term “indie” means “independent,” as in “not signed to a (major) record label.” Thus, if you were signed to some small, start up label, you were an “indie” artist on an “indie” label. The term has trickled down to mean 1) any artist not signed to a label at all, 2) a type of sound, characterized by music that a major label probably wouldn’t sign because it wasn’t commercial or easily classifiable.

    The problem today, is that many one time “indie” artist have now become “mainstream.” They are either signed to major record labels, or their once “indie” label has grown up to become a full fledged “major” label. So even the term “indie” has lost much of it’s original meaning today in 2012.

    And that’s part of the problem with labels, because things shift, perception changes as time moves on. Jazz was once “pop”(ular) music, but is now a niche that has been watered down with other terms and categories, like “Latin jazz,” “smooth jazz,” “punk jazz,” etc. Even “classical” music is not what it once was. Can you call Cage/Xenakis/Stockhausen “classical” in the same terms as Bach/Mozart/Beethoven? How about Muhly? This is where labels fail us.

    But labels are unfortunately necessary to give people a point of reference. People like things nice, neat, and easily digestible. And if you don’t have some sort of one minute “elevator speech” ready to present to perspective listeners, they will pass you by and move on to the next person who can give them something to relate to. As a musician/composer, I find myself naturally resisting labels and the need to put myself and my music into some box for easy identification. But I also realize that it’s necessary to give potential listeners something to relate to in order to possibly get their interest. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before,” just won’t do. I always hope that labels can be a starting place, and the listener can come to their own terms about the music they experienced. But people will call music what they want, because they relate it to their own experiences. I may protest as to their description, but in the end, what’s important, is that they are listening to the music, no matter what they choose to call it…