Tag: indie-classical

Building Audiences for Post-Genre Artists

Over the past two weeks, I have outlined a post-genre framework for characterizing music and posed questions that I have been grappling with in my own thinking. In my first post, my focus was on language and how we could realistically create a cohesive vocabulary to describe and discuss music in the absence of genre-based terms. In my second post, I dug into the role of listeners and how their pre-existing associations surrounding genre may or may not confound post-genre thinking. With these questions in mind, what I am left wondering about the most is how to build audiences for post-genre artists.

The main issue regarding audience-building centers around sources of funding. While conducting research on a vocal group called Roomful of Teeth this past summer, I was able to discuss this issue at length with Bill Brittelle. Brittelle, a strong proponent of post-genre thinking, is a commissioned composer for Roomful of Teeth and a co-founder of New Amsterdam Records.

There are a number of similarities between the music I have explored in my research by composers such as Brittelle and Missy Mazzoli, who are often lumped into the “classical” category, and the music that I listen to outside of my research, much of which is lumped into the “indie” or “alternative” category. One of my favorite bands, Dirty Projectors, comes to mind as a group that is unafraid to make new sounds and experiment with their music-making in a way that I connect with the music of some of my favorite “new music” composers. The difference between them, aside from the genre that their music is labeled under, lies in the way that it’s monetized. In our conversation, Brittelle described the following scenario:

We’ve talked about this a lot at New Amsterdam. There are two separate worlds of monetization, and there are these cliffs around what is monetized through the commercial marketplace versus what is monetized through the nonprofit world. Everything I do is essentially supported by a nonprofit. Anytime I’m presented at a performing arts center or I’m commissioned, there’s a nonprofit source somewhere back there. But let’s take David Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors] as another example—almost everything he does is supported by some kind of commercial entity. The volume of people he’s able to reach is very different because of that network.

We discussed his frustration that while post-genre music existing on the nonprofit model often struggles to find its audience, equally innovative and experimental bands are able to develop devoted audiences on the commercial model. He described it like this:

We look at the music and it’s not that different. I analyzed “Useful Chamber” by Dirty Projectors in a post-genre class that I taught. It’s an incredible piece of composed music, but it also has to do with the way that it lives out in the world and who it reaches through commercial channels instead of nonprofit channels.

Would shifting the way that post-genre music is funded actually build its listener base?

So not only does genre-based language mislead listeners about post-genre music, but it also affects how the music itself is monetized and thus how artists make their living and find their audiences. This presents a double loss for composers of post-genre music that are assigned a “classical” label, as the system of monetization they are engaged with may not be the right option for their music. The connection between systems of monetization and audience-building has to do with the types of people who engage with the music being funded by the two systems. Part of it may have to do with age; the nonprofit system is a donor-based model, and older people are typically the people with the money. The commercial model is based more on consumption, which is arguably more relevant to younger audiences. These two groups are on opposite ends of the age spectrum. But it also certainly has to do with the network and the types of publicity that result depending on which system of monetization the music is placed under. When it comes to the type of music that Brittelle is writing, much of which draws on synthesizers and drum machines, the ideal audience would likely be those listening to more commercially produced music that also draws on these types of sounds, rather than the types of audiences that read the classical music section of The New York Times and frequently attend performances put on by nonprofit organizations like opera houses and symphony orchestras. Therefore, perhaps a way to build audiences for music like Brittelle’s is to shift it over to a for-profit commercial system of monetization. The network that this would provide him and his music, along with the base of listeners that would be more accessible as a result, would certainly be beneficial. But then the questions become: How do we go about taking genre out of the way music is monetized? And moreover, would shifting the way that post-genre music is funded actually build its listener base?

We have already seen that this is a difficult shift to make. New Amsterdam Records, founded by Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, has aimed to do essentially this. They founded a record label whose aim was to promote classically trained musicians who fall between traditional genre boundaries on a for-profit model. An article in the Wall Street Journal last year described how, despite creating a much-needed outlet for post-genre music, operating on a for-profit model has proved to be difficult. A record that sells well for New Amsterdam will still only sell around 5,000 copies, which they explained is barely enough to cover the cost of production.

NewAm Founders

New Amsterdam Co-Founders Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Bill Brittelle.

While the minimal monetary success that New Amsterdam has had despite the switch to a for-profit model is discouraging, I believe that it does not mean that such an operation will not be more widely successful in the future. This issue is intrinsically tied to genre being central in musical criticism and promotion; even if the music that New Amsterdam is pumping out is accessible and innovative and could potentially appeal to a large number of listeners throughout the world, the fact that many of its recorded artists are still tied into the “classical” label to some degree will still deter people from listening and hinder efforts to create opportunities for post-genre artists to build their audiences and lead more sustainable lifestyles. Thus, the process of finding a fitting place for post-genre music and artists will be a multi-step process. Once we are able to create a cohesive language and fully understand how to discuss music in the absence of genre-based language, we can begin to shift the way that music is promoted and critiqued. Once the shift occurs in music promotion and critique, I hope that post-genre thinking will slowly begin to spread to audiences and listeners. And once this way of thinking about music gains some traction, I hope that listeners will begin to explore the music that they would have separated themselves from back when we labeled it as “classical.” These shifts could create the draw that post-genre composers need to build their audiences and create a fully successful for-profit post-genre label.

The Role of Listeners in a Post-Genre Context

Last week, I spent some time grappling with issues of language in a post-genre musical framework. I was left wondering how we could realistically create a cohesive language to describe, appraise, and promote music in the absence of genre-related terms. Is that even possible? The prevalence of genre in our current characterization of music, as well as the important role of the composer within this framework (which I also delved into in my previous post), led me to another issue that I have yet to fully resolve. Namely, I have been struggling to fully understand the role of the listener in post-genre.

There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds.

As I described in my previous post, post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective methods of characterizing music, instead focusing on a more subjective method within which music is viewed piece by piece with an emphasis on the intention and background of the composer. If a composer has no intent of writing within the “classical” genre label, then attempting to understand the piece through a classical lens is irrelevant. But what about the listener? There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds. Realistically, because we have discussed music in terms of these genre constructions for so long, a listener’s experience is likely to naturally include elements of: “This moment in this piece of music reminds me of X genre, which makes me think of Y connotation.” For example, imagine a situation in which a composer uses strings in a way that reminds a listener of “classical” music. The composer may have had no stylistic/genre-based intent, but that does not stop the listener from making this association. Does this detract from a composer’s intent in any way? What impact do these associations have on a person’s listening experience when it involves a piece written by a composer who has no intent of associating with any element of genre? This issue can be highlighted by taking a look at the piece Otherwise by Brad Wells, founder and conductor of Roomful of Teeth.

Wells’s piece draws on Sardinian cantu a tenore and belting, both of which are vocal techniques that are commonly employed by the group’s composers due to the singers’ vocal training in them. The score for this piece also instructs Dashon Burton, who sings baritone for the group, to sing his lines “bel canto.” The first instance of this bel canto singing happens just past the one-minute mark in the recording.

Wells has talked about his use of these different vocal techniques and styles in a previous interview, mentioning that he views them as different gears and colors for his compositions. While I was visiting the group at MASS MoCA, I had the opportunity to speak with him and was able to dig a bit more into his opinions on the stylistic implications in Otherwise. We talked about his decision to combine bel canto, belting, and Sardinian cantu a tenore, and I asked him whether he was interested in intentionally taking two specific and separate styles and combining them as a means of comparing them, or if his interest was purely in exploring colors and gears. He responded:

It’s purely in color. But for me, I think about it as if you were doing something visual. Say you were making a collage piece and you had some pattern that you got from a particular tradition that is super vibrant, and you wanted to put a stretch of that alongside something else. The origin of it, what it represents, is not at all how I would think about it. But the emotional charge that it brings is very much a part of it… What happens when you bring them together? What emotions are evoked? But speaking to Otherwise—part of it was just about brilliance, too. The belt-y sound that the three women do alongside the high bel canto baritone—they can keep up with him. That’s a pretty balanced spectral range going through both techniques, but they’re very different.

What I take away from Wells’s response is that, when writing using these stylistic influences and vocal techniques, his interest is not necessarily in the styles themselves, but rather in the emotional charge and specific color that each brings to the table, as well as how their combination allows for new colors and emotional charges. This is the individual intent behind the piece he wrote. However, when I hear Dashon singing his bel canto baritone lines, my first response as a listener is, “Wow, listen to that opera singer!” So despite Wells’s emotional charge and color-focused intent, the listener’s experience likely still centers, to some degree, around genre and stylistic labeling.

One of the outside walls of MASS MoCA which is partially covered with posters for exhibitions: Sol Lewitt, Federico Urbe, UNTL.

How do we reconcile the role of the listener, who may naturally use genre and style to label what they hear, within a post-genre framework? Does this confound the entire post-genre concept? In the future of developing a more concrete framework, it will be extremely important to address the role of listeners and how their pre-existing understanding of genre and style may affect their listening experience despite a composer’s intent. The way that I currently imagine the role of the listener working together with the intent of the composer is by emphasizing that post-genre thinking does not seek to entirely eliminate the existence of genre and style distinctions. It would be utopian to imagine a world where genre disappeared in a puff of smoke and no longer impacted how we processed music; currently, these types of associations are pretty intrinsically tied to people’s listening experiences.

Genre can be viewed as something that inherently shapes our liking and disliking of a certain piece of music.

However, perhaps by reframing the implications of genre, we can reconcile the role of listeners without ignoring these elements of their experience. For example, we could begin to think of “genres” as concepts that carry certain emotional or experiential implications on an individual basis. In this way, genre can be viewed as something that inherently shapes our liking and disliking of a certain piece of music, instead of as bins that pieces of music and composers must comment on. Rather than hearing a moment in a piece that reminds us of “classical” music and subsequently filing the piece away under the “classical” label and associating it with the historical classical tradition, we can reframe and think, “The sounds in that moment are reminiscent of what I think of as “classical” music, which makes me feel X feeling, which affects my experience of this piece and how much I like it.” In this scenario, the listener’s association does not involve them placing the piece into a genre categorization. Instead, the focus is on the individual experience of the piece and how the sounds in the piece affect how much they like it. This allows the music to exist on a piece-by-piece basis as opposed to being tied into a tradition or an institution. Of course, there is no way to get into people’s minds and actually change the way that they think about the music they hear; I believe that the more direct shift will come in conjunction with the development of a more cohesive non-genre-focused language. As artists and music critics/promoters shift their conversations about music, this way of thinking will likely seep into the minds of listeners to some degree. But for now, at the very least, this reframing of genre’s role in listening may serve as a way for composers and critics to rationalize the listener’s experience. As we move forward, we cannot disregard the listener’s potential tendencies towards genre-based thinking. We must figure out a way to understand what it means to think about genre in post-genre music.

Thinking About Language in a Post-Genre Context

I spent this summer immersed in the music of Roomful of Teeth, a “vocal band” consisting of eight singers with a commitment to exploring the expressive potential of the human voice. I was doing research in order to better understand how and why composers were using what—at that point—I was describing as “polystylism.” I spent my time labeling non-Western classical elements in the group’s pieces, gathering information on the composers’ backgrounds and “non-classical” experience (like Wally Gunn’s time spent in a punk band), interviewing the composers about their opinions relating to this topic, and eventually observing the group’s rehearsals at MASS MoCA during their intensive annual summer residency. Some time into my research, I grew uncertain about the basis of my research question; as I continued to wonder what the varied stylistic elements in each composer’s pieces meant, I also began to question whether they really had to mean anything at all. What if the composers just wanted to write this way, without any interest in “polystylism” or what their use of different styles means? Maybe this music, and the music these composers are writing outside of Roomful of Teeth, has nothing to do with stylistic elements at all.

Roomful of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth

A conversation with William Brittelle at MASS MoCA addressed many of these qualms. Brittelle, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records, is a big proponent of a post-genre way of thinking about music and has had a large impact on my understanding of the post-genre framework. These ideas seem necessary and are surprisingly intuitive.

Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized “bin.”

At its most simple, this is a system of thinking about music that steps away from using genre as the main method of characterization and appraisal. Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer. The individual is quite important to post-genre thinking. This framework focuses on viewing individual pieces separately from what other composers are creating as well as from preexisting expectations, allowing composers to write whatever it is they want to write. It is not about rebelling against existing genre conventions, but instead about allowing full expression of an individual composer’s musical worldviews. What is most appealing to me about post-genre thinking is that it does not seek to create a new musical movement or shift our music-making; in actuality, it serves as a more accurate representation of much of the music already being created today, and seeks to provide a better fitting system for discussing this music.

While there is still much work to be done in terms of devising a concrete theoretical framework for post-genre and understanding how this framework would be applied widely in the musical world, it has already served as a helpful tool for my thinking about new music. Prior to my shift towards this post-genre mentality, much of my analysis of Roomful of Teeth had to do with how non-Western classical stylistic elements broke the convention of what we’d expect from a group of classically trained musicians. Take Wally Gunn’s The Ascendant for example, a piece written for Roomful of Teeth and drum kit.

When first exploring the piece, I wondered why Gunn had decided to use the drum kit. What statement was he making by throwing a drum kit, more typically associated with pop/rock projects, into this group of singers? Was he actively trying to genre blend and expand classical music to include this type of instrumentation? My shift towards a post-genre aesthetic allowed me to rethink this analysis. My assumption that a composer’s use of drum kit had to mean something related to stylistic commentary is a problematic one within this framework; instead, by looking at Wally Gunn’s background and speaking with him about intent, I was able to gain a better understanding about this piece as an individual entity, rather than as a part of a collective genre-based musical identity.

The need for a shift toward post-genre seems most evident to me whenever I try to find language to discuss much of the music that interests me as a performer, composer, and listener. When asked by friends and family what kind of music I am interested in, I usually end up giving a rather vague description like, “I guess it’s ‘classical’ (always said with air quotes), but it’s not like Mahler or anything like that. It’s really cool. You’ll like it; I promise.” The word “classical” does not serve to accurately describe much of the music that is shoved under its label. I’m talking about music by many of the composers who have written for Roomful of Teeth, including Brittelle, Missy Mazzoli, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, as well as other composers such as Ted Hearne and Jodie Landau.

In my conversations with these composers, a central topic was genre-based language’s inability to capture what it is that they feel their music is doing. One of the composers I spoke with was Missy Mazzoli, who composed Vesper Sparrow for the group, and is also the leader of her own band, Victoire.

In our conversation, we discussed how she believed we, as a musical community stemming from the classical tradition, could go about breaking out of the classical bubble and getting people who may not typically engage with a string quartet to try out music like her own. She thought that language had quite a bit to do with it. According to her, using words like “new classical” is not exciting. She herself is an example of attempts at shifting the language surrounding emerging music; her group Victoire calls itself a band, and she often resists association with the term “classical.” When I asked how she talks about the music that she engages with, she responded:

I identify with the word composer, because I do come out of the classical tradition. I like that term, but anything beyond that, I feel like it’s always used against me to confine or associate my work with music that doesn’t belong with it or has nothing to do with it.

This pushing back against the “classical” label due to the fact that it confines composers and misleads listeners may be at the root of how a post-genre mentality can make its way into the mainstream. In our conversation, Brittelle addressed the importance of this, stating:

I think we have to get really aggressive about deconstruction. Every single time somebody tries to put you in that box, and tries to make things objective, you just have to push back on it. Every single time.

My response: That sounds exhausting. But perhaps by committing to a more active resistance to objective and genre-based language, conversations can begin about post-genre thinking in favor of a more accurate, individual intent-based characterization. My overarching question is then, what language do we use to discuss music instead of genre-based language? Or, more specifically, in a framework so focused on the individual, how do we create cohesive language that can be realistically used in the world of music to discuss and promote music? It may be helpful to look at postgenderism, which has worked to shift the language we use and how we discuss gender. I certainly do not have all of the answers yet, but continuing to ask questions about how we discuss the music we create and resisting genre-based language that we don’t identify with seem like steps in the right direction.

Hannah Schiller

Hannah Schiller

Hannah Schiller is a senior in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. Her research interests center around the current musical moment; she is particularly drawn to post-genre concepts and music emerging from classically trained musicians that is difficult to categorize. She recently received an undergraduate research grant from Northwestern to study the work of Roomful of Teeth and was chosen as an Alumnae of Northwestern University Undergraduate Research Scholar as a result of her work. Hannah is also a singer, arranger, and composer of a wide variety of music.

Great Expectations: The Challenge of New Music In New Spaces

Context can have a powerful impact on perception. A few years ago, my good friend Stuart Sims blogged about hearing Frank Zappa’s music performed on Baroque instruments by Ensemble Ambrosius. Stuart had always been ambivalent about Zappa’s music but the Ambrosius album, with its completely new textures and timbres, allowed him to hear the music in a new way.

It was interesting on a lot of levels, but for me, it really laid bare Zappa’s writing. By translating his music into a completely different sound world, a new idiom, it was actually revealed more clearly to me. I was able to pay attention to the composition itself without all of the idiosyncrasies of style and performance that Zappa and his musicians brought to the original recordings—and I loved it. So I’ve since gone back and re-listened to several of those Zappa albums that used to grate, and now I really like them. Go figure—hearing his music on 17th century instruments helped me hear it on 20th century instruments better.

Like a change of instrumentation, a change in venue can also be an effective tool for recontextualization. Beethoven is inspiring in the concert hall but a potent teenage repellant in public spaces, for example. Many preconceptions associated with a performance in a traditional venue (concert or recital hall, etc.), such as concert etiquette, the separation of performer from audience, or passivity on the part of the listener, can be subverted by performing the same music in a different context because the preconceptions are in part attached to the setting itself. And because performing in a venue that normally features a non-classical genre imparts expectations for that concert experience, those expectations—informality, more interaction, beer—also come into play, possibly leading to a new experience for the listener. Just as the same music on different instruments made all the difference for my good friend, the same music in a different space can open ears as well.

When new music groups perform in rock clubs and other similar venues they are counting on these spaces to recontextualize what they do. By placing themselves in the environment of more popular genres, they are declaring that the music they play is as much a part of their city’s musical culture as any other. Playing in a club or bar for a new audience is exhilarating—the communal atmosphere, the closeness to the crowd—but it’s also about an evolving tradition grappling with change, and participating in a broader musical culture and feeling connected and relevant. But what about the venues that make this recontextualization possible? How do their priorities differ from those of more traditional venues? They are an essential part of this trend, but do they know it?

There are many for-profit venues that host new music performances in the Bay Area, though very, very few do so with any kind of regularity. Non-profit spaces tend to host more concerts, and some of the Bay Area’s longest-running new music series take place in galleries and other multi-use spaces. One musician who has experience playing in both these types of venues, as well as house shows and other impromptu spaces, is composer and guitarist Brendon Randall-Myers. His guitar-drums duo Grains plays both improvised and original compositions, as well as arrangements of works by other composers like Glass and Reich. For Grains, getting gigs at different venues can sometimes be a matter of framing. “Booking Grains as essentially a weird hardcore band has had the most success, and most of our shows have been in punk-friendly venues. Operating within the rock club scene, it seems like style is maybe less important than draw, since at this point there’s precedent for basically anything.” Draw, of course, is the ability to draw a crowd, and is extremely important to clubs and other for-profit venues. Unlike large concert halls that charge rental fees, clubs rely on a combination of ticket sales and concessions—food and beverages—to cover fixed costs like bouncers, sound techs, and bartenders. These people get paid the same amount whether the night’s show draws one hundred people or only one, so a group’s proven ability to market themselves and draw a thirsty crowd can, for many clubs and even non-profit venues, have a big impact on whether or not they get booked or invited back.

A group’s ability to draw a crowd is a central concern for Nicole Rodriguez, one of the founders of Subterranean Art House in Berkeley, and she sees a general lack of marketing savvy in many new music groups. “I believe that the bands haven’t learned how to promote themselves well enough to bring people out,” she says. She enjoys having new music shows at Subterranean, a non-profit teaching and performance space near the UC Berkeley campus, and feels that there is an audience for new music programs. In order to be booked, though, Rodriquez says groups need to demonstrate that they can reach out to their fan base and reliably fill the house. “What would help booking these shows is having the confidence that bands can bring people out to see them. Bands in general can always learn more ways to promote and begin to build a strong network of people interested in hearing this music.” She suggests developing ways to connect with fans directly—basic DIY tools like email and social networking sites—but also emphasizes the importance of marketing each show as a unique musical experience. “The main point is that everyone in the band needs to do this promotion for it to work. If they don’t, then places like ours will suffer from and remember low attendance, making it challenging to rebook a group.” She notes that shows involving new and experimental music are poorly attended and generate less revenue through concessions.

A basic understanding of how venues operate is important, says Jason Perkins, managing partner of the Parish Entertainment Group, which operates Brick and Mortar Music Hall in San Francisco. When asked what groups could do to make themselves more bookable, Perkins replied simply, “be knowledgeable about the business side.” This includes being flexible about when you’re looking to perform. A new group without an established fan base is not going to be booked in prime Friday or Saturday night spots, but probably during the week (when, incidentally, it’s more difficult to draw a good crowd). Additionally, bookers usually want a range of possible performance dates, and don’t appreciate it if you schedule gigs at other venues in the same time frame as it can affect draw. Being knowledgeable about the business side also includes realistic expectations for pay. Most clubs split the door (i.e. ticket sales) with performers, and percentages can vary. Musicians expecting a fixed fee regardless of the show’s turnout will be disappointed.

Brick and Mortar books new music shows only sporadically. Classical Revolution hosts concerts there from time to time, and Redshift performed their Arctic Sounds program there last year. It’s a dark, inviting space with a small stage in the corner, an open space in the center, and a few tables and a bar on the perimeter. Large windows look out onto Mission Street and offer glimpses of local color for which the neighborhood is famous. According to Perkins, Brick and Mortar’s mission is to serve the community by presenting acts that reflect the neighborhood’s diversity, even if not all of them are profitable. He says that while events put on by Classical Revolution have been successful—”We’re proud to have the show,” he said of a recent Musical Art Quintet concert—he agreed with Rodriguez that, on the whole, new music shows have smaller turnouts and slower bar service. An even trickier issue, he says, is audience expectation. The seating in Brick and Mortar is limited to stools at the bar and a few tables; at the Redshift show most of the audience ended up sitting on the floor. Background noise from the bar, from conversations, and from outside is unavoidable, too. “People are expecting a classical music hall experience,” he says, “but we’re not that.”

Jamie Freedman, a writer, booker, and vocalist based in the Bay Area, says that matching music to venue can factor into a show’s success. “You know what to expect,” she says of the standard classical concert. “No matter where you are in the world it’s going to be a similar experience, so if you take people out of that context I think it freaks them out a little bit.” In other words, groups branching out into clubs should keep their audience in mind when considering venues, and know just how far out of their comfort zone they can lead them. Freedman suggests that musicians consider options like seating or ambient noise before booking a venue. Audiences generally don’t like to mill around during mellow or contemplative shows and will often sit on the floor, so the punk rock club with the sticky floors might not be the best choice for an all-Feldman show.

Freedman, who has a master’s degree in musicology from the University of Texas, is the San Francisco Field Representative for hearitlocal.com, a user-generated site that allows Bay Area artists and venues to connect directly and book shows. (The site also has a nifty crowdsourcing feature that enables someone booking a group for a private event or house party to raise money in advance, ensuring that artists get paid.) She is aware of only a few “classical” groups—used as a catchall term here—using the site, though she is reaching out to the community in an effort to change this. She also doesn’t see much interest from venues or bookers either, which she attributes the to the lingering perception that classical music is somehow “out of their reach.”

Taking a chance on a new music group is a tough decision for venues that mainly present popular genres, for both financial and “comfort zone” reasons. An array of confusing terms—classical, new music, alt-classical, indie-classical—doesn’t help. For example, if a new music group, perhaps looking to simplify things in an effort to get a gig, approaches a venue as a “classical” group, what will that venue’s booker expect? Maybe the Three B’s, maybe Yanni, or maybe no confusion at all. If this same new music group decides instead to get specific—”dedicated to the performance of post-minimalist and totalist American composers”—will that be any clearer? For example, Grains regularly collaborates with the chamber ensemble Nonsemble 6, and Randall-Myers says that booking these more classically oriented shows can be difficult. “It’s not so much the fact that it’s ‘new music’ that seems to be the problem, but rather that it’s an unorthodox combination of styles, instruments, and volumes,” he says. “I think we’re all excited about the idea of playing this music in clubs, but it’s a tough sell because we’re not ‘established’ and we’re playing music that’s hard to pin down on the rock-to-chamber-music continuum.” Most bookers and venue operators are extremely musically literate and familiar with a wide variety of musical styles ranging from folk to scream, so familiarizing them with as much music as possible—available streaming on a groups website, for example—is key.

In March Grains performed on the weekly New Music Series at the Luggage Store Gallery, a non-profit gallery located on a gritty stretch of Market Street that perpetually smells of weed. The series is curated by Outsound Presents, a non-profit, volunteer group of musicians that supports and promotes the Bay Area’s diverse community of experimental musicians performing “avant-garde jazz, found sound, noise art, musique concrète, minimalism, and the unnamable.” The Luggage Store Gallery is a wonderfully gritty, well-worn, no-frills space and Outsound’s website informs potential performers of the basics: “There is no guaranteed payment, no guest passes, hotel accommodations, transportation, no acoustic piano, no sound person.” You arrive via a narrow stairway whose walls and ceiling are completely covered with graffiti. On most nights you’re greeted at the top of the stairs by Rent Romus, one of the founders of Outsound Presents, and a regular curator of the series. “Welcome to the new music underground,” he says.

Luggage Store Gallery: Stairway

Romus has been active in the Bay Area new music scene for over 20 years, and has been booking new music shows and curating regular series for nearly as long. As a saxophonist and bandleader he explores the outer limits of experimental jazz and improvisation, and as a curator he books musicians with a similar aesthetic. “Our purpose is to support those bands and artists which have either a harder time getting bookings at mainstream or “indie” clubs because they are too outward bound, or don’t fit the bar scene and are playing either all original or fully improvised music.”

The Grains show certainly feels like an underground scene. Folding chairs are set up as the gallery gradually fills up with young people, many of whom seem to know each other. Several gents, employing varying levels of surreptitiousness, sip beers they purchased elsewhere, while Romus enjoys takeout. The Grains set this night includes both composed works and improvisation. Much of the improvisation has an arid feel, where plaintive guitar tones are juxtaposed with frenetic drum riffs, as if drummer Marc Deriso transcribed an epic drum solo then played it back in random, ametric fragments. Long stretches were captivating. One of the composed pieces, Goat Teeth, had a powerful, propulsive energy and riffs that would be at home in any prog rock song. Another, Face, was originally composed by Deriso for chamber ensemble then arranged by Randall-Myers for the duo. “I distilled all the melodic and harmonic material into a single guitar part,” he said, and the result was a jet engine blast of low, regular guitar notes beneath shifting, irregular drum rhythms and an ever-changing perceived downbeat. Tapping your foot along with Face is like playing musical Whack-a-Mole, although a young man a few rows up had no problem simply headbanging to his own steady pulse.

Today, this music would be as fitting in a film or TV score—see Michael Giacchino’s music for Lost, for example—as it is here in this experimental setting. The composed pieces sound wildly exuberant and free, yet are rigorously structured and notated as any avant-garde new music. As Randall-Myers suggests, framing the same music differently for different contexts is more important to booking a gig than the music itself. Grains’ music is of a post-genre world, but many venues still identify, both in the minds of their operators and their patrons, with the same familiar—perhaps broader, but still easily identifiable—musical styles.

Concert flyer

The LSG series is popular with musicians and is booked up to three months in advance. Keeping such a regular concert series up and running is difficult work, and promotion is an always an issue. “Most of the time local mainstream press and radio will not cover new music shows even though such modern exploration has been going on for many decades in the U.S.,” Romus says. Outsound also lacks permanent office space, which makes establishing a regular presence difficult, though Romus feels fortunate to have found a regular performance space at the gallery. “The owners of the Luggage Store Gallery, Laurie [Lazer] and Darryl [Smith], are both avid supporters of new forms of art,” he notes, “and they have given our community a regular, safe location to present for over twenty years.” Admission is a sliding scale depending on what you can afford, though no one will be turned away for lack of funds. The proceeds from the door are split 70/30 between the performers and the gallery. Romus says the take at the door varies widely, but that no one makes much money. Outsound Presents doesn’t take a cut and all its members, including Romus, volunteer their time.

Luggage Store Gallery

Luggage Store Gallery

As far as the nuts and bolts of booking groups, Romus says it’s important for him to know a bit about a group before inviting them to perform, and that having music available on sites like Soundcloud or Bandcamp is a big help. “What I like to see is an introduction of their music and some information about the artists, web links, and/or links to hear music samples,” he says.  He also says that that groups looking to play the New Music Series should do a bit of research before requesting a booking. “It’s always nice to know when they are available and/or looking for a gig, and that they know a little about the series they are asking a gig for.” The website for Amnesia, a San Francisco bar known for its regular jazz and bluegrass jam sessions, offers prospective performers similar advice and stresses the need for promotion.

In your booking request please include vital information about your project including links to your music, websites, bios (when informative), usual band draw and prospective date ranges you are interested in for a show. If we book a show with you, help us help you by helping us promote it. The more people you bring down the better it will be. Get us a poster and we’ll put it up, get us some flyers and we’ll pass ‘em out, send out an email but don’t wait until the day before to promote your great show!

In a way it seems that this whole discussion of venues is already moot. Classically trained musicians have moved on, branched out, and are equally comfortable in the club or in the concert hall (coming to a bio near you). Local music scenes will continue to become more integrated as new music groups simply learn the language of the for-profit venue. While this may seem like a foregone conclusion we should remember that this is a two way street and a whole lot of other people, necessary people, have to share this view. Many bookers pay lip service to the idea of hosting new music, but a glance at their calendars will reveal weeks or months between new music shows. Meanwhile, old standbys like churches and college campuses continue to be the more popular options.

It will be interesting to see how this trend plays out, not only in the Bay Area, but across the country. Will it grow to alter the musical landscape, remain a persistent, if infrequent occurrence, or devolve into cliché? The outcome depends in part on the ability of new music groups to dependably draw crowds, to become “established,” and also on a critical mass of listeners who consistently turn out and support new music. More regular performances can lead to a larger audience, but before that can happen clubs and bookers need to feel more confident about what exactly it is they’re booking, and that audiences will show up to hear it. It’s like the old adage about finding a job: a job is needed to gain experience, but experience is necessary to get a job. New music groups won’t be welcomed simply because they’re willing.


Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

Who Cares If You Call It Indie Classical?

So the term “indie classical” seems to be ascending in popularity, along with the requisite hand-wringing about what it means, whether or not it’s a good thing, and whether or not it’s even worth thinking about. In particular, this article by Harriet Cunningham in the Sydney Morning Herald set off some entertaining conversation on Twitter*, including a plea from one of the composers discussed in the article, Nico Muhly:

(When pressed on the matter, Mr. Muhly admitted, “It’s a theoretical peeing of oneself.”)

This is certainly not the first time in history composers have rejected the labels applied to them (just ask John Adams or Steve Reich, or Debussy or Schoenberg for that matter). But to some people, there does seem to be something uniquely distressing about this label. A common complaint is that it describes cultural practices—a certain DIY aesthetic and entrepreneurial spirit—rather than musical qualities.

As a result, I thought it would be interesting to try and outline what some of the musical qualities of the so-called indie classical movement might look like. I do believe that there is an aesthetic at work, though it’s rarely talked about explicitly. Keep in mind that this is all very tentative; fair warning that there will be some gross generalizations and other dubious ideas open to revision.

1) Pop. Probably the most obvious characteristic of indie classical is that some influence from pop, rock, and/or minimalism is encouraged. In fact, at this point it seems almost obligatory for a composer to also be a DJ, or a member of a rock band, or something similar. At the same time, too much influence in one direction is discouraged, lest it tip the scales in favor of one genre or another.

2) Optimism. Consequently, indie classical rejects the traditional distinction between “high culture” and “low culture” in music. In this, it follows in the footsteps of polystylists like John Zorn, Alfred Schnittke, and William Bolcom, but here the focus is on integration, not juxtaposition. There’s an implied belief that it’s possible to “transcend” genres and the old classist assumptions that come with them. In general, this is a positive and hopeful project, and the music seems to reflect this optimism, favoring clear, clean, and immediate sonic gestures. Anything too fussy or overly elaborate is out. That’s not to say that it’s incapable of expressing darker emotions or complicated ideas, but somehow, a triumphal message always seems to prevail.

3) Privilege. At the same time, I’m not sure that the old classist baggage can be jettisoned so easily. In its resistance to clear genre identifiers, indie classical also reflects a fear of being labeled, which is in essence a musical embodiment of a cultural anxiety. It’s a little like hipsterdom in this way; people are quick to apply the term to others but less likely to apply it to themselves. In contrast to Milton Babbitt’s idea of the composer as specialist, indie classical composers believe that by rising above genre they can effectively communicate to anyone. By taking bits and pieces from genres without belonging to a genre, indie classical music shrewdly toes the line between appreciation and appropriation. And yet, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s still produced and consumed by a very specific audience. As a consequence, it’s more than a little bit willfully oblivious of its position of privilege.

I suppose I circled back again to discussing cultural practices instead of musical qualities, but as you can probably tell, I find them to be inextricably linked. On a final note, I should mention that many of the composers and performers I’ve talked to about this find any discussion of genre labels to be inimical to their working habits, and I’m certainly sympathetic to that perspective. Above all, you have to be obedient to your muse.

*Thanks to Jen Wang, Will Robin, Maura Lafferty, Ben Phelps, Nat Evans, Colin Wambsgans, David Dies, Meerenai Shim and Chris Kallmyer for their contributions to the conversation, which helped immensely as I worked to articulate my own thoughts on the matter.

Corey Dargel: The Challenges of Empathy

Corey Dargel: The Challenges of Empathy from NewMusicBox on Vimeo.

A conversation at Dargel’s Brooklyn home on March 14, 2012 — Noon
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Homepage image by Luke Batten and Jonathan Sadler of New Catalogue
Video poster image by Samantha West

It’s been more than a dozen years now since Corey Dargel began performing his original idiosyncratic songs. The earliest ones deal with complex emotional states and dysfunctional relationships in ways that come across as easy to relate to through his trademark blend of wry humor, toe-tap-inducing electronically generated accompaniments, and instantly hummable melodies sung in his beautiful, pure-toned voice. It’s easy to get tricked into assuming that these early efforts are autobiographic; e.g. in a song called “Acceptance Letter,” Dargel (who in real life has a shaved head) sings about stealing his ex-lover’s shampoo, which he himself obviously doesn’t use, just out of spite. Yet Dargel maintains that despite such seeming verisimilitude, these songs are actually not about him, per se. Rather, he is toying with perceptions and image, and the empathy of both his words and his vocal delivery make it seem natural to identify with whatever persona he assumes.

But after nearly a decade of working that way (which culminated in the release of his first commercially available album of songs, Less Famous Than You in 2006), Dargel wanted to push the envelope further. So for his next project, he put an ad on his website offering to write custom-made love songs for other people with the condition that he could also eventually release these songs on his next album. The result, Other People’s Love Songs, offers an extremely wide range of situations and yet it somehow all fits together seamlessly.

According to Dargel, “Other People’s Love Songs […] was an experiment in challenging the assumption that a songwriter who is writing love songs needs to be autobiographical or confessional. […] I’m looking for people with whom I do not relate and then trying to find a way to relate to them that I hope eventually reaches the audience. […] I hope that audiences and listeners go through that same process, because I think it’s important for us to empathize with people, even if we are at first alienated by their behavior, or find them strange. I think empathy is a really important skill to have in order to really function in the world in a fully creative way.”

Getting in the heads of other people in order to write their love songs was undoubtedly challenging, but what Dargel has done since has made that seem a relatively easy exercise in empathy. For Removable Parts, Dargel creates songs from the perspective of a voluntary amputee; in Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, it’s an extreme hypochondriac. For his recent Last Words from Texas and its soon-to-be-premiered sequel, More Last Words from Texas, his words were derived from statements made by death row inmates right before they were executed. As he has taken on personae that are further and further removed from himself, he has also changed the presentation of his music. For Removable Parts, he eschewed the self-made electronic sequencing of his earlier work and enlisted the partnership of a real live pianist, Kathleen Supové. Thirteen Near-Death Experiences was written for performance with a chamber group, the International Contemporary Ensemble (a.k.a. ICE). Last Words from Texas was not only written for yet another group, Newspeak, it was created for a singer other than himself, Mellissa Hughes. And its sequel, while again featuring his own voice, will be accompanied by a chamber orchestra. He’s also working on an evening-length music theatre piece, The Three Christs, which will involve several singers and an instrumental ensemble.

Thirteen Near-Death Experiences presents an additional compositional gambit in that it is scored for the ubiquitous “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble, named for its earliest use in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 song cycle Pierrot lunaire. It’s a configuration which has served as the instrumentation for many significant contemporary song cycles in the century since, including Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, Margaret Brouwer’s Light, Mario Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs, John Harbison’s The Natural World, Roberto Sierra’s Cancionero Sefardi, Stephen Stucky’s Sappho Fragments, and Barbara White’s Life in the Castle. As a result, Dargel is now undeniably part of an important historical continuum, even if he never thinks about such things when he composes.

I don’t think about how the work that I’m doing now relates to the trajectory of classical music, or the history of music. That is something I decidedly avoid thinking about, in part because of the anxiety of influence, and in part because of my belief that if I’m going to create something that’s my own, then I shouldn’t be going back and looking at examples of what people have done before with this same instrumentation or with the same art song form. Those comparisons are something that I think critics and listeners should be making, not me. […] So if somebody compares my work to Winterreise, then I’ll go back and listen to Winterreise. But otherwise, when I’m writing something, I’m very anti-historical in my thinking as an artist.

Yet in all of his recent works, which include an evening-length music theatre piece in progress, Dargel seems to be moving further and further away from the pop music trappings of his earliest work and closer to a sound world more associated with the so-called “new music” community that has nurtured and championed his work from the very beginning. Although Dargel himself, like many other difficult to categorize music creators of his generation, avoids pop vs. non-pop dichotomies in descriptions of his compositional process, he is more than aware that there are still different audiences for different forms of music or at least different mechanisms for how music is disseminated and consumed. In that respect, he is unapologetically a member of the contemporary composer community.

“I’m not going to restructure my career, my persona, or my own personal identity to be more successful,” says Dargel emphatically. “I think I want my music to exist in the classical contemporary music world in part because that’s the world in which people come to concerts to listen. […] People who listen to classical music think about it, talk about it, listen to it. And I know that that happens in the pop world, but I don’t think it happens for the vast majority of pop stars. I don’t think that’s what the commercial pop music world is interested in getting to happen. […] I’m interested in doing all those traditional things that songwriters do in the pop world and in the folk world. And I think if people would shut up and listen to the music, then they might get that. But I don’t think that people will shut up and listen to the music in the kinds of venues and the kinds of situations that I would have to play in.”

However his output ultimately gets labeled, all of it could potentially appeal to an extremely broad audience, even his most outré experiments in empathy. At the same time, his seemingly simple early songs are filled with embedded complexities and reward with focused listening time and again. An afternoon spent talking to Corey Dargel, which ended all too soon, was yet another reminder of what an important voice of our time he is.

Album Cover for Corey Dargel Unreleased Songs

Frank J. Oteri: Since you recently put out a CD called Unreleased Songs 2001-2011, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to talk with you about your entire output. It also made me wonder how many songs you’ve actually written during these years. From what I have heard of your work and what I know has been performed in public, there are probably at least a hundred songs.

Corey Dargel: I have a habit of composing songs and then throwing them away. I would say there are hundreds of incomplete songs, or barely started songs, or songs that are finished but that aren’t up to par for me. So it’s fair to say that there are a hundred songs, but the ten songs on that Unreleased Songs album, which is now ironically released, those are the songs that I feel held up. They were going to be parts of albums with different themes—songs about the Virgin Mary, songs about disappearing or traveling, songs about nostalgia and family; for whatever reasons, those projects didn’t get finished. But I liked those songs so much that I wanted to put them out for people to hear and also for myself to revisit, because it’s been such a long time since I’ve worked with synthesizers. It is a very different way of composing for me than composing for an acoustic ensemble, which is what I’ve been doing lately.

FJO: I’ve heard a lot of your unreleased music over the years, going all the way back to the year 2000. I was thrilled that four earlier songs of yours I knew, including a couple using alternate tunings, appear on Unreleased Songs. But there are others that I’ve treasured for years that you did not include. Does that mean that you’ve disowned them and don’t consider them to be stuff that you want out there anymore?

CD: I think I’ve matured, mostly as a lyricist, since you’ve heard those very early songs of mine. And so there are songs that I would disown in terms of lyric writing. I can feel O.K. about them being out there because I think the music is still strong, but as a lyricist I’ve been more and more meticulous and have tried to play more games and be more crafty. For me it often takes longer to write lyrics than it does to write the music. So for that reason, I’m more interested in people listening to my more mature songs.

FJO: So you feel that a song like “Acceptance Letter,” which didn’t make it onto Unreleased Songs but which has always been a personal favorite of mine, no longer represents who you are?

CD: As a composer, I am the amalgam of all of my work, and so disown is a very strong word. I wouldn’t use that word in terms of these earlier pieces. It’s almost a philosophical argument that I am the person I am because of what I’ve done in the past, and to say that I’m going to disown those works strikes me like I’m trying to reinvent myself, which is not what I’m trying to do. I’m just trying to mature as an artist. But I think if people were being introduced to my work, I wouldn’t want them to start there at this point. I would want people to start with the more mature works that I feel like I’ve written. Then if they’re curious to go back and see where I came from, that’s O.K. with me. But they should just know that I wasn’t as good a lyricist back then. Being a lyricist is something that they don’t teach you in composition school. And so that was all self-taught. How to write good lyrics took me a good four or five years of learning on my own.

I also struggle against the perception that people who listen to songs have, especially in the commercial world, where the lyrics are secondary. There’s a lot of great musically inventive work in the commercial pop world that I enjoy listening to musically, but after I listen to it once, and hear how horrible the lyric writing is, I can’t be bothered with it again. I have a really hard time with lyrics that I feel are lazy. That is to say, where rhymes aren’t careful, where there’s no word play, no tricks up the lyricist’s sleeve, a lack of literary-ness to the lyrics. I’m trying to improve my own lyrics in all of those ways, so it’s become harder for me to listen to songs that don’t address those things.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that they don’t teach you to write lyrics in composition class. They also don’t teach you to write the music you wound up writing for the most part.

CD: I don’t know if I would say that’s true. I had the fortune of studying with some very amazing teachers, including John Luther Adams and Pauline Oliveros, both of whom, as you probably know, are completely open about what writing music means and should be. And the craft that I learned informs the kind of music that I’m writing, even though it’s not the kind of music that would be accepted as legitimate music composition at your typical conservatory. I think while I was at Oberlin with John Luther Adams and Pauline Oliveros, that was an exceptional place to be. Both of those mentors were able to meet me where I was. So I wouldn’t say that I was discouraged from writing these songs, or from focusing on songs or from working with synthesizers, or from doing everything myself. I wasn’t discouraged by any of my teachers.

FJO: I’m curious about them meeting you where you were, as you say. The earliest music I know of yours is on two discs of songs you did with Rob Reich, one of which you self-released with the title File Under Popular. What came before that? Were you writing songs from the very beginning or is there some secret bassoon sonata tucked away somewhere?

CD: The pieces that I was writing at Oberlin before I started writing songs were often game pieces. At that time, Oberlin had a real emphasis on teaching composers about experimental music. I think it was probably a unique school in that respect. And so a lot of the work that I did while I was in school had to do with setting up game structures that would work well. I’m sort of a control freak, but I also wanted to create these situations, the outcome of which is unknown, because that’s what, at the time, was so exciting for me, sitting in the audience. It’s almost like being a performer, even though you’re sitting in the audience. You’ve created this situation, and you have no idea how it’s going to go. So game pieces and aleatoric pieces felt much more engaging for me after having written them, than I think a more straight-laced, notated, strict piece would have been.

Excerpt from Dargel's Human Error/Intuition

The bassoon parts from Corey Dargel’s early composition Human Error/Intuition
© 1997 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I know you’re not completely un-acknowledging the songs that did not get onto Unreleased Songs, to get back to what you were saying before, but might there also be some of these game pieces that you’d want to have performed now, perhaps even re-released as Unreleased Compositions From Before 2000?

CD: There are a few of them that worked really well. And even back then I would occasionally sing and perform in those pieces, repeating the same lines over and over again, or improvising a vocal melody based on a very small text. There are some pieces that I would be open to giving to performers now. But I also want to draw a line in my own career between being a student and being a professional. I think that the difference between academic and professional for me is an important one to maintain. Revisiting those pieces that I was writing in school feels a little bit like a pro-academic, pro-theoretical statement that I’d rather not make. I’d rather be focused on results now, which is why I don’t do game pieces anymore. And I don’t do aleatoric pieces anymore, unless they’re only for a recording, and I can manipulate everything and do, like, 30 different recordings of them, and then pick exactly what I want from that.

FJO: So this begs for a question about your compositional process for those earlier songs leading up what was released in 2006 on your first commercial album, Less Famous Than You.

Album Cover for Less Famous Than You

I remember you saying to me at some point years ago that you composed music before words. Songwriters always get asked this question so it seems like a cliché to me to ask you about music or words coming first. More interesting than that is what initially gets you started, no matter how you’re writing it, whether you’re writing for synthesizers or for laptop, or for an ensemble of other musicians.

CD: First, a general theme, whatever that may be—depression, nostalgia, alienation, hypochondria. Then I start writing music with that theme in mind. And musically what begins pieces for me are very small ideas, playing around with the keyboards or the notation software and coming up with a few measures of something. Usually it’s very simple, either a series of polyphonic things that go on for a few measures, a chord progression, or even a single melody. Then for me, the rest of the piece is about manipulating that very small idea in an economic way and not departing from it. Not more than one idea. I often will abandon that, but my starting point is something small that is either repeated, or only gradually shifted or changed throughout the course of a song.

FJO: So is it fair to assume that your conscious decision to compose songs almost exclusively, up until more recently, comes from wanting to flesh out a single idea economically?

CD: No. That may be part of it, but if it is, it’s a subconscious thing for me. Before I was writing songs, I was doing that same sort of thing with the game pieces—very small germs of ideas served as the basis for the entire piece. I think I’m just turned off by music that presents us with so many ideas at a time, or throughout the duration of a piece, that I feel a bit overwhelmed. I feel that the composer is trying to prove something about how many ideas he or she has, and I’ve always just been interested in process and economy of means. That kind of music actually moves me and resonates with me more because it’s this singular idea that then gets gradually developed. I guess it’s the formalist or the modernist in me that I feel moved by Steve Reich’s Octet. I get teary when it gets to the point where things start getting augmented, this small idea that we’ve been hearing for however long it is, ten or fifteen minutes; the transformation of that small idea makes me cry. So there’s a part of me that—just purely musically, without song—is interested and moved by the process-oriented manipulation of that small thing.

What got me into songwriting was my own singing voice, my wanting my physical voice to also be a part of my artistic voice. I think that’s partly to do with my extreme dislike of the classically trained voice, the fact that there are very few people who have been trained to sing with straight tone, and with microphones. In fact, even vocalists who can do it will often complain that it will eventually damage their voice, as though our voices don’t get damaged when we get older anyway. So I went into singing my own songs and songwriting, because I felt like my physical voice was the means through which to express my work at the time. And nobody else’s voice would do.

FJO: I want to follow up on something you just said about Steve Reich, because I remember in that great New York Times profile of you that Steve Smith wrote, you described discovering a recording of Steve Reich’s music; it was the first recording of so-called contemporary classical music that you’d ever heard. I’m curious to learn about what you were hearing before you heard that and how hearing Reich changed your perspective.

CD: I grew up in south Texas, and where I grew up is not a place of culture. So my choices were fairly limited in terms of what kind of music I could listen to. I was also a very religious kid, so I listened to a lot of contemporary Christian music, and I listened to Billy Joel, Elton John, and Joni Mitchell. Then I discovered Tori Amos and Kate Bush. So those were the things that I was listening to, all of which I think still hold up, except for some of Billy Joel’s songs.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting that all of your initial musical role models were singer-songwriters. Then you listened to Steve Reich who, in addition to being a living composer, was somebody who participated in the performance of his music at that time. I remember you saying that it was a big deal for you that he was alive, but I also think that this idea that you would create music that you would participate in got fueled both from the singer-songwriters you grew up hearing and from coming across a recording by Reich.

CD: Also from my time at Oberlin, because at the time the composition faculty was pushing very strongly for every performer to compose a piece for him or herself to perform on his or her senior recital. Even though you were at Oberlin to study performance, part of the requirement for your graduation was that you compose a piece for yourself. And so I was influenced by that, too. I mean, I think as a composer, I should also be able to perform, and I should write music for myself to perform. In spite of the coincidences that you bring up, I think it was more once I got to Oberlin.

FJO: You said that you’ve always had a dislike of the classical voice. I’m curious about what your earliest exposure to such singing was.

CD: I don’t know. The first new music piece that I heard was Tehillim, and there’s no operatic singing in that piece. I don’t remember the first time I heard the operatic voice. It may not have been until I was in music school. I couldn’t understand the words when they were in English. And I couldn’t get the pitch precision as well as I could with a straight tone, or a cabaret, pop, or jazz voice. It felt to me like an antiquated way of performing, which it is, I think. The fact that 21st-century composers are still interested in using the operatic voice just baffles me because we have the technology now for singers to deliver texts clearly and to sing straight tone without straining. We have very good microphones; we just don’t have teachers who are interested in teaching their voice students to use microphones. I think once we get to that point, then classically trained singers who know how to read music will also be able to sing cabaret songs, and musical theater songs, and jazz and pop songs that are complex and intricate, and that require you to either be able to read music, or to learn by rote something that’s very complicated.

FJO: This inevitably takes us into a discussion about genres, even though I know that you don’t really like to talk about genre. But since you started talking about vocal techniques, I think it’s fair to say that these techniques are the clearest identifiers for listeners about what they’re hearing. Usually, if you experience a few seconds of something, you can reasonably assume what kind of music it is—jazz, cabaret, musical theater, rock, heavy metal, country, classical—based on the way people are singing or the way that the performers are comporting themselves on stage. What you’re doing has a lot of the sound of pop music and would have the potential to reach a much larger audience. It was interesting to hear what you were saying before about a great deal of pop music being musically sophisticated, but that the lyrics often aren’t so. It actually made me think that the pop music world needs you and that maybe that’s the world you should be in. It would behoove our society for the messages contained in the lyrics of your songs to be out there in the broadest possible way. So why do you present your work within—for lack of a better term—the contemporary classical music community, which in some ways is a bit of a ghetto?

CD: I’ve gotten advice from PR folks and record label people about how to make myself more accessible and successful in the commercial pop music world. It’s not that I don’t consider their advice, but oftentimes I just feel like this is not who I am. I’m not going to restructure my career, my persona, or my own personal identity to be more successful. I think I want my music to exist in the classical contemporary music world in part because that’s the world in which people come to concerts to listen. I’ve opened for some pretty famous indie pop stars, and what happens is people don’t come to listen to the opening acts. So what I struggled with then was feeling that if I’m going to try to make it in this commercial pop world, not only am I going to have to deal with commercialism and capitalism and marketing bullshit—people aren’t there to listen. I can’t stand it; it hurts my feelings. It makes me feel incredibly vulnerable. It makes me feel like the work I’m doing is not worthy. I would rather introduce myself to audiences who come to concerts to listen. I’m generalizing here, but based on my experience performing in these situations, and also my experience going to pop concerts and seeing what happens with—in some cases not only the opening band, but the main act. There’s a certain disenchantment that I have with audiences like that. And I have no interest in reaching them. I have no interest in going above and beyond the call of duty to try and capture this audience. Because I don’t think they’re necessarily respectful of what I’m doing. That’s a very strong thing to say, but people who listen to classical music think about it, talk about it, listen to it. And I know that that happens in the pop world, but I don’t think it happens for the vast majority of pop stars. I don’t think that’s what the commercial pop music world is interested in getting to happen. Like you said, if more people could hear my work in the pop music world, then given the thematic material and the lyrical content and the complexity of the music, they might sort of appreciate it, or see things in a different way. I really would love for that to happen, but I’m not convinced that it would happen unless I had a champion in that world who came to me and said, “I’m going to set you up with this deal, and you’re not going to have to compromise your artistic integrity, and you’re not going to have to perform for crowds that don’t care to listen.”

FJO: I don’t think to my 21st-century ears that there are ultimately any clear distinctions between genres of music at this point. But there are still distinctions between how music is listened to. And I think that you really nailed it. But, I wonder, when I hear groups like, say, Fiery Furnaces or Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, or folks on labels like Thrill Jockey, and then I hear stuff recorded on, say, Cantaloupe or New Amsterdam, it’s really not all that different. People from very different places are arriving at very similar destinations, but who their audience ultimately is may be different simply because it’s marketed differently.

CD: I don’t know the history of all the groups that you mentioned, but I know some of them. And I know a lot of them had many albums out before they began to be recognized. And their earlier works are easier to listen to in a club and are not as sophisticated as their later work. If you try to come into the pop world with this complexity and sophistication, with that baggage, who in the pop world listens to that? Who wants to sell that to people? Who wants to put you in a position where you’re opening for a more famous group, and you’re writing this complex, maybe quiet, maybe challenging for some people, music? All I want them to do with my music is listen to it. And I think if they listen to it they’ll see that yes, it’s intricate and complex, but it’s also, on the surface, very engaging and I’m interested in moving people. I’m interested in telling stories. I’m interested in doing all those traditional things that songwriters do in the pop world and in the folk world. And I think if people would shut up and listen to the music, then they might get that. But I don’t think that people will shut up and listen to the music in the kinds of venues and the kinds of situations that I would have to play in. And this is based on past experience. I’m still trying to find ways of opening for pop stars and rock musicians whose works I respect and who I have some relationships with. I’m still hoping to find a chance to do that, but it would have to be in a situation where the people who were coming to the concert were coming to listen and I knew that they were going to be respectful of the opening act as well. There are very few venues and circumstances in which that happens, but there are some. So if I ever had an opportunity to be involved in that sort of thing, I think it might be a good step for me toward reaching a wider audience in the commercial world.

FJO: One of the key ingredients of successful pop songs, which make them so able to sink into the minds even of those not listening attentively, is having a hook that you can’t shake, a tune that gets into your head and, after you hear it, makes you want to hear it again. Maybe you didn’t fully pay attention to it the first time, but something still reached you. And the more times you hear it, the more you connect to it. It certainly seems like the songs that rise to the top of popularity all have that quality. I think your songs “Boy Detective” and “Gay Cowboys” have that quality, too. These songs could be playing on a radio in a room filled with people talking and not focusing on it, but there’s something that would still cut through because of the hooks.

CD: Well, part of the reason that I write songs, and that people in general write songs, is because that’s traditionally how we tell and remember stories—a song with a great hook, and lyrics with rhymes. So I think you’re right about the hooks and I strive to make hooks that people will remember, and then will be singing back to themselves, or humming back to themselves later. The same with lyrics. lf I feel like I write good enough lyrics, then the lyrics themselves are memorable, separate and apart from the music. People remember lyrics, too.

To change the subject a little bit, that’s one of my goals with my latest song cycle, Last Words from Texas, which is a setting to music of the last statements of criminals that Texas has put to death. Or in some cases, I should say alleged criminals. No I guess I can’t, because they’ve been convicted, but we all know about the Innocence Project, so I’ll leave it there. But it’s these last statements by people who are just about to die. Some of them are extremely pedestrian; some of them are a little strange. But I wanted to set them to music so that people who heard these songs would remember the hooks and so then would also be remembering these statements. I’m trying to implant these statements in listeners’ heads, because I feel like there is something interesting to ponder about the statements that I chose.

FJO: You raise another interesting issue by bringing up Last Words from Texas. There seems to be a divide in your work between seeming autobiography to taking on other people’s voices and stories. I know that many of your early songs are not necessarily autobiographical, but there’s an assumed autobiography when people hear a confessional in-the-first-person delivery from a singer-songwriter. You mentioned Billy Joel earlier. Many of his songs aren’t autobiographical, but when people hear them, they identify with him singing it and assume that they are about him. The death row songs are clearly not about you. But once again, if it were to reach a broader audience via Top 40 radio, you might get a public outcry against the death penalty the likes of which we haven’t seen.

CD: I might also get sued by the victims of the criminals whose texts I’ve set to music in what might be perceived as a sympathetic way. You talk about autobiography, and I think a lot of songwriters, and a lot of fiction writers for that matter, regularly combine some autobiographical information or experience with fictionalized experience. That’s really interesting to me. So when I write my own songs, that is to say when I’m not setting the texts of other people, but when I’m writing my own lyrics, I want to play with that artifice. And you know, even if the song that I wrote was autobiographical at the time that I wrote it, even if I was feeling the things that I wrote, I’m not feeling them when I’m performing the song anymore. I could be performing them, but I’m not actually feeling them.

This brings up for me the challenge of postmodernism. When the subject of postmodernism comes up in relation to my work, I always tell people that I consider myself a postmodernist in the sense that I accept postmodernism as a challenge. I want to use artifice, humor, irony, flatness, deadpan, and tricksterism as a way of—I hope—getting at something deeply human, which is what postmodernist theory claims that we have lost. I’m trying to subvert these postmodern devices in order to get at something emotional and deeply moving, and deeply human.

FJO: So what you’re doing is post-postmodernism!

CD: Well, I think it’s a continuation of postmodernism. I don’t think we’re at post-postmodernism yet. I think we’re still trying to figure out what to do with postmodernism. It’s not always clear that postmodern theories are true, so I think we’re still struggling with it. But I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have crossed out of modernism into something like postmodernism, even if not all of its theories are evident yet.

FJO: To get back to that dividing line in your own work which I personally hear and perceive as a listener. I hear a clear divide between all the stuff that leads up to and includes Less Famous Than You, and Other People’s Love Songs and everything you’ve done since then, even though Other People’s Love Songs—like the earlier material—still features electronically generated accompaniments. That album feels transitional to me because the songs on it are very purposefully not autobiographical. You made a clear statement with the concept for this album, and even in its title, that these songs are not about you.

CD: Other People’s Love Songs for me was an experiment in challenging the assumption that a songwriter who is writing love songs needs to be autobiographical or confessional. I think I do that with a lot of my other pieces, too, like the subsequent pieces, Removable Parts and Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and even Last Words from Texas. I’m looking for people with whom I do not relate and then trying to find a way to relate to them that I hope eventually reaches the audience. In other words, I hope the audience goes through the same transition that I go through. At first, I feel like I can’t relate to this subject, so I’m going to write a song cycle about it until I can relate to it. And I hope that audiences and listeners go through that same process, because I think it’s important for us to empathize with people, even if we are at first alienated by their behavior, or find them strange. I think empathy is a really important skill to have in order to really function in the world in a fully creative way. Other People’s Love Songs is a very tame effort at that challenge. It’s much easier to relate to the couples in Other People’s Love Songs than it is to relate to a criminal, or to someone who wants to have an amputation for no reason, or to a hypochondriac unless you happen to be a hypochondriac. But Other People’s Love Songs is also about empathy.

I think one of the reasons I choose the subjects that I do and the themes that I do, from album to album or work to work, is because I think we as a society are fascinated by these people and these themes. I think we are actually fascinated by deviant behavior, and I think we’re fascinated by criminals. And I think we’re fascinated by the couple next door that we don’t really know. All of those themes are ways of pulling people in, I hope.

FJO: In terms of the creative process, I’m curious about how you put together Other People’s Love Songs.

CD: It began on my website as an advertisement: if you’re interested, I’ll write you a custom-made love song. Part of the deal was that eventually your love song will be released on an album of other people’s love songs. So it did start with the concept that there was going to be an album. But of course, when I was composing for individual couples I couldn’t think of those pieces in terms of how I can make it fit on the album. Each piece was very special and specific to the couple. It was one of the most emotionally difficult projects I’ve ever done because I would get super nervous once I delivered the songs to the couples and hope and pray that they felt that it captured something about their relationship that was moving to them and important to them. Only after I wrote the individual love songs did I go back and revise the instrumentation, do different production and mixing, to make it fit as an album. I also created transitions between each song so that there are very few pauses in the album itself. So while the album was always there in my head from the beginning, the writing of the individual songs was not influenced by that idea.

FJO: Part of what makes it all seem so personal is your actual performances of these songs, not just their lyrics. So I wonder when you talk about taking on the empathy in creating lyrics for other people, how that played out in other ways. Were there things in the music that you wrote for these other people that wouldn’t necessarily be music that you’d write for someone else—certain shapes of melodies, certain rhythms that reflect that person more than you?

CD: I screened the people who wanted to commission a love song because I didn’t want anyone involved who wasn’t already a fan of my work, and who wanted me to write a country song that everyone could sing along with at their wedding. Nothing against country music, I don’t know why I picked that! But the people that I accepted commissions from were people who I knew were already going to appreciate what I was doing musically. But yes, you’re right in the sense that overall each song was influenced by the interviews I had, because I would always do the interviews first. I would interview the one person and get to know the couple a little bit based on that interview. Then I would write the music, and then I would write the lyrics. And I would send the lyrics to the person who commissioned the song and say, “How are these lyrics? Is there anything you would change about them? Is there anything you think shouldn’t be there?”

Amazingly with only one exception, people were really happy with them. There was one exception where this person was, I think, particularly neurotic about nothing seeming inaccurate or poetic or artistic license-y in any way. He wanted everything to be very specific in the lyrics. I eventually had to return his money and say I don’t think that’s an interesting song. I’m sorry, I can’t write that way. But fortunately, with that one exception, everyone was moved by the lyrics and then eventually moved by the songs. Although I don’t know if they would tell me if they weren’t moved by the songs after I delivered them.

FJO: Now to take it to the subsequent projects which are more extreme. In Removable Parts, you take us on a bizarre and very emotionally difficult journey. Yet it was obviously empathic for you, and I think it’s ultimately empathic for the listener as well. You take us to a place where we’re beyond judgment about what you’re describing. But that requires a deep level of empathy in terms of the process. Once again, I imagine that the music came before the words, but how did you get the idea to do something like this?

CD: Well, Kathleen Supové is the pianist involved in that piece. She and I had wanted to work together for a while, and we finally got a commissioning award to do so. Kathy wanted the piece to be about amputation, which I guess fascinates her because she’s a pianist, and she uses her hands. And also I don’t think she would object to me calling her a bit of twisted person. She has a skewed take on the world, just like I do. So writing a piece about amputation was what she suggested to me to do. She gave me these articles about victims of war violence, and it was just awful. So I did some research on my own and found that there was this phenomenon known as voluntary amputation—people who call themselves wannabe amputees. And then I said to Kathy, “Here’s a piece I think I can write because it’s very strange; it doesn’t have to be dark, but it’s extreme.” I’m interested in extreme and deviant behavior. I think she thought that was even more frightening for her as a pianist, the idea that you would want to have an amputation, so she went along with it.

So the answer is that she came up with the idea for the piece and then I sort of found some variation on it that I felt like I could work with.

FJO: Here’s a clear example where even though each of the songs could exist on its own, you really get a more rewarding experience when you listen to them all in the order you put them in. I know that Other People’s Love Songs was a concept album and that you consciously weaved transitions between the songs to create a fluid sequence, but I think that in Removable Parts, you’ve gone a step further than that and have created a bone-fide song cycle in the old school Die schöne Müllerin or Dichterliebe sense. It even has the same instrumentation as those classic song cycles—voice and solo keyboard.

CD: I think the difference is that with Other People’s Love Songs we have lots of people that we’re empathizing with and relating to. And so each process of getting to know these people, and getting to feel sympathetic toward them, happens over the course of a three- or four-minute song, whereas with Removable Parts as well as Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, we are focused on one person and on one theme, so it’s more interesting to have a journey throughout the course of the album.

Each song could exist on its own, but it doesn’t take you through the process that I went through—and that I think Kathy went through as well. I want that process of first feeling alienated, and then becoming more sympathetic. So I would much prefer that people listen to the whole album in the order that it’s presented, and the same with Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, because that follows the life cycle of a hypochondriac. And so it goes from birth to almost death.

FJO: It’s interesting that for the recorded release of those two cycles they were issued together, under the title Someone Will Take Care Of Me, but on two separate CDs. They could have fit on a single CD. But I think it’s very important that they’re on two separate physical CDs. You don’t want people playing shuffle with those.

CD: Right. And also I wanted people to take a break between them, because they’re both a little heavy. The reason they were released together is because they’re both about the notion that I have a problem that someone will eventually take care of; somewhere, somehow, I’m going to find someone who’s going to give me that amputation, or take care of me when I’m really sick; I know I’m going to be really sick because I’m a hypochondriac. So the connecting theme for those two cycles for me is that need to find someone to connect to with your problem.

Album Cover for Someone Will Take Care of Me

In some ways, it’s like the David Foster Wallace story in which the most important thing for the depressed person is to really connect with someone else in a way that that other person feels the depressed person’s pain and understands it. Of course, that’s impossible, because we can’t get into someone else’s head. But I think that’s also what the people in the two song cycles want, for someone to really connect with them.

FJO: The other thing that sets these two song cycles apart from Other People’s Love Songs and all your previous work is that you wrote them for performance with other musicians rather than by yourself. Of course, again, Other People’s Love Songs is a transitional piece to these since you also created a version for performance with NOW Ensemble. I’m curious about what led you to make the transition away from a self-contained electronic performance to working with other musicians playing mostly acoustic instruments.

CD: One of the reasons that I switched from synthesizers to acoustic live instruments, always amplified though, is that I started to get really uncomfortable being the only person on stage performing. While I think that vulnerability played into the audience being engaged with my performances, I just started to feel like there’s something about canned music that I’m not interested in dealing with right now in live performances. So switching to notated music for live players that have no electronics in a lot of cases was a way for me to feel like, O.K., here’s a different type of performance of my work. It was a type of performance that I wanted to move towards. It started with Kathy in Removable Parts and that was great. I always love working with a single performer other than myself because you can really paint a picture of that performer in your music. It’s much easier to address technical, musical issues that come up with one person than with a group of people.

But after you work with one person, then you work with more. So ICE was interested in working with me, and we got a commissioning award to make Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, and that was my first piece since college where I was writing for a chamber ensemble without any electronic support. And I approached it differently in that it was the first time that I started with notation instead of playing around at the keyboard and making recordings of what I was playing and then transcribing them. This wasn’t something that I had planned to do, but I realized that when I started working this way with notation software that I was writing music that was sparser, more exposed in terms of individual performers, and also groove oriented. My synthesizer music is obviously also groove oriented, so in that sense it wasn’t a shift, but in all those other senses that I mentioned it was a shift for me musically.

Everybody Says Im Beautiful

Excerpt from the score of the song “Everybody Says I’m Beautiful”
from Corey Dargel’s Thirteen Near-Death Experiences.
© 2009 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: ICE approached you to do this project and they’re such a malleable ensemble. They can be as large as a chamber orchestra or as small as a duo, but the instrumentation that you chose to write for is a sextet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano—the classic Pierrot configuration—plus percussion.

CD: They chose that instrumentation. And I added a drum set. So then I was penned into following in the footsteps of Schoenberg.

FJO: And Peter Maxwell Davies and many, many others.

CD: Well, yes. But I don’t ever think about my work in historical terms. I don’t think about how the work that I’m doing now relates to the trajectory of classical music, or the history of music. That is something I decidedly avoid thinking about, in part because of the anxiety of influence, and in part because of my belief that if I’m going to create something that’s my own, then I shouldn’t be going back and looking at examples of what people have done before with this same instrumentation or with the same art song form. Although I studied music history and I’ve listened to a lot of older works, when I’m writing a piece I never go back and research what’s been written for this ensemble before and think about how I’m going to respond or relate to that. It’s not something I do. Those comparisons are something that I think critics and listeners should be making, not me. So I’m really interested when a writer might say well, this piece is a revisitation of the typical piano-vocal art song recital, except for this. And this is how it’s transformed it.

The very first review that I got in New York was when Rob Reich and I played at the Knitting Factory and Kyle Gann wrote a review for The Village Voice in which he compared our songs to Arthur Russell, whom I had never heard of. So I went and listened to Arthur Russell and then I was like yes, this is lovely. Now I can be influenced by this. So if somebody compares my work to Winterreise, then I’ll go back and listen to Winterreise. But otherwise, when I’m writing something, I’m very anti-historical in my thinking as an artist.

FJO: I’m curious to learn more about your notated scores. You said that your compositional process started with notation for Thirteen Near-Death Experiences, so that’s notated. And I know that Removable Parts is notated, and Other People’s Love Songs would also be notated because you arranged it for NOW Ensemble. But are the songs on Less Famous Than You or any of the earlier songs notated? You’ve obviously done these in live performances, and I imagine when you’re doing older material it might be difficult to remember it all if they are not notated in any way. So do they exist in some kind of visual shorthand?

CD: No, for the earlier synthesizer songs, Less Famous Than You from 2006, and everything before that, nothing is notated. So if I want to sing them, I have to go back and re-learn them by rote if I don’t still remember them. But interestingly, when I wrote Last Words From Texas, the synths and voice version, I notated it before I put it on the synthesizers. And that was in part because I was writing for Mellissa Hughes to sing it. She’s one of the only singers that I’m comfortable giving my music to because she has a great sense of performing groove-oriented music and she has a magnificent voice and can be flexible with it. At any rate, the piece was written for her to sing, but then I ended up making a recording of it with me singing and then making an arrangement for Newspeak, which is the ensemble that Mellissa sings with. So even the synthesizer version has a score, and then, of course, the arrangement for Newspeak has a score. And that was very helpful to have the synth score in order to orchestrate it for Newspeak. But I wonder as I move forward if I write more synth-pop songs, if I’m going to use notation, and start that way instead of the way I used to start, which I said before is just by playing around and recording myself until I find a musical idea that sticks.

Dargel Last Words from Texas Synth Score Excerpt

Excerpt from the Synth Score of Corey Dargel’s Last Words from Texas.
© 2011 by Corey Dargel, Automatic Heartbreak (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Another interesting thing about this trajectory is that you went from taking pre-existing material created without notation and notated it for another ensemble to play with you. Then you created a work for a performance by one other person that is notated, but it’s very specific to that person—Kathy Supové. Then you created work for larger ensembles, like Thirteen Near-Death Experiences and Last Words from Texas, that seem adaptable for ensembles other than ICE or Newspeak to perform, whereas it’s difficult for me to imagine another pianist besides Kathy doing Removable Parts, although since it’s all on paper, theoretically another pianist could do it.

CD: I have performed some of those songs with another pianist, Wil Smith, who’s a good friend and a great pianist. But yeah, the piece is Kathy. I feel like in the 21st century that we should be doing that as composers. We should be writing for specific people.

FJO: But the next step is ICE coming along and asking for a Pierrot piece. There are so many Pierrot ensembles out there who could perform this piece; I don’t hear anything that’s so specific to those players in the instrumental parts, although the vocal part is still clearly you. I can’t imagine it being done by another singer, but since there’s a score it theoretically could be done if the singer followed your desired performance practice for this music. It would be possible a hundred years from now for somebody else to sing it. And hopefully a hundred years from now, when none of us are here, other people will sing it and it will sound amazing. Then in Last Words From Texas, you’ve actually written for another singer for the first time. It’s the final step away from your performing your music—it is music that can happen without you.

CD: But I think I would be more uncomfortable in the audience than I would be as a performer in my own music. I’ll have a chance to test that because I am in fact writing a piece right now that doesn’t involve me and doesn’t involve any singing. We’ll see how that turns out. But I’m not really interested in moving pieces from one ensemble to another. If it happens, it happens. And it has happened with Thirteen Near-Death Experiences. There’s been another ensemble that’s performed that. But it’s not the way I work. You may not hear anything that’s ICE-specific in that piece, but as I was writing the piece I was working in a lot of workshops with the six performers which included David T. Little, who was playing the drums. It may not be evident, but it is a piece written for those people, and I think their personalities come through, at least for me, in the way that I wrote that piece. But if I’m given the opportunity to sing it with another ensemble, I would take it. Which I did. But another singer, hmm, I don’t know.

This is a strange question for me to answer right now because I’m a little conflicted about it. Writing a piece that can be transferred and transplanted from one ensemble to another ensemble without considering the differences in personality and performance skills—I find that to be a little bit academic. It’s interesting in theory, but that’s not enough to make it something that I write for. I’m writing a piece for this specific ensemble, and these specific people, and me specifically or Mellissa specifically. It might be interesting to shift it over to other performers; I might be interested in hearing what that is. But I wouldn’t do that, at least not at first, in a professional situation. That to me is a theoretical, academic exercise to see what happens. It might be fine, but it’s not what I’m interested in.

FJO: So there’s no Corey Dargel work for orchestra on the back burner.

CD: Well, there is a sequel to Last Words From Texas, called More Last Words From Texas, which is being performed by a chamber orchestra, but with me singing. I might be moving away from writing for specific people in this piece because with a chamber orchestra it becomes rather unwieldy to get to know each individual person. But I have been working with the conductor of the group that will premiere it, Ransom Wilson. It’s his group, Le Train Bleu. And so I feel like there’s still this connection with Ransom and, of course, I’m still singing it. He’s paired it with Rzewski’s Coming Together and Attica, which I’ll also be performing in as the vocalist, so I was also thinking about it in relation to that and that specific occasion.

FJO: You’re also writing an opera.

CD: I was calling it an opera, but I think that’s wrong. What people think of when they hear the word opera is the operatic voice, and there are no operatic voices in the piece that I’m writing. So I’m now calling it a music theater piece, more accurately. It’s a piece based on a true story of three psychiatric patients with messianic delusions and the psychologist who comes in and performs an experiment on them by forcing them to live together and interact with each other as a support group because he thought that would cure their delusions. I won’t get into any spoiler alerts, but it was a very long experiment that had extremely mixed and unpredictable results. So it’s about those confrontations between the three Christs, which is the title of the opera—or the musical theater work—and the psychologist. The true story took place in the late ‘50s. I’m interested in updating it for the 21st century, so I’m trying to think of ways to incorporate what we now do with therapy.

FJO: This brings us full circle because it brings us back to the contemporary Christian music you were hearing as a little boy in Texas.

CD: Right.

FJO: When we come full circle, I always know that we’re wrapping up. But I want to keep it going just a little bit longer because I’d like to know more about this project. Are you going to be singing one of the roles in this or is this yet another example of a piece that that will be done by other people without you? And even if you are singing in it, since you mentioned at least four characters, the three patients and the psychologist, there would obviously need to be other singers besides you. And I imagine there’s going to be a pit ensemble, so there will be a third person element to this no matter what.

CD: It’s a leap for me. The piece is written for Newspeak. I don’t know many other groups with that instrumentation, so I’m really thinking about it as a piece for Newspeak—whose work I’m really familiar with and whose members I know pretty well—and then me and the singer I mentioned earlier, Mellissa Hughes, who’s a member of Newspeak. I don’t know who the other singers are. I think maybe Kamala Sankaram will be involved. But it’s going to have to be singers who can sing without the operatic voice, and read music, and handle groove-oriented, tricky rhythmic stuff. I’m also working for the first time with a librettist, or a book writer, who’s controlling the narrative. I’m writing the lyrics, but because I don’t do narrative very well, I’m collaborating with someone on that. It’ll be a big step for me, both in terms of the duration of the piece, the number of forces, but also the things you bring up about branching out and writing for other people.

FJO: Considering that you have the idea, but you don’t know who a lot of the people are yet, have you been able to start writing anything for it?

CD: I’ve been writing songs for it and what I think will happen is that the songs will either fit or they will need to be revised. But so far I’ve been focusing on songs for myself, and songs for Mellissa. I wrote one song for Kamala so far, and will probably write some more for her. But I don’t know who the fourth vocalist is. Caleb Burhans, who plays violin with Newspeak, can also sing and so he may be involved in some way. But I’m not sure what his singing role will be, if any. If he does sing, he will sing from the orchestra, but at the same time, I think the orchestra might be on stage.

FJO: So you haven’t written something unless you know who’s singing it. You’re writing either for you or for Mellissa. You haven’t written something that you know needs to be in the piece because of this story, but you don’t know who’s going to perform it.

CD: Yes. That would be an academic and theoretical exercise for me, and I wouldn’t do it. So until I know who’s singing, I won’t be writing the pieces for those characters.

SXSW 2012 Postmortem

You can feel SXSW approaching about two weeks before Austin’s population doubles and everybody and their grandmother has a keg and a band in the backyard. The locals can be divided into two categories: those who have made travel plans, and those who haven’t and are preparing like the Mayans got it right. For those in the latter group, supplies are purchased and thoughtful itineraries are carefully outlined. Friends are flown in, stationed on couches, given keys, and told where to get breakfast tacos; specifically where to get them at 3 a.m. Bars, venues, coffee shops, food trucks, transportation, wristbands, multi-level passes, and wardrobe (always tricky with the sketchy weather) are all prepped.

Everything is possible.

And then you end up doing a fraction of what you had planned, you lose your phone, your wristband turns out to be fake (happened to a friend, tragic) and the highlight of your Thursday was the time you spent east of I-35 watching a band from Iceland play chip tune music on rewired Game Boys….

And it’s still a blast.

What strikes me about my SXSW experiences in the twelve years I’ve been here (and what I typically hear from friends and acquaintances) is that some of the best parts were not vaguely planned. What they stumbled upon as they made their way around downtown Austin and the surrounding area is what made their festival experience fun and unique. I, too, have stumbled around downtown Austin (SXSW notwithstanding), and this year found a few shows that I’d planned to see, and a few that just showed up.

Owen Weaver - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Owen Weaver – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

SXSW 2012 was a cloudy, overcast affair. The festival that starts and ends with music is nonetheless dominated by its technology-focused interactive festival which takes place at the start of SXSW and is indoors by and large; a situation that played out well this year. “Yeast By Sweet Beast“ (my stumble-in) is a three-day experimental improvisation and “outsider music” festival founded in 2000 by poet, musician, and film maker Anne Heller. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” happenings, these showcases of sound artists were accompanied by installations by video artists Paul Baker, Katie Rose Pipkin, and Laurel Barickman, creating a thoroughly hypnotic vibe.  Held at a number of venues including Skinny’s Ballroom, Trophy’s, and Headhunters, the festival featured a tremendous variety of artists and styles. Highlights included the scattered vocal improvs of Bosco Stravinsky, Futureblondes, the “pop with big beats” of Ichi Ni San Shi, the rhythmic noise trance of Daze of Heaven, and Austin favorites Matt Burnett and Rebecca Ramirez.

The “They Used to Call it Classical” panel was held at the Austin Convention Center and featured Ed Ward, Justin Kantor, Alex Ross, Janet Cowperthwaite, and Carl Stone discussing the classical crossover trend that got its start decades ago but has since become the “It Girl” of new music discussion. The modest crowd heard a number of stories and insights, including Kantor’s take on keeping the doors open on a venue that features different styles nightly, Cowperthwaite’s discussion of the Kronos Quartet’s long-term commissioning project, and Alex Ross’s historical perspective on crossover. This should be required listening, and I hope that there is a repeat/update for next year.

Peter Gregson - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Peter Gregson – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Nonclassical and Fast Forward Austin curated a showcase downtown on the last weekend of the festival. Steve Snowden’s live remixes of music from the Nonclassical catalogue providing a great beginning to the show while offering a buffer for those filtering in a little late. Solo bass performances by P Kellach Waddle of his own compositions were followed by the Bel Coure sax quartet which performed music by Rob Honstein, Jennifer Higdon, and Nick Sibicky, resulting in an enthusiastic standing ovation. Cellist Peter Gregson brought a minimalist vibe to the room with pieces by Reich, and Nonclassical’s Gabriel Prokofiev and percussionist Owen Weaver performed a “sculpture piece” providing one of the more captivating visual performances of the evening. The Aiana String Quartet gave stellar performances of music by Piazzolla, Gabriel Prokofiev, and Bartok’s First String Quartet, the last of which was clearly the “classical” music of the night. Finally, Line Upon Line closed the show with pieces by Snowden, Ethan Greene, and a killer performance of Xenakis’ Okho. Well aware of the time limit imposed on the show (they run a tight ship at the Hilton, folks) LUL performed ninja-like set changes between pieces, a bit of ballet all by itself.

The Innova Records showcase the following night was held in the same “is this really a conference room?” venue as the FFA/NC show the previous evening.  Kicking off the showcase was Prester John  sounding every bit like the Presidents of the United States of America, if they were locked in a room for several years with a metronome, a monster work ethic, and a penchant for scales. I can only imagine that the phrase “quirky pop” is used from time to time in describing these guys, but it doesn’t do them justice. From fun tunes like “Fireman’s Drive Inn,” to the Zappa “Black Page“-esque (at least the intro) of “The Library Thief (with The Half Speed Cakewalk),” Prester John managed to maintain a sense of humor while displaying impressive chops. Sxip Shirey came on stage guns blazing, bearing train whistles, harmonica, prepared guitar, and an effects set up that sounded at times like trains in the distance (his description) and at others like the solo from “Owner of a Lonely Heart (my take, which I think is very cool btw…check 2:35). The Golden Hornet Project dusted off their Prokofiev (Sergei this time) arrangements (among the first pieces the group worked on when they formed) and dropped them, early Mr. Bungle-style, on the crowd. Their hyperkinetic mini big-band stylings, complete with pounding piano and killer horns, would have fit seamlessly into nearly any venue in town.

During the set change, Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” was playing over the P.A. and man, there was a lot of whistling and humming going on in that room. Just sayin’….

Todd Reynolds’s set was, for me, the highlight of an evening full of great performers and composers. His performance of Michael Lowenstern’s Crossroads was absolutely thrilling and had the audience positively grooving. Val-Inc’s Afro-electronica set included field recordings mixed with beats and a theremin-like control interface which made for a compelling show both visually and aurally. Finally Grant Cutler along with Innova’s own Chris Campbell laid a bit of an ambient mix on the audience, a fitting come-down to a very stimulating evening.

Owen Weaver and Adam Bedell – Observations by Tristan Perich (excerpt) from Fast>>Forward>>Austin.


Now that the town has released its seasonal population to the four winds, I can take a moment to reflect on another South By Gone By. Bookended by the weird and freaky YBSB at the front and the somewhat more formal but nonetheless funky showcases at the end, this year’s festival had a lot to offer those who are looking for something other than the usual fare. If there is anything that the audiences at these shows have in common with audiences at the traditional SXSW venues, it’s the fact that it’s hard for anyone to get out and see everything they want to see, especially if your tastes are varied. An embarrassment of riches such as SXSW demands that some shows go unseen, and that’s a bummer. However, the shows I made it out to this year were all pretty fantastic, and that gives me hope that (assuming the Mayans blew it) next year will be even better.

Can’t Fight the Feeling

If it were just any old source of pop music criticism that had published a recent piece on the rise of “indie-classical” music, we in the contemporary music racket might throw up our hands and wonder what took them so long to make the observation that most other commentators twigged in 2010. But this isn’t just any source of pop music criticism: It’s Pitchfork.

It doesn’t matter what you think of Pitchfork’s rhapsodic swoons and disdainful shrugs. It doesn’t matter how many spotlights Pitchfork has shone on however many great unsung acts. What matters about Pitchfork is that they gave Travis Morrison’s extraordinary solo debut, the sui generis revelation Travistan, a crippling, spiteful, arithmetically nonsensical score of 0.0: Bold move. No one expects Pitchfork’s tastemakers to know about classical music; that’s a given. But if there’s one thing that Pitchfork should know about, if there’s one criterion by which they should be able to fairly weigh the souls of the past fifteen years’ bands, it’s indie.

People kick that word around a lot: Does it describe a stance toward the market? Does it describe a library of aesthetic referents? Does it describe the way a shirt fits? For me, it’s a useful term in the same way that “New Complexity” is useful: It describes a particular constellation of people, pieces, and aesthetic epistemology. More specifically, it names a historically unique subjectivity that flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s.

It’s mostly (not by any means entirely) male. In pop music years, they’re a generation younger than the college-rock idols of the 1980s, the Stipes and Westerbergs and Natalie Merchants—and they’re positively salt-and-pepper-templed in comparison with your Vampire Weeks and your Animal Collectors, your Grizzled Bears. They’re like the bacteria that survived whatever cultural antibiotic did away with grunge and what was then, quaintly, called “alternative rock,” leaving only the hardiest strains on Merge, Sub Pop, Barsuk, and Jade Tree: The style-agnosticism— indeed the very impatience with style—of these Malkmuses, Danielses, Leos, Schwarzenbachs, von Bohlens, Bazans, Cawses, and (how naïve we were) Gibbards welcomed punk, hardcore, country, breakbeats, glam, math-rock, etc., into the same vacant urban lot, Edenic but on the cusp of gentrification, to sit in a torn-up couch with a beer and give revivified voice to an essentially new-wave subject position (de-Oedipalized, to borrow from Fred Pfeil) and be earnest and coy and injured, but injured in a wry way and not emo-injured in that vaguely sort of misogynistic way, all at the same time. If we’d known what a proper 21st-century hipster looked like, we’d have seen a whisper of the hipster in these folk heroes, but we wouldn’t have been able to believe that anything about them could have been contrived or pretentious in the slightest. At any rate, this is how I remember indie. They’re the bands whose t-shirts I own.

Can I see myself getting a Victoire t-shirt, a Bang On A Can t-shirt, or a Newspeak t-shirt? I cannot. That we have to describe these ensembles as “classical” illustrates as clearly as anything the inadequacy of the term “classical,” but to describe them as “indie” promises something from them that I know is not to be delivered. On Twitter, composer Marcos Balter defended “indie-classical” precisely because of its vagueness; I’m sympathetic to that point of view, not
least because it helps us move beyond perennial but not very interesting questions about what words mean. I guess my objection to “indie-classical” isn’t so much that I know it to be wrong but rather that I feel it to be wrong, and much of that feeling stems from the affective specificities that characterize “indie.”