Does anybody except Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette think that Alt-Classical is a useful designation?

I mostly ask because I can’t work out what it is supposed to be or why we need a word for it.

If we’re using it to describe a mode of presentation rather than a type of music then appropriating a combination of genres doesn’t seem terribly helpful.

If we’re trying to describe a type of music, are we talking about a subset of classical music, something inspired by classical music that lives beyond its limits, or a mixture of the two? Disagreement (or at least confusion) on this point seems to be the root of almost all debate on the subject.

When somebody does something cool, it is tempting to give it a name, to define it, to notate what happened so we can come back here and do it again – but when we look at successful meetings of artistic cultures and approaches, the lesson learned is usually a more universal one – that good music is good music in any language, venue or dress code. The musician’s job is basically the same. Critics have a much bigger problem crossing genres than the performers do, mostly because they’ve spent their careers constructing an extramusical frame of reference for what they’re hearing.

If we’re going to be specific, we need to agree on the definitions of our terminology. If we’re going to make up words, it had better be because the vast expanse of the English language can’t communicate what we mean, and not just because we haven’t worked out what we’re trying to say.

Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me this wasn’t made up for the sake of a few column inches. Point to a simple definition. That’s what the comments are for. In the meantime, this is the first and last time I’ll be talking about it. I’ll leave you with Gretchen Weiners from Mean Girls.



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  1. January 14, 2010

    Well, let’s define classical music first. Let’s say it’s a type of Western music that’s been written down, usually with an eye to historical models, and then interpreted by a trained performer for an audience that listens silently, neither dancing nor otherwise participating.

    The perceived need for this term, “alt-classical,” probably comes from recent breakdowns in this context. Classical trained composers are attempting to write music indistinguishable from popular music—that is to say, it might be written with the goals of a Josquin or an Ives in the composer’s mind, but to the untrained listener could be indistinguishable from especially adventurous species of heavy metal or synthpop or something. Likewise, classically trained performers are leaving the concert halls, where everybody onstage wears black tie, and everybody in the audience sits with their hands in their laps, and have instead begun playing in bars, wearing jeans, for patrons that drink beer and whoop.

    The trouble with the “alt-classical” terminology is that it is used to describe any such breakdown in classical context, no matter how discrete these individual phenomena may be from each other. If Hilary Hahn plays Bach at LPR, is she “alt-classical” just because the audience is doing Jäger shots? If Mason Bates performs at Carnegie Hall, is he still “alt-classical” just because he’s playing dance beats with a laptop, instead of bowing a cello? What, if anything, do these performances have in common with each other that they don’t have in common with any other subgenre of classical music?

    • properdiscord #
      January 15, 2010

      I think we’re basically in agreement here. In this article…

      …Anne Midgette describes both types of music and modes of presentation as part of the same movement. It’s not unlike punk, which was a dress code, a style of music and a social movement all at once. It was a big deal, and a great story for the people that were there to write about it.

      The problem with this comparison is that in punk, all those things came together. With alt-classical, it isn’t even the same people doing them. It seems like an umbrella term for a bunch of things which are only very superficially related, and which, for the most part, aren’t even that new.

  2. Grrg #
    January 14, 2010

    “[G]ood music is good music in any language, venue or dress code”

    This comment strongly suggests you have very little experience with music in different languages, venues, or dress codes.

    • properdiscord #
      January 15, 2010

      Seriously? This is a bad approach.

      You could pick plenty of holes in what I’m saying. You could point out that we often judge music through its context. You could give examples. You could point out that concert music often doesn’t work as background music, or that John Cage’s 4’33” would have been received very differently if it had been premiered in the middle of a Chopin recital instead of during a concert of avant-garde piano music, that Tchaikovsky’s ballets sound different to his his symphonies for a reason, or that the ceremony of the concert experience is an inherent part of the performance.

      Instead, you’ve decided to argue with my resume, not my argument – even though my argument is here for you to see and my resume isn’t. The fact that you’re wrong isn’t even relevant – nothing I’ve said is predicated on my expertise.

      Do your homework. Read this…

      …and then come back and tell me I’m wrong. Don’t call me names.

  3. January 15, 2010

    OHNO Grrg made that remark to me before he posted it, and I said “Ha ha you should totally post that as a comment,” so if his comment has offended I’m pretty sure it is 100% my fault.

    Because I think he wasn’t really impugning the range of your experiences so much as he was facetiously suggesting that, in fact, context does matter; music that requires concentration, presented in an environment full of distractions, will not succeed as music. An all-night hard techno set, beautifully curated for a drug-fueled rave, would be an excruciating experience for a sober, seated audience.

    These are extremely unlikely examples (see also that incredibly annoying Joshua Bell in a train station article), but surely it’s not too hard to come up with some real-world situations where language or venue have seriously damaged what would otherwise have been a great musical experience—in which good music, situated in the wrong venue or costume, is not in fact good music.

    At any rate, I promise that Grrg was not arguing ad your hominem.

    And yes, you’re right—I think that you and I are very much in agreement w/r/t “alt-classical.”

    • properdiscord #
      January 16, 2010

      It’s all good. My hominem isn’t offended. I’ve got my rant on, though. I hope you don’t mind. I seem to be on a roll.

      Your beautifully curated techno set would be excruciating for a concert audience, but it wouldn’t be bad music because of it*. It would just be inappropriate. For the purposes of this discussion, there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between programming and performance.

      In any case, in the world of alt-classical, it’s rare to see such extremes come together. Normally, we see similar things that look very different being touted as amazing and new. Joshua Bell plays the violin in a railway station – like you’ve never seen a busker with a violin before – and he makes about as much as the average busker with a violin does. Matt Haimovitz plays the cello in a club, and people sit and listen to him. What the hell else did you expect them to do? They knew the cellist was going to be there.

      For the purposes of a performance, the key differences between a formal recital hall (with a stage, seats, and a bar) and Le Poisson Rouge are that the seats are arranged differently, the bar is inside the auditorium and the rules about food and drink are considerably less strict. They’re really pretty subtle changes in the overall scheme of things, and they don’t have an enourmous impact on the way you perform – people still show up to sit down and listen to music.

      To claim that LPR represents a revolution is to underestimate the potential for change.

      Thanks for reading.

      * it might still be bad music, but that’s irrelevant

  4. pb #
    January 26, 2010

    i think the recent trend of greg, anne and many other publicists have been to “re-brand” any performance that happens outside a concert hall as alt-c, but the problem that most of the music they are describing isn’t that “alternative” at all. many of their favorite musicians and composers aren’t really making music any differently than in Beethoven’s time and are still waiting for a handout from the king (i.e. government grants and commissions).

    on the other hand there has always been a smaller group of musicians and composers (Satie for one comes to mind) who haven’t stood in line for these handouts. With technology the ability to record, publish, and promote alternative art-music outside of the the usual and limited channels of art music presentation.

    hence my working definition of alt-classical is: independent, DIY, art music.

    music that is performed and presented outside (clubs, galleries, online) of the traditional “classical” venues

    music made outside the commissioned/patronage system.

    art music
    any flavor of music made for contemplation

    i personally have been calling my own music “alt-classical” since i started performing with my own group in 2002 as a way to describe how my concerts were different than your local string quartet putting on a show in an art gallery.

    this winter i also launched as curated reblog to feature the alt-c music of other composers and ensembles.

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