Indie-Classical, Alt-Classical, and the shift to Local Culture

Harmonya, the String Ensemble of  University of the Philippines Los Baños explores classical and contemporary music as well as traditional folk music from the Philippines
Harmonya, the String Ensemble of University of the Philippines Los Baños, explores classical and contemporary music as well as traditional folk music from the Philippines

I’ve been reading a number of pieces debating the relevance of using the term “indie-classical” to describe a new ethos in classical music (or simply to describe a school centered around Nico Muhly) and it’s reminding me of the modern/post-modern debates and the futility of attempting to own names that piggyback on marketing terms.  In the end, I’m more inclined to think that if we can say there is a shift in music as a whole (popular including classical–again, marketing terms) then it’s toward the local.

All the blogging I’ve done about non-western musical styles and orchestras highlight the fact that once the population density of a particular ethnic group exceeds a critical limit, then the community will be able to support music that they prefer.  There’s a reason that there are so many traditional Chinese Orchestras and Ensembles in the Bay Area and that there are Arabic Orchestras in the Detroit/Dearborn and Greater NYC metro area.

There’s a reason that Liza Figuroa Kravinsky is able to develop a Go-Go Symphony in DC; that the Louisville Philharmonia partnered with a local Bluegrass/Americana band, the Misty Mountain String Band, on their last Pops Concert; that Regina Martinez and Melchora Aquino run Harmonya: The String Ensemble of UPLB; and that there were five different Chinese Opera troupes in New York’s Chinatown during the Asian exclusion act.

These are the same reasons why the US had an explosion of European styled Orchestras in the 20th century.  The tastes of the ethnic population supported them.  Now that the population of the US is shifting away from European-Americans it really shouldn’t be surprising that the tastes in large ensembles will change with it.

The thing is, it’s always been about local culture–but with changing demographics what constitutes local culture is also evolving dramatically.  The local music institutions are simply evolving with the population and what tastes that population has–and in an age of information our tastes no longer have to be defined on locally transmitted cultural lines.  Local culture can now be influenced by global cultures (for good or ill) while still being bound by the infrastructure of the local physical resources.

Whether the new “indie-classical” (or alt-classical) terms really define anything other than a particular period in Classical music, only history will tell but I think it’s pointless to try to distance this music from “Classical Music”–after all, we use the latter to describe a specific period of history in European Art Music (roughly between 1730 and 1820) as well as the European Art Music tradition as a whole (Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Classical, Romantic, Modern).  The term gets used descriptively to highlight the art musics of non-Western cultures (Persian Classical; Ottoman Classical) and Cellos, French Horns, and Clarinets are still primarily referred to as “Classical Instruments.”

I think I’d much rather see the creation of new ensembles than waste more time on how to [classi]fy them!




  1. “I think I’d much rather see the creation of new ensembles than waste more time on how to [classi]fy them!”

    AGREED. All the anxiety about definitions just means that people are anxious about whether they will be perceived as the right sort by being seen to listen to it. In my cynical moments (which is pretty much always), it strikes me that this “indie/alt-classical” nonsense is just a way for pretentious people to reclaim classical music since, in the last half of the last century, it started to fail in its mission to mark them as being the product of superior genes.

    In other words, it’s not that classical music became too elitist but that it stopped being elitist enough. The same demographic that is so anxious to shove classical music over into the trust-fund hipster end of things now is the exact one that was all about the concert hall and standard subscriptions in the 1950s. They are just revamping the music’s public image so it can do what it did in their grandparents’ day: mark them as the product of superior genes.


  2. […] By the latter half of the twentieth century we see start to see the specialized orchestras starting to fill in the gaps of the ever narrowing repertoire or the traditional European styled orchestras which were increasingly focusing on a narrow band of repertoire spanning the late classical era to the early modern era (roughly 1800-1950). New music ensembles, many composer formed, and early music orchestras as well as ethnic orchestras started their rise to fill in the repertoire and stylistic gaps which the traditional European styled orchestras could never hope to fill. In this century we’re now seeing orchestral projects which are increasingly devoted to very local musical cultures (such as the Go-Go Symphony). […]


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