An Interview with William Robin
200 years since his birth, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and Karl Marx Exhibitions Organisation present a series of concerts, soundart installations and events commemorating the life and work of Karl Marx in Trier in Germany and Birmingham and London in the UK.
“During my dissertation research, I felt a certain mournful nostalgia for the world that I was investigating,” writes William Robin in “A Scene Without A Name: Indie Classical and American New Music in the 21st Century.” Reading it, I was surprised to find myself emotional at times too—a testament to Robin’s writing, which is precise and vivid. Also, I write about classical music; and in his conclusion, Robin presents a convincing case that the genre of indie classical resulted from a healthy, mutually supportive environment, including the press, that may already be a thing of the past.
So what is indie classical, anyway? The exact answer depends on who you ask, but it broadly refers to a group of artists, like Nico Muhly, Judd Greenstein, Nadia Sirota, and Missy Mazzoli, and institutions, like New Amsterdam Records, (Le) Poisson Rouge, and yMusic. I reached Robin, who is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Maryland, one afternoon to talk about the origins of the genre and the future of the new music music ecosystem.
VAN: Like almost all young composers—including myself and my friends—the indie classical generation composers were dissatisfied with the state of music and the academy when they were studying. How did their particular critique come to resonate so widely?
William Robin: I’m teaching 19th century music right now, and everyone has that—Berlioz gets frustrated at the Paris Conservatory, that type of story. In my work [on indie classical] I try to recognize that aspect as being historically and biographically true. They’re not lying about their experiences, of course. Those are genuine experiences of frustration which I’m sure you felt at various times as a composer as well. But at the same time, it always becomes part of the mythology that these composers tell about their lives. It becomes built into the story of musics that try to reach outside of the academy.
The difference between having those frustrations and voicing them, and having those frustrations and voicing them and then becoming known as an indie classical generation is: different modes of access. They were at the Ban on a Can Summer Festival together, the first year of that festival, they had connections, they went to top schools, like Yale and Princeton. And I think what was really remarkable was that these composers were talking about their ideas in a public way quite early on in their careers—during this five to 10 year moment, where blogging was a really significant practice in classical music, in new music (and also in the rest of the world).
Judd Greenstein, and Nico Muhly—who’s not part of the exact same institutional world as the others—were blogging a lot and writing about what they did, and starting these concert series in New York, and people like music critics started paying attention to that. Then after a few years they launched these institutions, like New Amsterdam Records, that were galvanizing. They were very conscious of making their institutions in dialogue with an audience. So they hired a publicist, and they tried to market themselves.
They were quite canny. They were quite invested in describing what they do: In a way that I think people really picked up on their frustration. Right now, there’s so much visible activity of new music, which everyone I talk to says is kind of unprecedented. I mean, it’s hard to gauge: how do you add that all up and say, “This is more than 30 years ago”? But everyone thinks there’s something going on right now that’s much more than in the past. 10 years ago, when indie classical was getting started, there wasn’t nearly as much going on. You had this group of younger composers who felt like the things that were out there were not sufficient for what they wanted to do. So they pushed themselves out there in a big way and grabbed that piece of the pie for themselves, before you had this much more crowded new music marketplace.
The major players in indie classical have defined it as an a D.I.Y. ethos, playing in bars and clubs, rather than a particular sound. But if you’re doing a D.I.Y. concert of, say, post-Spectralist or Wandelweiser music, what do you call it? Indie-Wandelweiser?
[Laughs] I think probably all Wandelweiser is indie, right? I don’t really see much Wandelweiser being performed by the New York Philharmonic, or in the mainstream recording industry.
Originally, Matt McBane, who kind of came up with the term, and Judd Greenstein, who in particular brought it into the world of New Amsterdam, meant this idea of doing an indie, D.I.Y. thing that was outside the classical music industry mainstream. At the same time, one of the things that I didn’t talk about in my dissertation but I thought was interesting was: Why isn’t doing music by dead people in that context indie classical? It’s funny that it’s called indie classical, but playing Beethoven in a club wouldn’t fall under that as far as those people would define it. It meant contemporary music, by a certain scene of musicians, who wanted to call themselves that.
When you look at those definitions, you can always be like, Why isn’t it this? The easy answer is, It’s not that because that wasn’t part of their purview when they named themselves. They had an idea, they defined that idea in a particular way. Though they didn’t really closely circumscribe it, so if you read some blog posts and essays Judd Greenstein wrote in 2008 and 2009, he’ll reference the idea of indie classical having aesthetic implications. It’s only later where people had started to define it as a sound that he decided to really strongly say, “No, it’s not a sound, it’s this other thing.”
I think the floating signifier is important in that context. Although they may have meant for it to be this one specific thing, it’s not terrible for it to mean those other things to a certain degree. If you can add more definitional weight to a term, people will use it more. Just like indie rock. It maybe meant this D.I.Y. or alternative rock, but at the same time, in the 1990s, alternative rock was like four guys in a college band—there were sonic implications to that term as well.
Genre always has that. And if we think about this idea of genre not only being about sound, but it being about context, production values, where you see the music, how you feel when you see the music, all of those different aspects—then you can call indie classical a genre in that regard, and feel comfortable about the fact that it has this additive quality to it.
When classical musicians go into clubs and bars, is it possible that there’s a certain kind of appropriation going on there?
I don’t like throwing around words like appropriation in general, because I think, especially right now, appropriation is this big thing where everyone is meaning different things when they use it.
I mean, there’s obviously something a little bit problematic with it. When ensembles or string quartets talk about themselves like being in a rock band, the thing is: It’s a different cultural economy to exist in an ensemble or string quartet. It allows you to have access to different resources, like non-profit funding. Hopefully you can make a career out of that in a way that you may not be able to unless you’re in a really famous band. For the most part, these ensembles do not tour in vans around the country, driving from place to place. I’m not criticizing people for wanting to sleep in hotels and getting paid significant amounts of money by universities and classical music presenters—I think everyone should get those resources. And increasingly, those cultural institutions, and especially university arts presenters, are working with rock bands and more multi-genre projects.
I do think there’s something maybe a little bit problematic about wearing the guise of being in a rock band while essentially—besides placing your music in the place where the rock band does its things—existing in a totally different cultural economy.
Also, indie rock, indie classical—these are both extremely white, privileged worlds. It’s not like [indie classical musicians] are stealing music from African-American blues musicians and placing it in a different context and getting a lot of prestige for it. But there’s always something a little bit problematic about the framing of questions of genre. And this goes back to earlier musicians. George Lewis has a really fantastic book called A Power Stronger Than Itself, a biography of the AACM, and he gets into the question of the ways in which race shapes how musicians are understood as boundary-less or boundary-breaking. You have musicians in the 1980s, like John Zorn, who were really celebrated for busting down the walls of genre. At the same time, Lewis points out that members of the AACM did stuff like Zorn did 10 years before him, but because they were black they weren’t seen as breaking those same boundaries. Often you have this idea of the post-genre artist being coded as white and getting more attention than artists who may be just as post-genre but are African-American, and instead get slotted into positions like jazz. There’s a very complicated relationship with regards to being an African-American composer and being called jazz, which you see increasingly talked about in the discourse. That’s not to say that this all has something to do with indie classical, but some of these issues do arise in that context.
Indie classical musicians are known for being articulate writers and speakers. As a journalist and researcher, how do you find the balance between writing about people who excel at talking, who can give you a great quote, and people whose music you love? Do they always go together?
Yeah, I’m sure they wouldn’t, right? Obviously there are probably great composers who aren’t the most fantastically fascinating interviews.
There’s a slightly different hat that I wear in my journalistic work than in my academic work, though they definitely overlap. In my dissertation it was not about a study of the great composers of the early 21st century. I think that all the composers that I studied are very good composers; some of them are great composers. But I wanted to capture the cultural moment, which involves spending time with the discourse and spending time with the people. It’s not about trumpeting indie classical as the great artistic movement of the 21st century. It’s about saying, this is a significant movement, and how did it actually become significant, and gain the attention that it got?
In the more journalistic side of things, I don’t write all that much, so I’m always looking to write about people who I think deserve the New York Times treatment or the New Yorker treatment. Sometimes that’s following things that have been bubbling around the surface for a while, sometimes it’s paying attention to someone who has already gotten a lot of attention. Recently, the stories I’ve been most happy with have been profiles of Andrew Norman and Hans Abrahamsen. Andrew Norman is extremely successful, but hadn’t quite gotten a huge press following on the East Coast for example, and kind of needed that articulation of what I found really fascinating about his music. Same with Abrahamsen, who had really been completely out of the limelight in the U.S. context for a really long time, and then suddenly was everywhere. And both of those people were totally fascinating to talk to, so that worked out well.
Say a tight-knit group of young composers tried to establish themselves in a way similar to the indie classical generation in 2016. Even with the support of the press, would that still be possible to the same extent?
The thing about generations of artists or musicians is, those cohorts don’t line up with generations writ large. The indie classical generation is now in their mid-to-late 30s; we’re not really talking about millennials here. So then it becomes really interesting. How did they become ‘The Generation’? If they’re not just doing it along with the big cultural generation, they had to figure out a way to get that energy so that people would think of them as the young generation of composers.
Because of the way that works—it can take five to 20 years—you can be the young generation of composers for a long time. David T. Little just had this big opera premiere in Fort Worth, and Mizzy Massoli had an opera premiere at Opera Philadelphia. Those are not young composers in the sense that, real youth is probably like 15 in the rest of the world. But for the next five to 10 years, I think to some degree they’ll be thought of in the larger classical music industry as the young generation of composers. There’s this maybe 20-year window, where these composers establish themselves when they’re young, they march through the institutions gradually, they become prestigious and eventually canonized, and then it’s going to take a thinning out period where then people feel like they’re the senior figures; and the young upstarts will come along and say, “All that was crap! You need to be doing this thing.” Or whatever. That’s historically how part of that works. And sociologists like [Pierre] Bourdieu talk about this as well.
At the same time, one of the questions that I raise in the conclusion of my dissertation, which is kind of a bleak one is, “What if this was the last generation to have the resources to do that?” The press, the funding, and the classical music apparatus that they, although they kind of rhetorically distance themselves from it sometimes, rely on. So many of these cultural formations in American life are unwinding, in various ways. Some quite rapidly. The world of classical music criticism is really, it’s only in the past few years—I mean, it’s been in slow decline for 15 years—but it’s kind of terrifying. The mood online is fantastic, and there are so many fantastic publications, like VAN, but at the same time, the institutions value the words of the New York Times and the New Yorker. And because they value those words, that’s how indie classical composers were able to translate a review into something that meant they were significant figures.
That conclusion is very much from my specific perspective of seeing the things that the indie classical generation was and is. It’s possible that in 10 years we’ll be looking at an entirely different cultural situation, and the next generation of composers will come along. But there are lingering questions: Things are really exciting now, but I also think that it’s…I’ve called it a “new music bubble.” Which is a bit of a hypothesis I have. It’s not really backed up by anything, but it’s kind of my grandly pessimistic vision of fear and worry for the future of this very particular part of American cultural life. ¶