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by Seth Colter Walls

November 5, 2012

Indie Goes Classical

by Seth Colter Walls  |  November 5, 2012

Avant rock and contemporary classical music have been having one-night stands (as well as longer engagements) ever since Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore began learning their alternate guitar tunings as part of Glenn Branca's orchestra in the early 1980s.

In the intervening years, movement between these genres has only become more interesting (and somewhat difficult to track), given how successive generations of conservatory grads are able to vibe off Bartok and more contemporary fare in equal measure. Take Tyondai Braxton, who was a cofounder and member of the indie rock band Battles until he just couldn't resist the call of classical music any longer and quit. Since then, he has written an electro-influenced chamber album for Warp called Central Market (see the tracks "Uffe's Woodshop" and "J. City"), and gifted a piece for marching band to the Asphalt Orchestra ("Pulse March"), Lincoln Center's street-marching band.

Meanwhile, the coleader of that band, Ken Thomson, just contributed a horn arrangement to Love This Giant, the new record by St. Vincent and David Byrne ("The Forest Awakes"). Still following? St. Vincent (under her given name, Annie Clark) also recently contributed a chamber piece to Brooklyn's yMusic ensemble ("Proven Badlands").

Discographical dizziness aside, what really counts is how engaged this music sounds. Making sense of multiple, complex forms without condescending to any one tradition is an awfully difficult task. Thankfully, when Dan Deacon makes Side B of his latest album, America, into a chamber suite, or when tUnE-yArDs writes pieces for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth ("Ansa Ya" and "Quizzassa"), we don't need to think of categories or trends so much as we need to pay attention to the artfully arranged experience before us.

Not all of this new classical music composed by indie artists is obviously rock-derived, but sometimes you can hear the younger generation's enthusiasm taken up by older composers. Steve Reich's "2x5" was, in its first incarnation, intended for Radiohead; in the end, The National's Bryce Dessner joined up with the Bang on a Can All-Stars to record it. And longtime guitar symphonists like Branca and Rhys Chatham are still at work, too. Chatham's massive symphony for over 200 guitarists and bassists made its U.S. premiere at Lincoln Center in 2009; one of its four section conductors was Seth Olinsky of Akron/Family. (Full disclosure: I was playing in the Alto II section.) Meantime, arena-rock-sized stars like Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood can leave amplification behind entirely when scoring films by Paul Thomas Anderson.

The playlist above will help you uncover the surprising connections between two genres that might typically be assumed to be intellectual and cultural opposites.

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