Given the strong popularity of the “indie” genre, its reach is bound to touch many different areas of music. Indie rock, indie pop, and indie hip-hop are important contemporary genres; really, all one has to do is add “indie” to any genre as a qualifier and it probably exists. Nevertheless, I found myself surprised when I discovered that there exists an indie classical genre. Though simplistic and reductive, in my mind I tend to associate classical music with old, stuffy people in fine clothing and monocles (which is strange, given that I enjoy classical music), whereas I associate indie music with Urban Outfitters devotees who think that Animal Collective have forever changed the direction of music. Those two stereotypes are rather paradoxical when juxtaposed, but after hearing some of what indie classical has to offer, such a union seems hardly strange at all. Classical is not a static genre; the name “classical” itself is misleading, as classical is but one period of music and not a genre as a whole. One might hear a Baroque piece and call it “classical,” but in terms of musical periods that would be incorrect. “Art music” is more accurate. Art music has grown and evolved over time. It changed when Baroque became Classical and when Classical blossomed into Romantic, and it’s still changing today.
New Amsterdam is one record label devoted to promoting the independent side of art music. On November 15th, the label released two new recordings from two different composers. The first is the flute and percussion duo Due East’s sophomore outing Drawn Only Once, a multimedia performance composed by John Supko. The release is a CD/DVD set that comprise an audio recording of the performance and a DVD with the accompanying videos. The other is composer Gregory Spears’s Requiem, which presents a fresh take on a classic art music form. Why both CDs were released on the same day, I’m not sure. Both are notably different pieces of music. Due East’s performance tends toward the abstract, whereas Spears’s Requiem is a restrained, minimalistic chamber piece. Still, despite their differences, both releases are demonstrative of great quality and innovation coming from the New Amsterdam label, as well as excellent proof that classical music isn’t just for your grandparents.
Over the various periods of art music, the requiem has taken many forms, sometimes within the same period. The Romantic period is especially emblematic of this. The most well-known requiem not just of the Romantic period but of all art music, Giuseppe Verdi’s, is notable for its bombastic and theatric Dies Irae. Conversely, Hector Berlioz’s requiem is majestic and at times subdued, particularly in the gorgeous Agnus Dei movement. The Requiem as composed by Gregory Spears, however, is entirely different from both of those. A requiem derives from the Catholic mass for the dead, but Spears’s take is hardly mournful. Nor is it like Verdi envisioned, wherein the wrath of God is evoked through rapidly bowed strings and hurried choirs. Spears’s is, in the scheme of requiems past and present, practically quaint. He takes a piece that has its roots in participatory action (the Mass) and crafts an intimate, chamber recording that draws the listener deep into the mood of the piece. The staccato picks of the harp create a mood that’s more reflective than one might expect from a piece meant to evoke death. The piece, like many requiems, is beautiful, but not in the way that past requiems have been. In its restraint it packs just as much emotion as many of the requiems by the great composers of yore, and it does so in a manner that pays respect to those composers while presenting a unique contemporary vision.
The music is not the only thing that represents a departure from typical requiems; the text of the piece is also unique. This Requiem combines the text of a typical Latin requiem with a Middle French piece about a dying swan. As the striking cover art evokes, the piece examines death in an imagery-rich, poetic fashion, wherein the typical religious pleas found in most requiems are embellished on by the imagery of avian life. The words are sometimes striking, and at other times intriguing. In the beginning of the second half of the requiem, the choir sings, “All this happened at the time/The hens used to piss on their perch” (that’s the translation from the French to the English). The words, like the music, cast death in an entirely different light.
Spears’s Requiem, while artistically challenging in its own right, is by far the most accessible of the two releases. Drawn Only Once is unlike most classical music around. Parts of the album sound akin more to contemporary ambient music than what most consider “classical” music, but the album’s roots in the latter genre are still quite plain. The recording consists of two pieces: the thirty-five minute “Littoral” and the fifteen minute “This Window Makes Me Feel”. Though both can be listened to individually, it’s best to listen to them while watching the accompanying videos. A lot of the thematic elements of the songs are drawn out further in the multimedia format, particularly the oceanographic and cartographic themes of “Littoral”.
Both pieces, while containing a mix of ambient and art music flourishes, are unique pieces in their own right. “Littoral,” while maintaining a steady 5/4 time signature throughout its runtime, is a piece that sounds as if it’s always changing, much like the ever-changing tide of the ocean the piece evokes. The instrumentation of the piece is sparse. Flute, percussion, and readings of poetic texts comprise the piece, along with some electronic sounds that counterpoint the primary instruments. Despite that sparseness, the piece is incredibly rich. In accompaniment with the video, the piece becomes an immersive dive into the concepts associated with cartography and the ocean. While immersive, the piece is a challenge to listen to, and at thirty-five minutes the piece feels overly long, despite its strengths.
The shorter piece, “This Window Makes Me Feel,” stands out more for its text than its music. The piece utilizes a reading of the eponymous poem by Robert Frittman, which involved hundreds of Google searches used to finish the sentence, “this window makes me feel.” The results are varied, sometimes humorous, but always insightful. “This window makes me feel like I’m protected.” “This window makes me feel like I’m a rabbit being hunted.” “This window makes me feel like I’m on the ship in Ben-Hur.” “This window makes me feel more Jewish.” The accompanying music is of a strong ambient bent, which brings out the power of the poem quite brilliantly.
For those looking for some fresh new takes on “classical” music, these two records are no doubt a great place to start. Better to begin with Requiem rather than Drawn Only Once; though both are good, the latter’s abstract nature as well as the time it takes to fully absorb the multiple facets of the pieces (the film, the music, and the text) make it a difficult piece to listen to casually. Both demand the listener’s attention, but Drawn Only Once is not just a piece of music but a multi-dimensional work of art, one that is not for everyone.