Beyond “Indie Classical”: Why The Genre Label Only Tells Half the Story

Music Features

Robert Raths, owner of Erased Tapes, wants to make it clear that he doesn’t completely balk at the phrase “indie classical,” a one-dimensional term that has come to define practically any artist who composes instrumental music. He cites the obvious fact that any time someone cares enough to write about your work, they will attempt to simplify the topic by imposing categories and genres.

“To a certain point, a tag or a label helps an audience that isn’t familiar with what you’re doing get intrigued,” he muses. “To find it easier to discover that music.”

Raths goes on to point out that with musicians on his label as diverse as pianist Nils Frahm, electronic duo Kiasmos and singer/songwriter Douglas Dare, Erased Tapes—like the so-called “indie classical” movement—never set out to be just one thing. And when the indie classical umbrella has gotten so wide that fans are often sent to multiple sections in a record store to find his label’s artists, it becomes clear that the full story cannot be told through genre alone.

“I was very interested in different types of instrumentation,” Raths says of the label’s inception in 2007. “I figured instead of trying to find something that incorporated all of them at the same time it might be nicer to keep things very separate…I didn’t have an interest to sign someone purely classical, as in someone was trained to reinterpret classical masterpieces.”

Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, a cellist in the instrumental collective amiina, who originally rose to prominence as a backing quartet for Sigur Rós, expounds on Raths’ observation. One of the many problems of the phrase indie classical, she asserts, is that the word “classical” is so often interchanged with the word “instrumental” that the term has lost much of its meaning.

“Classical for me means something from the past,” she says. “Something that’s proven its worth. Classical for me is a difficult word to use. Personally I think it’s overused.”

Therein lies one of the many issues associated with the term. In the grand scope of musical history, the idea of intermingling genres is still relatively au currant. While many arguments could be made for the exact moment orchestral elements entered the pop realm, María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir, also of amiina, theorizes that one of the most significant moments of late was Björk’s inclusion of strings on her 1997 album, Homogenic.

“In the late ‘90s and the early 20th century, there was this kind of feeling within the pop music that people were starting to involve more strings in the orchestration,” she says, noting that due to the smaller size of the community in her native Iceland, the shift happened much quicker than other places. “They did have that classical sound in studio recordings. That’s exactly when we started playing with bands. After Björk did Homogenic, where she had a lush string sound, some of the people were drawn out of the classical music and introduced to different kinds of music. People became friends with different types of musicians.”

Zoë Keating, a prolific cellist who in addition to a solo career has backed the likes of Amanda Palmer, John Vanderslice and Pomplamoose, sees a distinct link between age and the rise of genre gobbling. For those who grew up in the ‘90s and beyond, Björk, Sigur Rós, or even The Beach Boys’ forays into orchestral pop aren’t revolutionary—they’re just history.

“We have this bubble of millennials,” she says. “There are a lot of classically trained musicians there who played classical music but did not listen to classical music. They don’t see the genre boundaries the same way as an older generation does. I think that there’s more of them. It would make sense that there would be more groups. I think it’s good. It’s a natural evolution and I’m happy to see it. It’s good to see classical music and classical musicians become less stuffy.”

It’s instincts, coupled with a background in traditional vocal training, that have guided Active Child’s Patrick Grossi. While the Los Angeles-based musician’s feet are firmly planted in the electro world, his work contains an ethereal, church-like like aura, left over from his pre-teen years singing in a professional choir. Not that his intention was to ever marry the past and present with his work.

“It sounds really surprising, but I had moved away from that period,” he says. “I didn’t have much connection with it anymore. When I wrote stuff it was really instinctual. All that choir experience is buried in there, and was pouring out through my subconscious. But it was never, ‘Hum, how would that be arranged in a choir?’ It was just what sounded right. It really wasn’t until I started getting press and started getting some coverage about my music that I rediscovered how much of my past was really influencing me. I had never really focused on that. My musical creative instincts were just doing what they do.”

While Grossi’s work is too firmly seated in the R&B/pop world to be slapped with the indie classical label, his subconscious pull towards his choral roots (and subsequently being called out for it) highlights yet another sticky quandary that comes with genre labeling. Players in the business world come equipped with “elevator pitches”—pithy one- or two-minute speeches that they use to describe who they are and what they want. Ask a musician for a similar statement of intent, and more likely than not you’ll be met with abstract thoughts on emotion and tone, or uncomfortable stuttering and silence. Genre, it seems, rarely enters into the conversation. Of course, the problem having your work defined for you is just that—in doing so you lose control of how your intentions are perceived.

Raths laments the difficulty that comes when attempting to get journalists to listen to something that doesn’t fall inside the classical parameters that Erased Tapes was initially known for. Likewise, although the audiences at amiina, Erased Tape artists and Zoë Keating shows are almost equally split between younger and older generations (Keating jokingly says that she has a “core audience of nerds”), everyone agrees finding the appropriate venue is still an arduous task when you’re neither rocking out nor bashing out Bach.

“The world of booking agents and gatekeepers are still slaves to genre,” Keating notes. “There’s this big split between art venues and clubs. I tend to play in both, and I’m lucky that I have a booking agent that books both kinds of venues. But I feel like neither of them really totally fit. That’s true for a lot of other musicians. Art venues are too stuffy. I call them Baby Boomer Halls. Those never feel right to me. My favorite ones are tiny nightclubs.”

In an increasingly fluid world where thanks to the likes of Spotify, Grooveshark and cheap secondhand music stores, you’re never the sum of the contents of your iPod, it seems likely that one day the idea of “indie classical” or just plan instrumental music will cease to be seen as an elitist endeavor. It helps that along the way, the artists have dedicated themselves to issuing gentle reminders that be it pop, classical, instrumental or somewhere in between, there’s enough room at the modern music table for everyone.

“I think classically trained musicians don’t see one style of music to play,” says Keating. “They’ll play anything. Their motivation is to move audiences…I want to have that feeling of losing your sense of self in a piece of music. That can happen from listening to Radiohead or Sigur Rós or it can happen listening to Beethoven. When I want to listen to music, I feel like having some kind of experience. Who knows what’s going to create that experience each day?”

“I think it’s nice to be able to be open to all kinds of music that connects you in one way or another,” adds Sumarliðadóttir. “I think that’s also changed the way society sees music after the boarders have been melting a little bit. It’s not so much about high art music verses popular music. There’s all sorts in between. That’s the beautiful thing about it, communities that were closed before like classical, have been opened up. It brings so many new possibilities.”

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