2012 in Review: The New Classical Extremity

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 12.10.12 in Spotlights

This summer, I went to a bar in my neighborhood to see a show aimed at the local “black metal” aficionado population of Brooklyn. The headlining act was the (newly drummer-less) incarnation of Liturgy — probably the most divisive act of 2011 within any sub-genre of the rock universe. But that wasn’t the most interesting part of the night. (Liturgy was OK, but noticeably different with a drum machine; also, no one got into a fistfight over “false metal.”)

The opening act was Mario Diaz de Leon, a young man currently studying for his PhD in composition at Columbia University’s graduate school of music. He was at the club in order promote his new solo album, described by its distributing label as full of “ethereal synths, brutal distortion, noise and dark ambient.” All true. (Diaz de Leon’s previous album was more recognizably “contemporary classical” in nature; it was performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, and was issued on John Zorn’s Tzadik label.) You can hear a interest in brutalizing instrumental textures on both albums, but it’s Hypnos that makes the more overt attempt to engage a rock-genre audience.

Sometimes watching a knob-twiddler at his console is a recipe for boredom, but drawing from his 2012 release in front of the local black metal crowd, Diaz de Leon proved hard to ignore. While supplementing his own electronic programming with bravura riffs on guitar, he more than held the audience’s attention — including Liturgy frontman Hunter-Hunt Hendrix. Approached during an interval between bands, Hendrix told me he’d only met Diaz de Leon a couple times, but offered that they shared a mutual respect, while adding that he thought Diaz de Leon’s music was “fucking awesome.” (Test the arpeggios in “Faithless” in order to verify Hendrix’s correctness.)

At the merch table afterward, as people picked up both his new CD as well as his past one for Zorn’s label — sort of gently asking “what’s this here” — I wanted to start proselytizing for the other works in this emerging canon of rock-influenced new classical music that sounds more like Krallice than Grizzly Bear. But of course Diaz de Leon was doing fine carrying the torch for this music himself. As I look back on the new music that impressed me the most this year, that album is not just one of the highlights on the merits: It also did more than its share to move our contemporary classical appreciation along a piece.

As it happens, overlap of influences and performance practices goes way beyond the dabbling of “bigger” indie-rock names like The National or Grizzly Bear, permeating some more subterranean levels of rock extremity. The classical music intermingling that happens at this level is less talked-about than the music roped into the much-debated catch-all phrase “indie-classical,” but it’s thornier, darker and no less interesting.

Tristan Perich‘s music for acoustic instruments and 1-bit electronics, for example, is too far afield of anything resembling “indie” rock to merit useful comparison. But the texture of his electronics — beautiful in their harsh simplicity — does place it within hailing distance of other underground music (whether in minimal techno or electronic-aided rock) that isn’t commonly thought to have a relationship with modern classical: you can hear some of the most out-sounding techno from the Kompakt label in it, for example. Perich’s 19-minute piece “Formations” was recorded by cellist Mariel Roberts this year, and is the equal of any modern hardcore act like Converge for raw power. Laurie Spiegel, a godmother of computer music, saw her landmark 1980 LP The Expanding Universe issued for the first time on CD this year. It notched a “best new reissue” garland from Pitchfork, as did a monumental 12-CD set of early electronic pieces by Pauline Oliveros.

The recognition of these early noise/classical pioneers was overdue, considering how long other early programmers of the fabled New York City arts-space The Kitchen, such as Rhys Chatham, have always had pride of place in underground rock circles. Still, even if overlong in coming, it was gratifying, as was the flutter of attention paid to 80th-birthday celebrations in honor of Oliveros, whose early synthesizer compositions heralded the rise of noise as a genre 20 years before Yamatsuka Eye ever drove a bulldozer through the back wall of a Japanese club.

And yet, biographical worthiness aside, why this year? It hardly seems coincidental that Spiegel and Oliveros both drew new fans in 2012 at a time when their analog or primitivist-digital sounds found new attention in extreme-music circles. In the lower-decibel end of extreme music, the texture-fiend field best described as “scrape” carries tendrils of association reaching back to Oliveros. You can hear the continuation of her avant-classical influence on Kristin Norderval’s extraordinary album of “post-ambient arias” for laptop and voice, “Aural Histories,” which was released on Oliveros’s Deep Listening label. (Check “Gameplay” for the sample-based approach to scrape, and “Extreme Weather” for oscillating noise.)

Elements of scrape — as well as brawnier guitar sounds — were also in evidence on Where (we) Live, one of two releases by the So Percussion ensemble (the first version of “Five Doors Down” has the post-Oliveros improv scrape and noise, while “Strange Steps” hops closer toward traditional indie). Given all of this, 2012 might best be remembered as the year that the aesthetic descriptor “indie-classical” finally outlived its usefulness, in part due to broad overuse but also because of the exploding diversity of the stylistic grab-bag that has made the last few years in classical music so exciting.

This music, part of what you could call a new classical extremity, offers a new way to think of the ways rock-borne influences manifest themselves. Rock acts that have demanded a certain span of attention — Swans, whose monolithic, two-hour record The Seer garnered widespread adulation this year, comes to mind — may have also influenced some new conservatory students, who have imported the endurance-test nature of avant-metal and noise into chamber works. And the space opened up by experimental rock artists has trained some potential new audiences, like those who are wowed by Mario Diaz de Leon before they even have a chance to hear Liturgy.

As for the erstwhile drummer of that controversial black metal band, he started a new project this year, too. Christened Guardian Alien, and featuring Liturgy’s Bernard Gann on bass, they hardly abandoned the chamber-music running time: with a single 37-minute track of stoner-vocal-drone and post-minimalist improvisation, they gave up any legitimate claim on their previous project’s black metal fetish. But their experimentation with rock and avant-classical innovations continued apace. It’s as though that was the real project all along.