The following is a lecture I will be delivering to the 2010 Interamerican Festival for the Arts on September 2 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I am indebted to Christian Carey for editorial help.

Guerrilla campaigns, although defined most famously, perhaps, by that controversial icon of our neighbor to the northwest, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, have occurred throughout history on occasions when a small fighting force has faced off against a larger and more powerful opponent. Guerrilla fighters can, after a battle, easily blend back in with the general population, making it extremely difficult for the opposing forces to identify and strike at them, thus helping their efforts both militarily and politically. But, what do I mean by “guerrilla new music?”

In music today, so-called “classical” music or concert music, it’s safe to say, is a niche art form. The majority of the population is largely unaware of this rich and varied repertoire and concert music has thus become less commercially viable than it was, say, in the mid-20th century and thus less culturally relevant. If we judge this solely on sales statistics of recorded music (themselves tricky at a time when the record industry in general is in flux) we find the sobering—if unsurprising—statistic that classical music constitutes a mere 3% of total record sales with, as Anne Midgette puts it, “sales of 200 or 300 units [being] enough to land an album in the top 10.” Within this cultural niche, contemporary music is itself a niche, new or “modern” music having a reputation for difficult thorniness. The contemporary composer, and those performers who specialize in contemporary concert music, need to adopt, then, a position similar to that of guerrilla fighters in order not just to survive in the field, but to thrive and, hopefully (and ideally), change hearts and minds.

I am using a somewhat violent analogy. Music, thankfully, is not warfare and cooperation, not violence, is our methodology. Indeed, what I call for when I speak of “guerrilla new music” is a methodology based and dependent on an attitude adjustment towards new music and its presentation. This is a position that is gaining strong ground in the new music field and is quickly being noticed by more traditional “classical” music organizations.

Much has been made of late of the so-called “alt-classical” movement, particularly as represented by composers like Missy Mazzoli, Judd Greenstein and Ted Hearne, ensembles such as Flexible Music, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), eighth blackbird and Alarm Will Sound, and the New Amsterdam record label in New York. This movement, if it may be called one, seeks to blur the boundaries between popular and concert music (or high and low art) and its exponents write and perform music that is often difficult to comfortably classify within a single genre. Genre Distinctions are nonexistent to the alt-classical composer.

My own ensemble, Great Noise Ensemble, has been associated with this movement by at least one critic (and one documentary filmmaker). I am not entirely comfortable with this association, although that is primarily because of my own inability as a composer to move fluidly among genres, even while accepting influences from music other than concert music. I do, however, feel solidarity with these artists in at least one sense: “classical” music is not the art of dead men, performed incredibly formally by people dressed very uncomfortably.

No, “classical” music is a LIVING art form. It is continually evolving in ways that often resist labels. We music guerrillas seek to reclaim it from the museum culture that has prevailed in the concert hall since the mid-19th century, a museum culture that has treated the concert hall as a surrogate church and in the process cheapened music’s very transcendence by slowly alienating it from its audience. The very term “classical” implies an unchanging structure, possibly made of marble, set and immovable. It is ANATHEMA to what we, as artists, do and seek to accomplish!

It is not the sense of the canon, however, that the Guerrilla Musician must repudiate. We must learn from the past and embrace it even as we experiment in new directions. We must learn from the errors of Modernism and its attitude of never glancing backwards. The music of the future will take care of itself, just as the music of the past has taken care of itself. We must write the music of the PRESENT.

The ideal Guerrilla Musician, like the guerrilla fighter, must be flexible. Guerrilla Musicians are just as comfortable performing the classics by Mozart, Beethoven and the other usual suspects as they are those by John Adams, Bryan Ferneyhough, Ken Ueno, Jennifer Higdon, Roberto Sierraor Frank Zappa. The Guerrilla Musician thus rejoins the population and becomes embedded within an established musical culture, fighting to change it from within.

The Guerrilla Musician must be a polyglot. Ours is a global concert hall and we must be conversant, if not even fluent, in languages other than our own. The Guerrilla Musicians in Great Noise Ensemble are known to perform and/or engage in scholarship about traditions as varied as North African and Middle Eastern music, rock, jazz, salsa, Indian raga and various folk musics. Our compatriots in the alt-classical movement are equally conversant in electronica, country, hip hop and other such vernacular styles. The Guerrilla Musician is as comfortable in the concert hall as s/he is in the night club.

The Guerrilla Musician must welcome his/her audience. S/He must challenge and uplift, educate and entertain, but s/he must NEVER alienate his/her audience. The tuxedo—especially the tail tuxedo—must NOT be a part of the Guerrilla Musician’s gear except when s/he is infiltrating the museum.

I have been rather intransigent in my language so far. My nature is not belligerent, although I am very passionate about this issue and this attitude’s power to resuscitate the apparently moribund concert music scene. I should clarify that I do not intend to or advocate the “destruction” of the “museum.” Museums are very nice places and have their place in society. They provide a way for us to experience and learn from the living art of the past. The symphony orchestra, the repertory opera company and the chamber music and recital series have their place in our world and must not be repudiated. They can, however, be transformed by the Guerrilla spirit and be revitalized by it. The Guerrilla Musician can have his cake and eat it, too.

The Guerrilla Musician must be savvy. S/He must not rely solely on government funding for financial support or on the traditional print media for critical and promotional support. We have at our disposal incredible new resources of media dissemination and audience building that have democratized opinion and taste. At very little expense, the Guerrilla Musician can advertise through social media in a way that would have required an extensive support network just fifteen years ago. We must learn to use these tools to our advantage and to the advantage of our art. Through the use of Facebook, My Space, Linkdin and Reverb Nation I, personally, have been able to expand my reach as a composer and develop relationships with musicians, presenters and promoters across the globe, yielding opportunities throughout the United States, Germany, Denmark, Holland and the United Kingdom. Great Noise Ensemble itself was founded using social media in the form of a simple classified ad on the web site Craig’s and we have used services like Google and Facebook to expand our audience through online advertising and press releases.

The world is changing rapidly. Musicians have lost many of the formerly existing avenues for the promotion and dissemination of their work. Musicians, however, are nothing if not adaptable. A guerrilla sensibility as I define it is crucial for the survival of the contemporary musician. Mere survival, however, is not the Guerrilla Musician’s goal. No. His/her goal should be the total transformation of our musical culture. If art reflects the soul of a nation, then it is our patriotic responsibility to create art that represents the type of soul we want our nation to have. Just as man cannot live on bread alone, neither can he live solely on Lady Gaga. A spiritually healthy nation is a nation with a polyglot audience, and a polyglot audience, like a Guerrilla Musician, should be flexible, savvy, smart and as comfortable in the concert hall as they are in the night club. Contemporary musicians, especially composers, have long failed our audience by sitting in a corner lamenting our state and letting a single strain of our varied and exciting musical traditions control the marketplace. Contemporary music may never share as large a share of that marketplace as the top 40 (or its 21st century equivalent), but through guerrilla music making we can reclaim a more prominent place in that market and in the cultural life of our nation.

12 Responses to “Guerrilla New Music: A Method”
  1. Smooke says:


    Excellent post! I like that you’re trying to create a new term, because alt-Classical doesn’t seem to please anyone except critics. I’m intrigued as well by your list of alt-Classical composers and ensembles because I think that many of them would balk at their inclusion in such a list. Which makes your desire for a new term even more relevant. I especially like that your term is more about the manner of presentation than about the content being presented.

    And I am amused by the idea that blending back in with society after the performance might be a useful safety measure.

    - David

  2. Joseph Dangerfield says:


    Excellent essay! Quite a unique, and clever approach toward the resolution of a problem which is now systemic. We must certainly adapt if we are to survive, but as you eloquently state, the adaptation is merely a means to an end. Bravo!


  3. Fotis says:

    You beleive that: “If art reflects the soul of a nation, then it is our patriotic responsibility to create art that represents the type of soul we want our nation to have.”
    I’m afraid it doesn’t work the other way round. Art can only reflect. In order to change the soul of the nation you have to change its body at the same time. Society produces and enjoys just the art it deserves.


  4. The revolution will not admit pessimists, Fotis. ;-)

  5. c sahar says:

    Sigh. Very nice ambitions but let me ask you the following:

    How was your musical training paid for to be able to play such a wide diverse repertoire convincingly?

    How long do you think social media will remain ridiculously cheap? What happens to social media when all it becomes is a marketing tool? For example, one of the blogs mentioned in a short article at New Music Box (I believe Beth’s blog) I know from marketing folks can be bought to have the stats padded? Why not the same happen to access to social media?

    What is music of the present when the future is simply one damn thing happening after another? For example – the action of typing the text above is now part of my past. So the start of a performance quickly becomes the past, the initial drafts of a composition are the past upon further revisions or destruction.

    So, a nice start to a manifesto which needs a good deal of clarification and pragmaticism.

  6. Oh please, C, if that is indeed your real name. You know PRECISELY what music of the present means. The future is unknowable until it is the present. Making historicist predictions about the nature of music to be is, simply, ridiculous. Engaging music of the past is fine, but, at best merely didactic and, at worst, ultimately pointless if that engagement results in mere immitation without commentary.

    I cannot predict how long social media will remain cheaply available to the general public, nor can I help it if there are those among us who pad their statistics. Ultimately, what does that matter? How does padding blog and web site hits affect the music? How does THAT get anyone to listen to anything?

    As to my musical training, I will answer that question with a question (and please indulge me an assumption here): has your musical training ended merely because you’re no longer in school?

  7. Fiona says:

    I believe the cultural health of our nation is threatened by a lack if education – we are not adequately grooming a future audience. I have shared my thoughts with you on this ,Armando. ;)

    C – It is common but those that look at social media simply as a marketing tool severely misunderstand and underestimate it. Social media can function as a tool but most powerfully it provides a platform for dialogue or a sharing of information and ideas. Engagement is key, if you are simply broadcasting a static message it has very little value. stats and followers dont reflect influence or reach and arguably they mean nothing to me if the end goal is not met. So, those that buy followers and pad stats gain nothing because at the end of the day they can’t produce results. Like anything else, you get out what you put in and smart efficient use of social media can be very powerful.

  8. Chris Sahar says:

    Armando –

    Well, I do know what music of the present is. As we have a great diversity of styles and approaches to composing music and your initial post extends beyond Eurocentric classical music into musics which aims to preserve and accurately past practices as well explore new amalgamations, I am challenging the term music of the PRESENT. I apologize that my first post was far too broad in its criticism. I simply disagree with your term. There is no present music but looking backward while having a dim view of the horizons some of us meander towards.

    My critique of social marketingfocused too much on what is not a serious drawback. Let me clarify, I think social marketing can become too easily a tool which has the composer/performer expend too much time determing where to focus and to present their promotions of their music to the detriment of learning to perform new rep and types of music.

    As for my musical training – I have dealt with a realty many musicians who do it as an avocation due to poor or lack of guidance, social milieu and financial resources. In my case I went to a liberal arts school with a great music school. In my hometown, I was told I was a very good musician and I thought I was getting a good education. My family were ghenrous wityhing their lower middle class means. Nevertheless at college I learned the truth – I was poorly trained and only told I should get instruction from a music student. I never could get much counseling on mapping my courses and study – just enough to meet the requirements for an undergrad degree.

    I was disillusioned for quite some time. Only these past few years as I approached the middle of adulthood have I thionk I found good instruction and producing quality music as a composer. For performance, I have found much better instruction for classical music yet given up ever finding a consensus on what makes one a “great performer”. It really seems the performer finds their own way in lieu of their training.

    Finally composition remains now an avocation and as I have posted in another thread, there is limited time. And I know many professional musicioans when they build a family, take care of property and family … such a manifesto as yours is not feasible if it were to do it all well.

    So, I don’t offer any hard facts, rather my experience and share the experience of other musicians. From these experiences I found what you wrote a nice manifesto which requires much clarification and better scope. Heck, even from an advertiser’s view, it is difficult to offer a memorable, convincing brand (which is one of the things needed to be done to elicit good results from social marketing) if your group’s mission is to perform music of the PRESENT – again, is that Beyonce tunes redonje (a la Turnage), is it Bernhard Lang chamber operatic literature, Phillip Glass or Ferneyhough string quartets, remakings of Alice Coltrane’s 1970′s work along with an ocassional performance of Messaien and Tchaikovsky???

  9. Chris Sahar says:


    Please disregard the above post. I posted it too hastily. My apologies.

  10. Chris,

    I’m not going to disregard the post. Hastily written or not, it brings up some good points that deserve answering. So, here goes:

    “Music of the present:” my point with that term, such as it is, is precisely what you’ve done above (and in your earlier post). To question what music “of the present” means. You ask if my group’s mission is to present music of the present, if that means Beyonce, Lang, Glass, Alice Coltrane, Ferneyhough or Messiaen and Tchaikovsky (I suppose that, if we’re talking about a “specious present,” as my 11th grade history teacher put it, Tchaikovsky could be considered to be “the present”). My group itself has only one parameter set on paper but in our performance practice over the past five years we’ve developed a taste for a certain kind of repertoire. That’s the way it works in performance and not really the point of what I meant. What I meant by urging composers to write the “music of the present” is twofold:
    first, QUESTION what exactly MUSIC is. That’s certainly nothing new. Cage and
    Fluxus already had us doing that decades ago. What I’m more interested in questioning, however, is the very notion of “classical” music. What makes Beyonce different from Phil Glass? Why should we perform Nicco Muhly in the concert hall or the opera house and not in the dance hall (a distinction he certainly doesn’t make, at least not too strictly)? “New Music” is many things for many people. “New music” in 2010 is very different than what “new music” was in 1955, or 1965, or 1988.
    Which brings me to my second intention: for years modernism (or Modernmism) was concerned with ONLY looking forward. History moves in a straight line and progress must be made. This is an attitude that goes back to the New German School in the 19th century and Wagner’s notion of the “music of the future” stems from it (and is in direct line with Boulez’ dictum that composers who have not embraced the inevitability of the 12 tone system are “useless”). This attitude about history and progress has been changing over the past two or three decades but this has brought, at times, a kind of reactionary rapprochement that has more to do with engaging the music of the PAST than engaging the music and culture its composers are living in. This kind of attitude, an attitude that “music need not be of its own time” (to quote a prominent composer a few years ago), is terribly unhealthy to the survival of our art as a vibrant, relevant art form (if it’s even possible. How can art NOT be of its own time?).

    As to advertising, social media, etc. look, I’m not implying that these are substitutes for craft, training and talent. Too many composers with plenty of talent who were lucky enough to be given the opportunity to properly develop that talent (and I’m honestly sorry that you weren’t, apparently, able to, although it’s never too late if you have the resources) lose any chance at a career because of their inability at getting their music out there. It used to be tricky to network, but with today’s tools it is possible to do a lot of the networking that would have taken years and fortunes before through online contact. These tools have certainly benefited me in my modest career and I certainly expect to be able to be able to make that career less modest through the use of social media tools.

    Ultimately, the goal of a composer is to get his/her music played. It should, ideally, be about the music and nothing else. But the music needs to be played in order for it to exist. If a composer is to have his/her music played, s/he has plenty of tools at his/her disposal these days to make it happen. The days where one could sit in a corner and mope at how unnoticed their music is and be justified in that attitude are drawing to a close.

    At least, I hope they are.

  11. Chris Sahar says:

    Ah, Armando thank you for the wonderful clarification.

    Good luck with everything and i check out your site for performances.

  12. Rebecca says:

    Writing as a composer:

    What is music? For me, it has to do with emotions, and intellect married to emotion.

    For a composer music is what the composer wants it to be. But if it is to reach an audience there should be at least some element of common language. So, for example, a great piece of Indian music, using different scales and concepts would not have the same impact on a Western audience as music based on some common experience of the music in Western countries.

    Personally, I think great new music needs to be stubbornly independent of any prescribed style, and that includes the prescriptions of atonal music! The composer should chose to relate to a style for a specific reason, not because it happens to be fashionable in universities. A composer should study and analyze what makes great music great. This is the composer’s tool box. However, the composer then uses these tools to create something different from what has gone before.