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 List.com 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.