Classical Noir – Surprisingly, classical music has an indie scene too

Tom Thum with the QSO in 2015 Photographer: Jared Vethaak
Graham Strahle
| June 7, 2016

Is Australia a leader or a lagger in the search for alternative ways of presenting classical music? In Europe and the US there have been some striking examples over the last decade of how experimentation with non-traditional concert design and choice of venue is injecting new lifeblood into the art form. We have covered some of these in previous news stories. ‘The Night Shift’, running since 2006, is Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s casual format concert series for younger audiences – DJs introduce the music and drinks are allowed.

In the US, San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox and the recently launched National Sawdust “incubator for new music” in New York, offer a similar kind of nightclub experience.

An early starter in the ‘classical goes clubbing’ scene in Europe was Yellow Lounge. This was a concert series started in Hamburg in 2001 by Deutsche Grammophon. Adopted since in Berlin and other German cities, it combines that label’s in-house classical artists along with electronic musicians and DJ. Yellow Lounge’s venues include techno clubs and latterly Berlin’s old railway station, Neue Heimat.

Bringing classical music to pubs has been another interesting trend. Two more ventures we’ve seen are the London record label Nonclassical (founded by Gabriel Prokofiev), which has been running ‘classical club nights’ in pubs and nightclubs since 2003, and the first classical music pub to open in the Netherlands, Utrecht’s Muzieklokaal.

Together these experiences show that, far from being held captive by tradition and convention, classical music has a thriving indie movement all of its own that just might be its inner strength.

In the UK we must also include Limelight, which presents classical music in a rock environment at London’s Soho Square’s 101 Club. It “strips away the ever-strict format of the concert hall to a really delightful, enjoyable and fun state and then, drink-in-hand, you can really begin to listen,” wrote one blogger. And the ‘classical clubbing’ trend elsewhere in England has given a whole new life to former famous nightclubs. Manchester’s Haçienda, an acid house and rave hotspot in the 1980s and 90s, now sees Manchester Camarata playing orchestral arrangements of club classics. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra recently played a night of dance music classics to celebrate that city’s legendary nightclub through the 90s, Cream.

Similar activity has sprouted in the US too. Justin Davidson wrote a few years back that the ‘anti-concert hall’ movement, as he described it, is giving rise to numerous “informal venues for adventurous listening”. Foremost among them is Poisson Rouge, a music and cabaret space that variously programs classical and rock bands. Louis Andriessen, Kronos Quartet, and pianists Sarah Cahill and Joshua Rifkin have appeared there.

Tectonics Adelaide 2014 with Oren Ambarchi and the ASO Photograph: Alicia Canter

Tectonics Adelaide 2014 with Oren Ambarchi and the ASO
Photograph: Alicia Canter

A new addition to the US scene is KC Jukebox. Housed in Washington’s Kennedy Center, this has taken off with casual, eclectic concerts of acoustic and electronic music which allow people to freely wander around. The curator is composer and DJ Mason Bates, about whom one observer remarks: “His instincts are good and, for the most part, he knows how to create a scene where people of all ages want to be, to experience his colors, and to stay with that sensation”.

So do we have a ‘next wave’ of classical music happening in Australia? Here some history is in order, because one of the country’s most notable ventures down this path has already come and gone. In 1999, Musica Viva started a concert series for 18 to 35 year-olds called Ménage. It was a “guerrilla program”, to quote Musica Viva CEO Mary Jo Capps, in which chamber musicians infiltrated nightclubs and pubs (The Adelaide Review, February 2007). Venues included Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel, Sydney’s Carriageworks, Perth’s Luna Cinemas and Adelaide’s Lion Arts Centre; and often the performances involved collaborations with sound and video artists, contemporary dancers and other arts practitioners.

After some nine years Ménage went into recess, the logistical difficulties of running the series apparently having proved too difficult. However, two of its most outstanding ensembles, Speak Percussion (which debuted in Ménage in 2000) and Zephyr Quartet, continue to be torchbearers of innovative thinking and interdisciplinary practice. Nevertheless Ménage’s disappearance has left a vacuum.

To an extent it is about numbers. More experimental concerts by their nature can be costly, especially where they involve new collaborations. Out-of-the-way venues are unpredictable in terms of pulling audiences. Our major companies, including our six state symphony orchestras, have been more intent in recent years on developing large audience bases that generate consistent box office. Indie style concerts don’t fit well into this template, and the tendency now is to reserve more alternative shows for special events such as festivals.

Our series on how the state orchestras are trying to build new audiences illustrates this. So for example the West Australian Symphony Orchestra says it wants to do more semi-staged productions using digital technology, but that cost is the limiting factor. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra reserves its most contemporary-themed concerts for its MOFO and Dark MOFO collaborative projects. Ditto for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra: its boldest new work has been with curator-conductor Ilan Volkov in Tectonics Adelaide as part of the 2014 and 2016 Adelaide Festivals. On a smaller scale, the ASO has just started up a Gigs at Grainger series, so far involving jazz collaborations with saxophonist Adam Page (recalling its Edge series in 2006-2007 that combined rock band and orchestra).

Likewise the Queensland Symphony Orchestra pushed its boundaries furthest in a long while at the Brisbane Festival when it teamed up with beatboxer Tom Thum last year. This was in its classical-meets-hip-hop-and-jazz ‘Thum Prints’ concert at the Powerhouse. (In April 2016 the QSO collaborated again with Tom Thum and also with cross-disciplinary duo Argo, but outside the Festival).

It is then to the smaller players that we must turn to see where the ‘next wave’ of classical music is currently headed in this country. Only the most general overview can be offered here, but what we see is an odd and sometimes unstable mosaic of activity. And it’s one that frequently intersects closely with the live (contemporary) music scene – particularly in terms of venues that are prepared to support this more experimental work.

Brisbane has a new Indie-Classical collective called Dots+Loops which has given “post-genre” concerts at The Triffid, a refurbished World War II hangar in Newstead, and Fortitude Valley’s industrial warehouse, Cupo. Brisbane’s Armas Quartet is one of its mainstay performers, and this year they played music by Bryce David Dessner (from US indie rock band The National) and Topology’s Robert Davidson.

Sydney’s FourPlay String Quartet, which plays on amplified instruments, has been successfully pushing the string quartet medium into indie rock territory since 1995. They’re well known for their arrangements of Rage Against The Machine, Radiohead, Leonard Cohen and others. They tour extensively (including regionally and interstate) and have even appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Barbican.

An intriguing new idea that Mitchell String Quartet (Bathurst) has been pursuing is playing in gyms. In one recent performance at a fitness centre in Orange, the four members were positioned amongst the treadmills. “A gym is where people go to gather and socialise, and all walks of life pass through the doors… so why not show them a bit of classical music,” said the group’s violinist Andrew Baker.

It’s all about working outside a fixed template. Perth has been doing this since 2009 with its Cappuccino Concerts, which brings high level chamber music performances to inner-city cafés, libraries, music shops and bookstores. Performers over the years have included cellist Louise McKay (from WASO ), pianists Anna Sleptsova and David Wickham (WAAPA), and violinist Paul Wright (UWA).

Unexpected venues are also a theme of Melbourne’s Piano Project. It has brought piano recitals to a former car workshop turned art gallery in Brunswick and the heritage-listed meat market in North Melbourne, in order to raise funds for refugee children. Meanwhile, a stalwart of Melbourne’s independent jazz and classical scene is Ruby’s Music Room. Well equipped with a Steinway D, it tends to present piano based concerts, latterly with a string of Polish pianists. (Ruby’s is presently moving from Bennett’s Lane to an as yet unannounced new location.)

Adelaide suffered a loss when one of its favourite intimate live music venues, the Jade Monkey, was demolished in 2013. Zephyr Quartet and guitarists Aleksandr Tsiboulski and Slava Grigoryan were amongst the many artists who performed there. Jade Monkey has since re-established next to St Paul’s Creative Centre. With venue comes atmosphere, and one of the most unusual to ever be used must be Glenside Hospital’s Z Ward, also in Adelaide. Formerly home for ‘criminal mental defectives’, Soundstream used it in 2015 for a concert of experimental acoustic and electronic new music.

No survey would be complete without mentioning pop-up concerts. Joshua Bell one of the first major classical artist to try doing this when, famously, he donned a baseball cap and Bach played to rush hour commuters in a Washington Metro station in 2007 (hardly anyone passing by recognised him). The idea was revisited in 2014 when German cellist Alban Gerhardt played Bach suites in a Hobart shopping centre. This was ahead of him performing with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra the following night.

House concerts are a related area which we’ve explored elsewhere. Taken as a whole, perhaps more such under-the-radar activity is needed to change the way the majority of people think about classical music. Too often, it seems welded into concert halls and the traditions they epitomise. Locating it instead in urban spaces, where people meet, mix and socialise, makes a lot of sense. The idea beckons for more.


  1. Julian

    good to mention Menage which was excellent – i and my girlfriend at the time modelled at one event at the Arthouse Hotel in Sydney. i was surprised and very disappointed when that series stopped as it seemed to be on the vanguard. there is, however, a deeper history of such initiatives in Australia. Music For The Heart And Mind ran in the early 90s in Brisbane and spawned an entire post-classical scene from which emerged Topology, COMPOST and many other artists. i’m sure other commentators can list other precedents, including notable venues.

  2. Richard Ween

    You might look into QSOCurrent – in May 2015 we commissioned and premiered the Tom Thum & Gordon Hamilton Thum Prints project. We then took this further by developing a larger version in collaboration with the Brisbane Festival in September 2015. This was later recorded with the QSO in the studio. A third incarnation of Thum Prints as a short concerto version was premiered in April 2016 as part of the BBC Proms in Hamer Hall, Melbourne with a touring QSO and our Music Director Alondra de la Parra.

    In 2016 QSO Current commissioned a new show from Tom Thum and Gordon Hamilton, along with projects with Rafael Karlen, Sampology etc, all using the resources of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. This is an ongoing annual programme and again which showcases emerging artists, composers and new commissions.

  3. Jochen

    Good article. With all this talk about presenting classical music in non-classical venues – can I say that when this happens on a bigger scale (with funding behind it) it can come across as a somewhat laboured bid to “make classical music cool” – so I’m glad you mention house / pop-up concerts and call for under-the-radar activity.

    Apart from traditional classical / contemporary / new music, there are some grass-roots acts who come from an indie-rock background but now draw on classical influences and now compose original music that sits between the genres, like Brisbane’s Nonsemble, and Sydney’s Hinterlandt.

  4. Pingback: Classical Music discovers Clubbing just as Clubbing Declines – Mae Mai

  5. Andrew B

    Cool to see Music for the Heart and Mind mentioned in comment above – this was where it was at in the 90s, absolutely grassroots and inspirational, fresh as it gets, and real heart and mind went into each occasion. I was a young budding musician and art student deeply inspired by these events at the time, they showed me you can just create something purely out of inspiration, without having to bow to any established plutocracy, academic or other establishment or other obstacles to creative genius. I remember the admission price being something like $5, they always had a full house and you could feel the vibe in the air – something magical was happening. I reminisced about these a couple of years ago, missing the initiatives, feeling a bit sad that the series died a natural death, but perhaps it is for the best that that is what happened, rather than it becoming co-opted by an institution, submitting to the or becoming a “brand”. It was a privilege to be a part of those events, to witness Topology being born, among other experimental musics – sometimes the ink was still wet, sometimes no ink was needed. Bring back the 90s!

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