“I don’t think ‘post-genre’ works if post-genre becomes just another genre.”
I beg your pardon? Composer William Brittelle isn’t, it transpires, spouting pretentious gobbledygook. He is talking about his own music, and he’s serious.
Post-genre, it seems, is what you get when music no longer fits into easy types or categories. Jazz, classical, rock, hip-hop, soul, electronica — these and other styles of music, though sometimes interacting, for many years essentially developed separately. What would happen if you chopped up bits of two or more of them, and threw them in the melting pot together?
Brittelle’s music is one answer. It’s often described as a mishmash of various influences, including classical. Twin Cities audiences get a chance to sample it Wednesday when his new work, “Spiritual America,” has its world premiere at Aria in Minneapolis in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s push-the-envelope Liquid Music series.
Brittelle is happy acknowledging the unusual mix of ingredients that go into his compositions. He insists, though, that none of it is premeditated or formulaic. Post-genre, for him, means simply moving beyond labels, listening to the variety of voices speaking inside him as a composer, whatever their particular stylistic accents.
“I think there are continuing trends in our culture to view people not according to their gender or race,” he said. “I would hope these are paralleled by a movement in music to look at the creator and the context of the composition, ahead of any genre information.” Stop pigeonholing, in other words, and start listening without prejudice.
Brittelle has a string of classical collaborations to his credit, including with the Seattle and Indianapolis symphonies. Why are classical orchestras reaching out to mavericks like him? Is there something wrong with “ordinary” classical music?
Kate Nordstrum, who curates the Liquid Music series, has a ready answer.
“I think with orchestras there has tended to be this inward focus, very mindful of specifics within the classical realm,” she said. “There hasn’t been enough outward-facing to what’s happening in the broader culture, to which other artists are doing work that orchestras should be paying attention to.”
‘A culture of openness’
Liquid Music was created to look outward, and address this very issue.
It commissioned Brittelle’s “Spiritual America” and has staged eight other premieres or new commissions in its first three seasons. “I’m excited about creating a culture of openness to new sounds and new ideas at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra,” Nordstrum said. “And the audiences here are very excited about it.”
So excited, it seems, that sellout concerts are the rule, not the exception. A third of those attending Liquid Music shows go to regular SPCO concerts. The rest are new to the orchestra’s activities.
“It’s an audience of all ages, high schoolers to 85-year-olds,” said Nordstrum.
Part of the attraction is that Liquid Music eschews the traditional concert hall setting, choosing venues to suit the project. For Brittelle, this is crucial.
“Aria is a beautiful venue with a wonderful vibe, and a real emotional ambience to it,” he said of the Cass Gilbert-designed warehouse that once was home to Theatre de la Jeune Lune and is now an event center.
That’s important, as “Spiritual America” is a strikingly emotional piece of music, born of a desire on Brittelle’s part to reconnect with the religious and moral ethos of his small-town North Carolina upbringing. “A sense of longing” infuses the music, he said. “Wanting to belong, but not being able to conceive of a place where you would belong.”
His co-travelers on the evening are indie-rock duo Wye Oak, which will perform “Spiritual America.” Songs from their recent album “Shriek,” re-imagined for chamber orchestra by Brittelle, and a new piece by SPCO guest violinist Michi Wiancko are also featured.
What sort of music is it? Brittelle would probably view the question as irrelevant. What he values is the opportunity to write for enlightened organizations that let him be himself, heeding the variety of siren sounds within him.
“I really do think Liquid Music is remarkable and deserves to be trumpeted as a model of what is possible. Because of it, and programs like it, I don’t feel there’s anything I’m not allowed to do anymore.”
Terry Blain is a Twin Cities writer.