Modernizing the Classics

Indexical brings experimental music to Santa Cruz

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Illustration by Owen Thomas
Illustration by Owen Thomas

Experimental music is an undefinable art form pushing boundaries and transforming music within classical and electronic genres.

The genre is broadly considered to be music that goes against the traditional style in composition and performance and often incorporates mechanical and electronic elements. Indexical, a record label and production company created in 2011, is showcasing an experimental music concert series in the Santa Cruz and San Francisco area throughout April.

The unique sound and experience makes an impression on audience members who often ask performers questions after a show, a practice uncommon at conventional orchestral concerts.

“The vibe of [experimental music] concerts is one [where] the audience sits down and is quiet, focused and listening. It’s an observational experience,” said Indexical co-founder Andrew Smith. “There’s also a process of the audience reacting and asking questions. There isn’t a wall between the performers and the audience.”

Experimental music includes compositions from living composers instead of focusing on older composers such as Beethoven or Mozart. This brings new, contemporary classical music to the community and recognizes modern classical composers who do not get as much attention as more acclaimed composers of the past.

The series includes Mivos Quartet; Bass2Bass, a 5-string electric bass duo comprised of Michelle Lou and Scott Worthington; and Happy Valley Band, a group led by Indexical collaborator David Kant. Each band has a different style that encompasses the experimental music genre.

“[Indexical is a] platform to publish long-term projects by ourselves and by people we feel aesthetically close to, particularly projects that exist outside the larger structure, like symphony orchestras,” Smith said.

Smith and Kant created Indexical in New York and moved to Santa Cruz to attend graduate school at UC Santa Cruz. Their move initiated a new purpose within the label — to promote more sit-down, acoustic, concert music composed within the last 20 years, Smith said.

Both Smith and Kant are currently receiving their Doctorates of Musical Arts in music composition. This UCSC program is internationally recognized and emphasizes algorithmic and computer-assisted composition used in experimental music.

Started by Kant, Happy Valley Band uses a custom-built machine-learning software to cover pop songs such as Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” The program listens and transcribes the songs into musical notation, often resulting in complex compositions nearly impossible to play.

“The project involves training a machine, identifying instruments, trying to figure out what melody is being played,” Kant said, “then automatically transcribing that all down into hypercomplex notation, then getting people to play it.”

The concert itself is a live representation of the computer’s music, which people perform together on stage by following the computer’s notation. The resulting songs transform the original, well-known tunes into collaborations between musician and computer.

Bass2Bass will perform new, original songs combining non-standard ensembles with electronic sounds. Sabrina Schroeder, a composer for Bass2Bass, often uses modified transducers and self-built mechanisms to create unconventional sounds on stage.

Mivos Quartet, performing since 2008, plays contemporary music in a classical style — one form of experimental music. Sometimes using electronic and multimedia presentations, members commission original pieces and collaborate with various composers, performers and writers.

“We specialize in contemporary music written mainly by living composers,” said violist of Mivos Quartet Victor Lowrie. “We focus on classical music as a living art form. We try to find what interests us and bring that to people.”

Due to a lack of knowledge and familiarity surrounding more recent classical compositions, the pieces need to be organized well enough for the audience to understand them as a whole.

“We try to present a very curated experience. You have to put it together to make sense and guide people through something that’s new,” Lowrie said.

Although contemporary classical music retains similar sounds and compositions to more established classical pieces, it is less recognizable and therefore has an element of surprise and excitement.

Groups like Mivos Quartet reinvent the genres they pull from to produce new, sometimes strange, music for listeners to experience.

The series of shows will run through April in the Bay Area, with Mivos Quartet coming to Santa Cruz on April 16 at the Resource Center for Nonviolence.

“I’m excited to show people on the West Coast some of the repertoire they might not be as familiar with,” Lowrie said. “[Also] to meet a new audience and make connections with musicians.”