What makes for truly “rebellious” art? by Liquid Music

By Steve Seel

We all know the archetype of the “artist as rebel.”  The status-quo-challenging outsider, the rule-breaking gadfly who revels in making waves in his quest for artistic purity. Of course, it’s an archetype that’s become so utterly mainstreamed in pop culture to have lost all meaning. (Does anybody think a Mohawk haircut is rebellious anymore?) And all too often, we confuse superficial trappings with true innovation.

Steve Seel in the studio with composer William Brittelle at  McNally Smith . 

Steve Seel in the studio with composer William Brittelle at McNally Smith

So when genuine rebellionand true originalityemerges, we usually don’t know what to make of it. Someone has gone to the wilderness and come back with a revelation to share with us; do we see them as crackpot or prophet? (Usually the former of course… since few things are as unsettling as that which is totally unfamiliar).

When this happens in music, we find ourselves in the wonderful situation of not having the words to describe what we’re hearing. What is music that melds previously disparate genres? That breaks one rule after another, that upends our expectations about how we’re supposed to listen… and even where we’re supposed to hear it, or how we’re supposed to behave when we do? (Do we stand or sit? Does this music belong in a concert hall, an art gallery, or a punk club? Can we clap when we want? Can we cheer or whoop during the music?)

LM artist Vicky Chow performing Tristan Perich's " Surface Image "

LM artist Vicky Chow performing Tristan Perich's "Surface Image"

That’s why I love the term “Liquid Music.” It’s a genius expression that Kate Nordstrum, Founder, Director and Programmer for the Liquid Music concert series, came up with. The term “new classical” has tried to put a fix on what’s happening in experimental cross-genre music today, but it still references a traditionclassical musicthat’s too loaded with expectations to help us listen with truly open ears. While it’s important for a new music composer to be conversant in the vast, important work of classical music’s leaders and trailblazers, he or she has still got to be free to “leave town” (i.e. the Western classical music “tradition”) to hear how the rest of the world speaks.

Steve Seel and LM performer Miranda Cuckson

Steve Seel and LM performer Miranda Cuckson

And as we know, a great deal of important things have been said in music over the centuries by people who may never have heard a Beethoven symphony. From a Senegalese percussion group to gypsy-punk band from Ukraine to a hip hop MC from Brooklyn, the world’s musicians have their ways of telling their stories, in their own aesthetic language, that are equally immediate, real, and worth hearing. And now, in this age when we have finally become used to that idea, a new era of creatingand listeningwith even less prejudice than before is emerging. The world’s folk, popular, and academic musical spheres are conversing like never before. It’s an amazing time for music.

And so, nothing is solid where the true experimenters of music work; ideas flow and crash into each other like waves, effortlessly. They shift their shape eternally depending on their “containers.” The only constant in Liquid Music is motion. Fluidity.

In the McNally Smith studio with Liquid Music Team and producer Don Lee at the board

In the McNally Smith studio with Liquid Music Team and producer Don Lee at the board

It’s my privilege to get to host this series’ conversational podcast, Liquid Music Playlist. I grew up listening to my sister’s rock albums but also going to classical music concerts with my parents. I loved the “don’t follow the rules” attitude of rock but gravitated toward the thoughtful, philosophical milieu of rock outliers like Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson. I never learned to read music or play an instrument through academic training, but I became a crusader for the sublime experience of classical music on the airwaves of Classical Minnesota Public Radio (and later, for the more experimental side of rock on MPR’s The Current). I’ve always been interested in the “middle way,” of sorts, between the two worlds. The Liquid Music Series bridges that gap, but then expands its reach and breadth so much further - into a fourth-dimension of music where classical and “popular” music are merely two of the countless genres being exploded and re-combined by a new generation of free-thinking artists.

In our podcast, we’ll get to meet a huge swath of artists who are participating in this season’s Liquid Music concerts. We’ll get to know a bit about them and where they’ve come from in their musical journey as we sample from their own musicand then, in the spirit of the “continuous flow” that is Liquid Musicwe’ll get a recommendation from them for an artist that they want to share with us, too, and hear some of that musician’s work. So each installment of the podcast will bring us two things to discover, not just one (a pretty good deal, wouldn’t you say?).

Conductor, arranger, performer and composer André de Ridder

Conductor, arranger, performer and composer André de Ridder

Along the way, we’ll meet conservatory-trained composers who are working with improvisational singers. We’ll meet rock songwriters who are joining forces with modern chamber-music ensembles to create new collaborative compositions. We’ll meet classical instrumentalists who are working with electronics. In each and every case, we’ll meet musicians who are ecstatic about how old boundaries are coming crashing down around them.  

Jimi Hendrix said, music is like “the waves of the ocean; you can’t just cut out the perfect wave and take it home with you.”  The Liquid Music Series understands that music today is less fixed in-place than ever before, and the moment our preconceptions try to generate rules for listening, we’re engaging in an act that differs very little from freezing Jimi’s “waves” in time. I hope you’ll come along with me for a little wave-riding. You know what it is about waves? No two are the same, and they never stop coming.

Listen to the podcast

Liquid Music Playlist is sponsored by McNally Smith College of Music