Last week Slate posted a story whose headline pronounced classical music in America dead. Such obituaries have been written so often—and not just for classical music—that you could be forgiven for assuming that most art forms have more lives than a cat. But classical music, while definitely still alive, has without question lost the cultural weight and audience appeal it once had in this country—it’s now widely seen as stale, fussy, elitist, and boring.
Major institutions with graying audiences struggle to find new listeners, and their desperation leads to some odd juxtapositions—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNow series, for instance, held in Millennium Park’s tony Harris Theater, promises free beer and pizza after each of its concerts, along with DJs spinning electronic music. But plenty of presenters and ensembles are much savvier about detaching themselves from the things that make classical music seem so out of touch and unfun—among them formal wear, uncomfortable concert halls, an alienating fixation on perfection, laughably stiff artist head shots, and repertoire that’s mostly more than a century old. Kronos Quartet, perhaps the most famous iconoclasts in the contemporary-classical world, got started in 1973; the International Contemporary Ensemble was founded in 2003; and for a little more than a year, Chicago label Parlour Tapes has been flouting those musty stereotypes with its own distinctive kind of playfulness and creativity.
So far Parlour Tapes has put out nothing but cassettes, attracted by their cheapness and their modest DIY feel—a perverse choice in a genre so obsessed with high fidelity. Its music is also available via Bandcamp, a platform that only forward-looking labels such as New Amsterdam and Cantaloupe seem to have discovered; by and large the classical world suffers from a failure to understand how Americans consume music now, which leads to an overreliance on labels releasing CDs like it’s still 1995.
Last year Parlour Tapes had two releases: the debut recording by the critically acclaimed and increasingly popular Spektral Quartet (one of my favorite local classical albums of the year) and a quirky anthology of commissioned works from ten local composers, each of whom was asked to collaborate with someone outside Chicago. Right now it has three titles planned for 2014, including an album by Eighth Blackbird flutist Tim Munro and a project by composer and bassoonist Katherine Young and violinist Austin Wulliman (Spektral Quartet, Ensemble dal Niente).
“It’s not something we set out to do, but we’re psyched about taking classical music off of this pedestal,” says Kyle Vegter, one of Parlour Tapes’ five principals. He and cofounder Jenna Lyle, who’d met at a Spektral Quartet concert in summer 2012, first discussed starting a label in October of that year, over beers and macaroni and cheese at the Hopleaf, and the others all came aboard by the start of 2013. Parlour Tapes succeeds in demystifying and revitalizing contemporary classical in large part because its staff treats the act of running the label as a creative pursuit on par with the making of music. Everything it does—broadcasting the burgeoning energy of the Chicago’s community to a larger audience, fostering interactions with other scenes, easing the pressure for perfection on composers and performers—arises from something bigger than just business logic.
All five partners in Parlour Tapes have classical pedigrees and broad tastes. Vegter is a composer who also plays bass in indie-pop band Thin Hymns and serves as musical director for experimental shadow-puppet troupe Manual Cinema, and Lyle is a vocalist and composer. The other three—Andrew Tham, Deirdre Huckabay, and Ellen McSweeney—are a composer, a flutist, and a violinist, respectively. McSweeney, who’s a member of Chicago Q Ensemble, also writes for classical webzine NewMusicBox. In explaining the label’s choice of format, Vegter notes that an increasing number of labels and musicians have turned to vinyl and cassettes, abandoning the increasingly beleaguered CD—but that the classical world hasn’t followed suit. “It’s still chugging away, only recording in super pristine studios and using the best mastering engineers,” he says. “In the rest of the music industry, people are recording in their bedrooms, in a more homespun process. I thought, ‘Why can’t classical music do that?'”
A lot of what Parlour Tapes does has a DIY feel. Vegter recorded the Spektral Quartet release, Chambers, using his own portable rig—basically a laptop, a few linked interfaces, a bunch of cables and stands, and a handful of microphones—in four locations around town, including the Alice Millar Chapel in Evanston and a small studio he shares with members of Mucca Pazza. (Not that the album sounds like the product of half-assed sessions: the recording is lovely, and makes great use of the acoustics of the different rooms.) The label also embraces spontaneity, but not as a by-product of procrastination or seat-of-the-pants planning—it’s more like a combination of enthusiasm and whimsy. When I interviewed Vegter, Lyle, and Tham, all three seemed to be plotting and brainstorming between answers. Even their fund-raisers are elaborate creative enterprises. A May 2013 event called the Guilty Party was built around a mock murder mystery, with videos and performances to provide clues about the “death” of David Skidmore from Third Coast Percussion; a July fund-raiser and concert at Constellation was dressed up as an employment expo hosted by the label’s international alter ego, Parlour Taipei. “Even when we do promotional stuff,” says Tham, “it provides a weird creative outlet in all of these other ways and lets us not take it so seriously.”
Last summer, Tham and Huckabay realized that they had performed Mark Applebaum’s electronic piece “Aphasia” twice on Western Avenue—during the fake job fair at Constellation and as part of a poetry reading at the Parlor—and would be doing it a third time at a Spektral Quartet concert at the Empty Bottle. So they decided to add six more performances along Western in September and October, all of them outside—they did one in front of the Working Bikes Cooperative, for instance, and another in Welles Park. (Full disclosure: the Constellation event was part of a new-music series I program there, which has also featured Spektral Quartet.) The piece doesn’t require the performers to play anything, just to synchronize a long series of choreographed hand gestures to Applebaum’s music—which for the outdoor shows was coming from a boom box. There wasn’t a clear reason for Tham and Huckabay to undertake those extra performances, except to have done them. They didn’t even work that well as PR stunts: only a few friends came out to watch, and because “Aphasia” is less than ten minutes long, there wasn’t time for all that many curious bystanders to gather.
Parlour Tapes’ anthology of commissioned work, *And, likewise sheds the formality that most people associate with classical music—it comes wrapped in a black-and-white illustration of a boom box, and it’s packaged with a box of crayons to color it in. It also includes a broad range of sounds, only a few of which could be considered “classical”—Ted Hearne’s “Thaw,” for example, is a straightforward composition for tuned percussion and drums, played by Hearne and Third Coast Percussion. “A Series of Symbols That Signify Nothing,” on the other hand, by clarinetist and sound artist Alejandro Acierto and New York percussionist Matthew Evans, collages together harsh electronic noise, turntable abuse, and rattling metallic tones; “-XED,” by Chicago sound artist Ryan Ingebritsen and New York violinist Todd Reynolds, is a spacey melange of drifting ambience, electronically treated strings (both plucked and bowed), and swirling electronic blobs.
“Something really stratifying happens when you categorize something as classical or pop,” says Lyle. “I don’t know how I feel about it. But I like, at least on the *And project, that no one was concerned with genre and what kind of piece they were producing. They just did whatever they wanted—whatever felt the most truthful as a creative person, in a format that gave them a different kind of life.”
Vegter agrees. “One of the reasons I wanted to start this label was to put classical music in dialogue with all of these other genres,” he says. “I don’t think it’s happened yet, but we’ve talked about partnering with another tape label, where we have a show with artists from each label performing together.” Vegter and his partners speak particularly warmly of underground rock label Teen River.
Compared to *And, Spektral Quartet’s album is pretty conventional—it collects new work by a variety of adventurous Chicago composers. (Parlour Tapes sells it on cassette, but Spektral asked the label’s permission to make CDs on its own.) It’s worth pointing out that Spektral didn’t choose Parlour because it had no other options: the quartet has several upcoming albums being released through ordinary music-industry channels, including a recording of Ernest Chausson’s Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet that’s due this spring from Warner Classics. “There was a magnetic draw to the fact that, like us, Parlour is taking risks to reach new ears,” Spektral violist Doyle Armbrust told me in an e-mail. “We had the option to go the established label route, but teaming up with those raconteurs meant freedom to make exactly the album we wanted to make, and get it on the shelves of Chicago’s record stores and hopefully into the hands of adventurous cassette junkies. It’s also an affirmation of our belief in the direction the Chicago new-music scene is speeding, with collectives like Parlour stoking the fuego.”
Parlour Tapes currently has no distributor—it delivers cassettes to local shops by hand and sells them online via mail order. (All the label’s music is available digitally via Bandcamp, and every tape comes with a download code.) The affordability of cassettes is one of the big reasons Parlour chose the format, but it’s also interested in working with the limitations of technology. “We’re not Luddites,” says Tham. “We’ve talked about being a format-specific art group in everything we do, and I like the idea of influencing composers and performers to think about how to make something for tape or vinyl or whatever format we’re doing.”
One of the label’s scheduled releases for 2014, not yet titled, carries that idea to an extreme—its conception and packaging are in large part a complicated joke about the constraints of outmoded software and hardware. Parlour is asking ten artists to write pieces using popular notation software such as Finale and Sibelius, then record them not with live musicians but rather by using each program’s built-in MIDI sounds, which are at best tacky simulacra of orchestral tones. “It’s a weird challenge,” Tham says. “I’d like to get some people who might not even think of it compositionally, like finding a composer who specializes in graphic scores and see how they deal with straight-ahead notation.”
The plan is to release this MIDI project in digital form only, with an expensive special edition on floppy diskette—order that one, and several label folks will show up your house, possibly dressed in lab coats and white gloves, to ceremoniously install the music files on your computer using an outboard floppy drive.
The other forthcoming releases are less zany, but they’re hardly tuxedo classical. The Tim Munro cassette will include works by John Cage, Tom Johnson, and Marcos Balter, among others, and focus as much on voice as flute, making it a counterpart to a theatrical work the flutist is developing with director Joanie Schultz. The stage piece will contain some of the same music, and he’ll mount it right around the time the album comes out, to help promote it—not an approach many classical artists take. Often when ensembles record a piece, they’ve been playing it for years, and by the time anything gets released the music has rotated out of their repertoire.
The Young-Wulliman release, Diligence Is to Magic as Progress Is to Flight, will document a performance and six-channel sound installation presented last fall at Defibrillator Gallery. Parlour will sell the music in a standard stereo mix, but it also hopes to offer a deluxe package, possibly with as many as half a dozen cassettes, that will include every one of the spatialized electronic elements from the installation—all meant to be played simultaneously, as a sort of contemporary classical answer to the Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka.
Parlour Tapes is a tiny fringe operation, so it’s hardly likely to resuscitate the huge audience that classical music once enjoyed. But the label’s bustling energy—its enthusiasm for playful recombination, innovation, and fence jumping—provides incontrovertible proof that classical is far from dead, however diminished it might be. “This feels like a place where I can bring my most ridiculous ideas and people will be psyched about it,” says Vegter. Parlour has instigated an exciting creative ferment, and for Lyle all this activity is its own reward: “It makes me love people more.”
Correction: This story has been amended to clarify the status of the Parlour Tapes MIDI project.