Monday, July 09, 2018

revisiting a New Music Box advocacy for "post genre" and the old-school difficulties of proving negatives

Composer/pianist Vijay Iyer gave me the first building block I would use to develop my ideas surrounding universal music. In a room full of workshop participants, he said something akin to, Genres don’t exist. They were invented by record companies to sell albums. [emphasis added] Genres are an attempt to categorize a community of people who come together and create something.”[3] Once again, I was confronted with a paradigm shift. My musical training, rhetoric, and artistic upbringing had been a world of categories, styles, and genres hinged together. I thought of the countless hours spent trying to play a style correctly and how often I seemed to fail in that goal. At that time, I was already bothered by the mentality that our musical ancestors had somehow received the divine right to invent and that all the rest of us could hope for was to imitate. Yet I was encumbered with the popular notion that I needed to “learn the rules” before I could “break them.” At what point were the rules learned and the breaking could begin? The goal of stylistic execution was perpetually in conflict with my interest as I attempted to occupy both worlds. I embraced Vijay’s comment. He was giving me the words I needed to articulate what I believed and felt all along.
Sometimes it really seems that musicians with advanced degrees of some kind or another in the United States have a commitment to ideas that is at cross purposes with where they are.
For instance, let's formulate a practical application and implication of the assertion that genre's don't exist (I think it should be obvious to anyone who thinks about this for a moment that genres actually do exist and not merely as the creations of record companies in a bid to sell albums).
I've written in the past how if genres don't exist in music a corresponding point would be to say that genres don't exist in film and therefore there are no superhero films which means film critics should not be complaining about a spate of superhero films because now that genre theory is dead who's to say there are too many superhero films out there being made by Hollywood because what even "is" a superhero film?
There's another way to consider the flimsiness of the assertion that genres don't exist.  If genres do not, in fact, in some way exist, then can there even "be" cultural appropriation?  If there are truly no genres then all talk of cultural appropriation is pointless, worse than pointless, bids at the power to control some general narrative that is predicated on the asserted existence of things that can be established as being no more than made up categories, lies, the genres that have traits that can be appropriated by those who are not participants in the community historically and academically considered to have been the originating culture for the genres that don't really exist. 
If cultural appropriation is possible, whether as something to be praised or blamed, couldn't this suggest to us that genres do exist, even if their defining traits may be variable and even if the boundaries between genre A and genre B may be permeable?   In this sense an Afrological and Eurological set of paradigms suggests that those who think that genres at some very broad level do exist have a far more compelling set of cases in their favor than those who deny that genres exist. 
I've been slogging through Adorno books in the last few years and stalwart adversary of the culture industry that he so obviously was, not even Adorno would seem to have said genres don't exist.  Anyone who could approvingly quote an old axiom that there's bad good art and good bad art has made a set of categories.  Someone who can condemn jazz as reheashed Debussy and Ravel as being incapable of revitalizing European concert music has defined jazz as wanting in relationship to French music and an era of French music.  But what he might ask is "who" has the most incentive to imagine, against all historical evidence and scholarly consideration, that genre doesn't exist?
The idea of being "post-genre" seems to appeal to people who are in at least some strata of American academic musicology and music pedagogy.  On the one hand I can appreciate an eagerness to be free of pre-established genres in the sense that I've tended to be anti-Romantic in my interests and sympathies.  On the other hand, it can sometimes feel as though only people who are in some way within the academy think that "post-genre" can ever even happen in the world we live in and that it needs to be pursued as a thought-out goal.  The possibility that we're enjoying another poly-stylistic poly-formal era that is "like the centuries of what gets called the Baroque era but more exciting for being able to include all recorded music from all over the world across every epoch of human music-making that we can transmit electronically seems exciting to me but it's exciting to me because, per Leonard B. Meyer's appraisal, we have a polystylistic steady state in which there has not necessarily been a dominant style yet and that this is the fun.
But in a way the question of what the prevailing style is in terms of popularity has been answered, hip hop.  It's been clear from journalistic coverage of shifts in measuring what sells best that rock stopped being the best-selling genre around the time Billboard made a point of monitoring actual sales.  It turned out once that began to happen country and rap/hip hop were the top selling genres.  Now hip hop is the top selling genre.  Rock, in its various forms, is a faded or fading genre, its dominance arguably sustained by the dominance of the Baby Boomer generation in criticism, journalism, and pedagogy. 
A comparably dominant role can and probably will be taken up by advocates of hip hop as has been occupied by rockists.  It may not seem that way to academics who believe that more popular styles are not being represented in the academy now and that's understandable, but pedagogy and its associated literature can lag behind musical innovation in almost any era.
What seems unlikely is that we are post-genre.  I might grant that we are post-genre in the sense of there being a single monolithic style but I m not sure I even grant this is the case.  Just as in the Baroque era in its early and middle periods there was no consensus of tonal organization and no dominant "single" style but a variety of styles that led to the evolution of new forms, so popular song has dominated global musical culture and has been evolving in ways that suggest that hip hop may be the newest iteration of popular song that has been the dominant musical style.  We've been in the era of the song for at least a century, not that advocates of Germanic autonomous music inspired by German idealism would hear of it. 
But the drive to describe contemporary music in the post-industrial West as "post-genre" persists. 
Conversely, if people don't want to define their work as in any way "classical" what is it?  It's at this point that if it's not classical it tends to be thought of as some variation of popular or vernacular or folk or something.  A commenter at one of the NMB articles left a lengthy comment that seems worth quoting.  But first let's get to the catalyzing article. 
... Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer. The individual is quite important to post-genre thinking. This framework focuses on viewing individual pieces separately from what other composers are creating as well as from preexisting expectations, allowing composers to write whatever it is they want to write. It is not about rebelling against existing genre conventions, but instead about allowing full expression of an individual composer’s musical worldviews. What is most appealing to me about post-genre thinking is that it does not seek to create a new musical movement or shift our music-making; in actuality, it serves as a more accurate representation of much of the music already being created today, and seeks to provide a better fitting system for discussing this music.
While there is still much work to be done in terms of devising a concrete theoretical framework for post-genre and understanding how this framework would be applied widely in the musical world, it has already served as a helpful tool for my thinking about new music.


How Romantic that all seems.  Instead of transcending the constraints of dry pedagogy the artist breaks free of the constraints of genre itself.  Or so it seems.

But ... the thing is, after a lifetime of listening to "pop" and "classical" a lot of the distinctions within "pop" tend to be on the surface.  If the thing you think delineates "country" from "rock" is the sound of a Telecaster vs the sound of a Stratocaster then you're fixating on timbre and signal processing issues at the expense of I, IV and V.  If hip hop can be thought of as the music of urban people of color generally stereotypically thought of as being born to a socio-economic stratum somewhere below middle class a comparable stereotype exists that has it that "country" is lowbrow low-strata music made by rural whites.  Neither of these stereotypes necessarily survives more careful scrutiny.  It's possible to suggest, just for consideration, that the music of the white and black working class may have historically overlapped a bit more than academics have been interested in granting, though obviously by no means "all" or even "most" academics by now, here in 2018. 

But genres seem like they sure do exist.  If Robert Frost's axioms about how good fences make good neighbors is more than just some poem you had to read on your way out of high school or college, respecting the boundaries of an estate, musical estate so to speak, don't have to mean you are being a bad person. 

But it seems "classical" has a range of freight, a bevy of baggage that people who would propose to essentially continue in that tradition find troublesome enough they prefer to not be saddled with the baggage of being labeled as making music in a genre, perhaps specifically the genre of "classical".

The need for a shift toward post-genre seems most evident to me whenever I try to find language to discuss much of the music that interests me as a performer, composer, and listener. When asked by friends and family what kind of music I am interested in, I usually end up giving a rather vague description like, “I guess it’s ‘classical’ (always said with air quotes), but it’s not like Mahler or anything like that. It’s really cool. You’ll like it; I promise.” The word “classical” does not serve to accurately describe much of the music that is shoved under its label. I’m talking about music by many of the composers who have written for Roomful of Teeth, including Brittelle, Missy Mazzoli, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, as well as other composers such as Ted Hearne and Jodie Landau.

In my conversations with these composers, a central topic was genre-based language’s inability to capture what it is that they feel their music is doing. One of the composers I spoke with was Missy Mazzoli, who composed Vesper Sparrow for the group, and is also the leader of her own band, Victoire.

Seeing as I've been reading so much Adorno in the last few years it's like there's some kind of anxiety about genre that is really potentially more of an anxiety about class. 

This kind of rhetoric suggests to me that Leonard Meyer was right to say that what made the Romantic era shift toward romanticism unique in history was that if in the past there were cycles of "classicist" and "romanticist" ideological pendulum swings in the West in the Romantic era as we know it the pendulum swung hard into what we call the Romantic era and that the ideological commitments to and about music have not changed.  We are, in a phrase, still living in the Romantic era.  The avant garde of the twentieth century can be thought of as late-late Romanticism in a sense not unlike a Marxist definition of late capitalism becoming late-late capitalism  The end has supposedly begun but there's no evident end in sight.  Like fundamentalists who reschedule the Rapture to ensure that it hasn't come yet but is coming any day now, so it is with Marxist apocalypticism and philosophy of history.  Different flavors of a kind of post-millenialist utopianism that I admit I am against. 

That the eagerness to move into a "post genre"  world can seem more of a class anxiety than a genre anxiety isn't intended to be a condemnation, exactly. It can sure feel that way depending on who says it and how and there "is" a sense in which the observation is intended to be a criticism.  People who can afford to imagine their music, whatever they don't want to call it, is above the petty considerations of genre, maybe do have a reason to have some anxiety about the privilege from which they can entertain such a notion. 

But a commenter suggested that the fixation on "post-genre" seemed to be more rather than less genre-fixated.

Strangely I think that in rewarding ourselves for being more genre ‘unfocused’ and ‘post-genre’, it actually only shows us how genre ‘focused’ we really are. For me this whole revelation that there can actually be music without ‘genre’ only reflects a Western popular music view that obsesses over ‘genre’ in the first place. Practically everyone (especially in the anglo priveleged world) can only hear music in terms of style. So there’s pop, rock, hip-hop, country/western, jazz, folk/world and oh yeah, classical. And then we just combine or not combine different styles and see what we/me get. So if someone combines say ‘country’ and ‘hip-hop’ we raise our eyebrows and go, wow, see look it’s ‘post-genre.’ But how does the music work?
I really think style is surface. Unless something actually changes in the physical mechanics of the music we’re still dealing with the broader umbrella of ‘popular music’. If someone loops four bars of Bach and then does something over it that fits squarely within that time frame, most likely it’ll be some kind of popular music. Which goes to show how Bach can actually cease to be Bach and that musical mechanics are more powerful than surface. There’s nothing ‘post-genre’ in this example, it’s just illustrating for us the aesthetics of popular music: reliable repetition, comfortably equal time frames, the number 4, etc, with material it’s not usually associated with. So whether or not Ludovico Einaudi includes a few 19th century classical stylistic references or not, or studied with Berio and Stockhausen, doesn’t really matter to me. How does this music work? I’d say what we’re hearing in Einaudi overall is ‘instrumental pop music’ and I’m sure he’d be completely happy with that description. There’s nothing ‘post-genre’ about it. It fits very cleanly within the genre of pop music. If you listen to most mainstream film music scores nowadays and ask yourself, how do they compare to film scores from say 50 years ago, you’ll find that the ones today reflect more the aesthetics and often use the same exact building blocks of popular music today. So for me, most film music today is also instrumental pop.

Now perhaps we could substitute "genre" with a supplementary term like "form" or "process" or "script".  If hip hop and country and folk and rock and "pop" are all genres they are genres that seem to be defined primarily by extra-musical or non-musical cultural signifiers first and very soon thereafter by identifiable musical patterns and behaviors on the part of whomever is contributing to the genres.  Thanks to journalists as well as fans we can get some kind of differentiation between "punk" and "grunge" and these distinctions are worth noting.  Not being a big fan of either I can identify the 1970s vs the 1990s adequately enough.  I can distinguish between Richard Hell and Kurt Cobain. 

The so-called shift Taylor Swift made from "country" to "pop" was arguably a fundamentally intra-pop shift of surface elements of style.  She may have seemed to change genres for those set on confining genre to those levels of timbre and signal modification that delineate "pop" from "country" but at the level of songwriting the song remains the same, doesn't it?  That seems to be where commenter Andrea was trying to go, at least to me.

I could go on and try to make better arguments but overall the general feeling seems to be that most people are not too keen on this perspective and would prefer that I just be really excited about how ‘post-genre’ everything is nowadays. Look, I don’t see ‘contemporary classical’ music or ‘new music’ or ‘contemporary music’ as Western (yes some people in the world actually call contemporary classical music ‘contemporary music’ and they are not talking about ‘contemporary’, some style of popular music) . There are people all over the world doing this in China, Uzbekistan, Iran etc. There may be western origins but there’s no reason why we should first think to call it ‘Western art music’. I really don’t understand when people think we all think that. Would you call the heavy metal music of Pakistan ‘western’ since heavy metal was first started in the West?

All I’m saying is let’s not get distracted by style and surface while ignoring what the music is actually doing. The fact that people are incorporating influences from all over into their music is no surprise today. What we should be surprised by is how they use their materials. And honestly for me the distinctions still holds, either the musical mechanics will be challenging or they won’t. What I consider ‘challenging’ is of course my own, but anyway I hear distinctions between musical mechanics.

 I’m not going to get confused if a classical composer includes rock influences and vice versa. And I won’t get confused if a classical composer sets out to include pop influences but then in the end is actually just making pop music. Philip Glass said it himself. Not that this is everything to music or is it a judgement on its value or if it will be any good, but I don’t think you can escape what you are physically doing by combining styles on the surface. If there’s no substantial change, let’s hear it for what it is. No you’re not blurring the popular/classical genres. And calling something post-genre ignores the fact that music is not only about surface. And by the way it’s not necessarily the classical music world that needs to be chastised so much, if anything it’s the popular music world, mostly grown and marketed by the West, that needs to be chastised. In this world, there’s ‘Music’ (that’s pop, rock, etc), the stuff we listen to, right? (all of which can be described with the word ‘song’), and there’s Classical Music (insert descriptors…) (also all of which can be all called ‘song’ whether it’s symphony or a song). All non-Western musics (wait, who said pop is western?) are lumped under the term ‘World’, ignoring other cultures’ classical music etc and their popular music. Basically it’s not American, so it’s World, get it? No, I don’t get it. It’s not ‘American’ folk music, though. What’s ‘American’ folk music? White people folk music? Look anyway, I don’t think I explained myself very well, but for me as soon as someone uses the term ‘post-genre’ they sound very Western-centric to me. Because the whole genre obsession comes from 20th century western popular music in my opinion. Marketing. In this view’Classical’ music is all lumped in one ‘genre’ (because it’s such a minority – it’s not worth delving into distinctions, or just out of ignorance, or out of actually questioning the validity of some of its music especially certain contemporary classical music) and ignores the hundreds of years of different explorations and then all the different music that’s been made in the last 100 years. I know this post-genre view has been adopted as thinking that sounds more open-minded and tolerant, but it actually sounds closed minded and Western-centric to my ears and obsesses over surface instead of substance.

and so I circle back again to the question of whether cultural appropriation is even really possible if genres don't exist.  If genres don't exist then no one should be troubled by even the possibility of cultural appropriation because if genres don't exist what is there to appropriate in musical terms?  Does Group X have primary authority over 12/8 that Group Y can never hope to share in? Does timbre A so delineate itself from timbre B that anything done with it is distinct from timbre B?  That seems improbable.  While ostensibly striving to move "beyond" genre it may be we have a group of scholars and musicians and music producers and distributors who are more obsessed with genre than earlier generations because the music industry, as some say, has been in a crisis for almost a generation as the internet has disrupted 20th century era paradigms of monetization. 

Since I'm slogging through Adorno books lately, it's in the chapter aptly titled "Classes and Strata" on page 57 of Introduction to the Sociology of Music (ISBN 0-8164-9266-2) that Adorno declares that
grand bourgeoisie was not apt to produce great musicians, although Mendelssohn was a banker's son
and with that exception noted Richard Strauss was supposedly the only composer born into wealth.  The rest, whether a Bach or a Mozart or a Beethoven or a Brahms were those either from the petty bourgeois or from some guild of musicians by family legacy. Not quite bourgeois but in the line of serving those in that status or a higher status, that's where the composers in the canon tended to come from.

Which, if the least bit true, introduces a potentially weird paradox or irony about contemporary academic musicians trying to shake free of a Western canon that is populated by men who were in socio-economic terms in a state of "precarity" for finances or who might, depending on how expensive the liberal arts program is today, from a notably lower socio-economic class strata than those who might wish to be liberated from the stifling weight of the canon to which these dead guys contributed.  The music came to represent a level of agency and individual autonomy and liberty that was not necessarily actually known by the canon-registered musicians whose music can now seem to be stifling for those all too aware of in the midst of their studies or teaching. 

If the legends of the great artist-musicians of the 19th century era have it that they all came from the petty bourgeois then if the Romantic taxonomy of greatness somehow still applies then no one who can afford to et a master's degree, let alone a doctorate, in the fine or liberal arts seems on a steady path to whatever in the past passed for artistic greatness.  Yet it would seem that attempting to formulate a basis for an aristocratic foundation for a revitalized art seems even less appealing.  If advanced degrees are increasingly the purview of upper middle class and upper class people then if the reigning canon has been the assemblage of works made by men (and mainly men) of lower middle class descent then who can contribute to that?  Unless, of course, all of that mythology is bunk ... but what we tend to call "folk" music is the often anonymous legacy of people who could be considered working class or servant class, while the legacy of more aristocratic or well-heeled arts is problematic because, well, those were all the white guys who were into and benefited from the legacy of colonialism, right? 

Who says we aren't still living in a world full of colonialism?  The shift may be from over military force to "soft power" and information control and other less direct methods than preferred in what is more officially thought of as the age of colonialism or imperialism but it hardly means these things went away.  The top twenty percent can still have access to things the rest of us don't have access to and yet, by dint of the one percent, can see themselves as having more in common with "the ninety-nine" percent than the upper one percent even if in social and economic terms the polarity is, if anything, reversed.

Which is another way of suggesting that the people who may be most anxious to be post-genre may want to be post-genre because that's easier than being post-bourgeois, whether the mobility away from that status is a trajectory that goes up or down.

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