[genre musings]

This is an archived repost of an essay I wrote in January 2016 about the way
we talk about "genre" and "craft" in music.




Last week, my friend Gabriel Kahane shared a few thoughts about craft and genre as they relate to new music. It's worth a read, and I think I understand where Gabe's frustrations come from:

"[P]rogress is often found in the alchemy of disparate idioms." True!

"Anyone can put a hip-hop beat under a twelve-tone row." Almost nobody has, and for good reason, but yes I'm with you. [Also this reminded me of The Most Unwanted Song, which is actually amazing.]

"One of the dangers of simply talking about genre qua genre, aside from the fact that hybridity is the order of the day, is that the quality of the work becomes secondary to its stylistic attributes." Yes, this can absolutely be a danger... and this danger is not limited to particular hybridistic works. When someone says "I hate country music" or "I hate rap music," it's the same thing — they haven't thought critically about the genre; they do not understand that genre is an arbitrary frame around an individual artist's expression; they are biased against a culture.

But then, the crux of Gabe's argument:
"I object to genre as a discourse."


"I]n an era where kids are making playlists that run from Kendrick Lamar to Karlheinz Stockhausen, shouldn’t we allow craft, rather than categorization, to lead the conversation.” I want to agree with this, and I wish it were that easy. And if Gabe is merely objecting to the insistence of iTunes to label every album as belonging to a single pre-defined genre, or some article about how the newest chamber pop phenomenon is obliterating genre as we know it, then yes, I agree with him 100%. Those conversations are boring, and they usually replace far more interesting ones about what, why and how an artist is expressing. [Also, 'chamber pop' was a geriatric term from the moment it was first uttered and should be retired at once.]

But when I think about it, many of the conversations I have about music do originate from genre or style-related questions more than from craft-related questions, and I like it that way. 

Poking around an artist’s relationship to genre usually results in questions that have something to do with: Why did this musician make certain aesthetic choices and what are the implications of those choices in context(s)?  

Poking around an artist’s craft can help us understand how they’re making the music, but if our curiosity truly originates there, we may not even really understand what we’re hearing, much less why the artist put those sounds together in the first place.

The idea that an artist should start their work with good craft — "first and foremost, craft!" an old composition teacher used to say — is even more dangerous. It's founded, I think, on the assumption that "good" craft is static, neutral and unbiased, rather than dynamic and subject to interpretation like any other socially-defined concept. In that way, genre and craft are two sides of the same coin: both moving targets mistaken as fixed standards, both sets of restrictions imposed upon present artists that are modeled from boundary-breaking innovations made by past artists, both enemies of invention when taken too seriously.


Craft is a word that used to mean power or force. (Kraft still means that in German.)

I laughed when this hit me, because I've long associated exhaustive conversations about craft with composers who don't have an interest in questioning or subverting the power dynamics of their own musical community. Composers who love their own prestigious teaching positions and residencies. Composers who have no personal incentive to cast a critical eye toward the audience assembled to listen to their music. Of course they would love power. (Not that I haven't talked craft with lots of other composers too, but somehow it's never the most memorable takeaway.)

And it's definitely true that if you compose with what powerful people agree is excellent craft, you have the highest likelihood of being folded into the established order. Accepting and adopting those standards without scrutiny clears the easiest path toward your own success in the field. (Not just limited to the Classical crowd here. The only established genres this is not true for are those which make no money -- what up, Vaporwave?! I see you out there!)

But how authentic can your expression really be if your syntax has been determined for you?

Genre comes from gender. This was a word that described grammatical differences before it was adapted into a word used to separate all human beings into two discrete categories of men and women. Today, genres herd different works of art into single categories based on any number of possible attribute filters. Who determines which filters are relevant is also a matter of power.


I recently took a job at a rather traditional Classical Music institution, where conversations about how to achieve the best compositional craft are constantly taking place, but questions about what "craft" might mean in different disciplines and styles, who exactly set those goalposts, or why we are perfecting our craft in the first place, are sometimes lacking. Tunnel vision.

But I don't blame the institution, I blame the genre. The culture of Classical Music is infected with the ethos that it is the most sophisticated, the most refined, the most subtle, the most expressive, the most "eternal" of all the Musics. (Then comes Jazz! Then everything else.) Most of us see this is completely and obviously untrue, but it's helping to keep the genre of Classical Music, and by extension the people it represents or at least the people that pay for it, isolated and segregated.

Genre is culture.

Our divisions and alliances, our segregations and minglings, our power dynamics, our setbacks and progresses —  they are all traceable in our musical decisions, and in the ways we choose to classify them. People identify with music that reflects some part of themselves. The apparatus that harnesses these identifications together into labels with cultural import, and (usually) with monetary value, is genre.


Which is why I find Gabe's assessment that — "for the most part, everything that is new is a hybrid of two or more things that came before. This has always been the case." — to be juuuust a little flippant.

All hybrids are not equal!

Yes, Beethoven appropriated elements of the Turkish march and Debussy was fascinated with the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the Paris World's Fair, but the dialogue taking place among genres in these works didn't run much deeper than that. And it goes without saying: these are both composers who made seismic syntactic innovations. (Just not which are at all related to these particular examples of stylistic hybridity.)

Gabe's examples of Ligeti’s Désordre and Sufjan’s Predatory Wasp of the Palisades, on the other hand… Both are richer hybrids. Both explore a more fluid and dynamic relationship to genre than the Beethoven or Debussy.


When Ligeti first heard ethnomusicologist Simha Arom’s recordings of music from the Banda-Linda tribe as played to him in the late 70’s, he found a complex balance between order and disorder that reminded him of the unplayable music of Colin Nancarrow, and saw possibilities for a musical hybrid that could potentially apply some of the polyphonic techniques of the Banda-Linda to notated music. Ligeti then became a student of that music, so much that he wrote an introduction to Arom’s book about the music two years later! All that depth of understanding is embedded in Désordre

I like to think that Predatory Wasp, and Stevens’ entire album Come on! Feel the Illinoise!, is the result of a similar struggle to express something that would be impossible without studying and incorporating music of a different cultural purpose, without challenging the aesthetic limitations imposed by his particular community. Dude needed more depth, and he pushed his own audience to need it too! 


The way I see it, craft operates in tandem with the hybridity of these works. The composer’s (and performer’s) choices about how to express their ideas factor into their engagement of different genres or stylistic signifiers, and are usually inextricable from it. 

There's no such thing as universally good craft. Désordre is crafted exquisitely only insomuch as it is crafted to fit comfortably into the solo repertoire of a concert pianist. (And it’s a great showpiece — the promise of an wowed audience is enough to lure a performer to overcome the technical challenge of learning it.) But to me, this craft, while masterful in many ways, is the least interesting part of the piece. And personally I find the craft of Wasps (and all of Illinoise) to be a little awkward. Some sectional edges are rough, some of the production and orchestration seem a little wonky in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. (These aspects got way more convincing with Age of Adz and especially Carrie and Lowell.) But this only adds to its impact and authenticity.


But what about this new piece Brain by Fay Wang? We could talk about the composer's craft, which may or may not be notable, but for me the conversation definitely starts with genre. I mean, what even is this piece? The wide palette of musical elements she incorporates, the puzzle of implications she harnesses through sounds and their disparate references, the contrasting vocal styles (check the belting at the end!) — all these things speak to a really sophisticated and dynamic sense of stylistic hybridity.

Or what about the composer who better win all the Grammys, Kendrick Lamar? So many fascinating conversations are provoked by To Pimp a Butterfly, but the way Lamar uses genre as a dynamic parameter in that work is astounding and inspiring. Hip-hop has a genre consciousness built into its foundation. Sampling is recontextualizing, samples are recombinant materials, and the way a hip-hop harnesses (or hides) the cultural associations attached to each sample's source changes with every work. Much like D'Angelo's masterpiece Voodoo of 15 years before, TPaB is a patchwork of sounds, styles, gestures — some super specific and almost pastiche, some more elusive —  that conjure disparate genres, all woven intentionally into a narrative that implies both unity and tension among different perspectives, voices, generations.


Yes, TPaB is constructed skillfully in other ways too, but it's not true that the combination of genres in that album are "only as important as the craft that's brought to bear on their marriage." I'd argue the opposite. The soul, the message of the music is found in a deep and critical engagement of genre.



Maybe I'll have a private argument with Gabe about how I hear him taking a similarly critical approach, using genre as malleable and expressive parameter in hybrid works like February House and The Ambassador, in ways that deserve real dedicated discourse. Maybe I'd completely agree with him if I still lived in Brooklyn, where it's still easy to get fatigued from the latest PR hype proclaiming the end of genre as we know it (as if "post-genre" weren't also a genre in this context). Maybe (wait, definitely) I'm overthinking what's really just a songwriter's plea to leave him alone and let him write down the music he hears in his head.

I know this can all sound a little whiny and a lot sanctimonious, but the truth is it's all rooted in optimism. Music is a great communicator and has the power to speak to large communities without relying on the problematic specificity of actual language. Greater stylistic fluidity can beget greater communication among people, and to that end some real talk about genre is not something we should shy away from.