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Overthinking Genre

It can feel impossible to label and organize the diversity of music that falls under the “new music” heading. Does that hurt our advocacy for the music we care about?

Written By

Madison Goodwin

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Second Inversion is a project dedicated to rethinking classical music, presenting new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre. What does that mean? All corners of the classical genre? Even just “genre”? And how does one describe, define, and label this sonic palate that is perhaps most commonly referred to as “new music”? It’s a question I confront daily, but there’s no clear answer and it’s a hot topic in recent blog posts and Facebook discussions within the community.

I’ll back up and approach it from my perspective at Second Inversion, but first, a little history. It’s the newest online streaming channel from  98.1 Classical KING FM, joining the longstanding terrestrial simulcast, Evergreen channel, Seattle Symphony channel, and Seattle Opera channel. Back in 2012, four twenty-something KING FM staffers were assigned to create this new channel. Week after week, Seth Tompkins, Rachele Hales, Jill Kimball, and I would convene, brainstorm, mull over a bunch of questions, ponder ideas; two years later, Second Inversion was born. Here are some things we figured out during the incubation:

What should we call this? Second Inversion. It has some insider music theory nerdery but for the general public, we hope it implies something different, fresh, turned around, and reimagined.

What’s our catchphrase? Rethink Classical.

And the longer succinct description? New and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre.

What are our platforms of presentation? A 24/7 audio stream hosted by the four of us and new music experts from the community, a blog-style website, and on-demand audio/videos of locally produced performances.

What’s our visual representation? Sketched out and brought to pixelated life by Seth Tompkins, this image conveys a mix of old and new: our foundation in classical music through a tuxedo (typical symphony uniform) combined with a relaxed, modern flair (big headphones).

Second Inversion logo

How do we reach our audience? Word of mouth, Facebook, Twitter, KING FM cross-promotion, community partnerships

It gets a lot tougher from here:

What kind of music should we include and what are the boundaries? Since we’re rooted in a classical radio station, we decided to keep the word “classical” in our identity but in an expansive, open-minded, exploratory, reaching-to-the-fringes way. It’s music that you almost certainly wouldn’t hear on the dial at 98.1 KING FM.

As a starting point, we combed through our KING FM database for music by 20th-century composers. It yielded works by John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jennifer Higdon, Arvo Pärt, and many others. We also found a few albums featuring artists primarily known for classical music but breaking down the boundaries a bit, like Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley’s Shuffle. Play. Listen., Hilary Hahn and Hauschka’s Silfra, and Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt’s Night. We also culled some outside-the-box ideas from our own personal libraries, like Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Hip-Hop Etudes, Jonsi, film and video game soundtracks, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Zoë Keating, Portland Cello Project, Jherek Bischoff, and the Vitamin String Quartet. At the time, we basically had no New Amsterdam, Cantaloupe, BMOP/sound, New Focus, New World, or Parma recordings in our library. Many outreach e-mails later, we wound up with an immense quantity of creative new music and quickly discovered how varied, eclectic, and difficult it is to not only define but organize into a streaming channel.

I’ve kept tabs on what other people are calling this music, so I’ll share my compilation: new music, contemporary classical, art music, composed music, formal music, indie classical, avant pop/rock, orchestral pop/rock, symphonic pop/rock, chamber pop fringe classical, crossover, sound art, orchestral synth, modern classical, new concert music, cross-genre, experimental, eclectic, adventurous, avant-garde, innovative, cutting edge, up-and-coming, experimental, ambient, cinematic, electroacoustic.

I believe all of those categories and adjectives describe the music we play on Second Inversion at any given moment. They’re all useful, but no single category or even combination of those descriptors is enough to give you the full picture. Further explanation and conversation about the music is more important than deciding what to call it, and even better is listening and letting it speak for itself.

As for organizing it into a streaming channel? In the spirit of discovery and inclusion, it’s a mixed bag, but centered around context. There are fascinating stories behind the music, performers, composers, instruments, and sounds, so almost every piece has a human introduction or closing commentary. We strive to present a diverse offering, but I increasingly take comfort in the fact that there’s not a single correct way to curate and that it probably won’t suit everyone at all times. I’m letting go of the pressure to define what it is, and I’m putting more emphasis on presenting high quality audio productions that represent the music of today. I couldn’t agree more with Gabriel Kahane, who said, “…in 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?” Thankfully, people are crafting a lot of really great music, and we’re here to give it a centralized home.

At the end of the day, there are still record bins with categories and digital platforms with tags, but in my dreams, we’ll reach a point where all of these “subgenres” are so fused with other types of music that we can just call it all…music.