Style Points

Looking around, listening around, culture is as stylistically non-hegemonic as I’ve ever experienced. But parallel to that is a kind of greater semiotic compartmentalization: the vast majority of cultural artifacts I encounter keenly announce their stylistic allegiance early and often.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

Assorted spices on wooden background
Sometimes, you go to a concert—or you go to a movie, or you read a book—and it feels a little like the whole thing has been engineered to appeal to your own proclivities and penchants. Back on August 7, my wife and I had a date night, and we went up to Rockport to hear The Bad Plus—pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King—joined by saxophonist Joshua Redman. (The official billing was “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman,” a nice, opportunistic asyndeton with kind of a Who’s Next feel.) It ended up being a 90-minute plunge into one of my particular obsessions: musical style. Redman’s usual style is a lot more straight-ahead post-bop than The Bad Plus, which tends toward something akin to a romantically lush lyricism filtered through a box full of Rush and King Crimson records. The styles mesh, though: the trio lending a deep, power-chord foundation to Redman’s twistier flights, Redman sailing through the trio’s modular pulses with squalls of virtuosity. And all four share a tendency to continually cross-examine their own styles, as well as everybody else’s. This was the first concert of a brief tour, so, especially on new material, the stylistic negotiations were still ongoing—never contentious, but noticeable. The pleasure of the experience—the excitement of the experience—was that of investigation and query more than that of gloss and consensus. Which is, of course, a style, and a stylistic decision, in itself.

I think about style a lot. I always have. And I tend to think about it in a somewhat interrogatory fashion—poking at it, messing with it, taking it apart and putting it back together. So I tend to like music, and musical performances, that do the same thing. And I’ve come to realize that it’s a bit of an odd thing to like.


Throughout the concert, I kept flashing back to another piece of music, very different music: Lukas Foss’s Solo, a piano work from 1981. When I was studying with Foss, he liked to bring out this piece for group seminars; I heard him analyze his way through it at least twice. It’s great for that sort of thing, at least on the surface: all the gears are in plain sight, as it were. And yet it is also elusive. Most music, fast or slow, loud or quiet, presents itself, makes itself the focus of at least some kind of attention while it’s being performed. But Solo, every time I’ve heard it, seems to hang back from that sort of engagement, just sort of strolling around the periphery of my musical cognition. And a lot of that has to do with how the piece alternately engages and ignores style.
Solo opens with a 12-tone row, played twice so you’ll get it:

All score samples taken from Solo: for Piano by Lukas Foss. Copyright © 1982 by Pembroke Music Co. A subsidiary of Carl Fischer, LLC. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

And, almost immediately, the serial structure begins to unravel with a bit of misdirection:
Those bell-like tones in the left hand are a feint: for three notes, they reiterate the row, but then go on their own way. The right hand is doing the opposite—Foss starts reordering the row, bit by bit, beginning with the first two pitches. The first section of Solo ends up filled with rearranged and almost-but-not-quite row forms, little tweaks of pitch order so that seemingly same initial conditions produce different results. Eventually, the stream of notes starts yielding verticals, almost always certain intervals: fourths and fifths, seconds and sevenths:
Those intervals sound an awful lot like the sorts of intervals that pop up in a lot of phase-based minimalism, the friction of diatonic motives as they swirl and collide. They’re supposed to. Just as, at the beginning, Foss references serial modernism without really writing any serial modernism, now he’s referencing Reich-style processes without any such process—and in a chromatic context.

After building up to a keyboard-spanning climax, Foss drops in three theatrical coups. The first one is the most hidden, and maybe the most outrageous: the music turns around and backs up through ten pages’ worth of pitch material, rearranged among the hands and the piano’s range, but otherwise scrupulously retrograde. You want a row operation? Here’s a row operation. The bulk of the structure is a massive symmetry, but the musical surface betrays none of it—or all of it, as it blithely churns along, the notes ever-circling but the rhetoric placidly constant.

The second comes after that long mirror exhausts itself and the original row-theme returns in polyrhythmic guise. Suddenly, the music’s motor keeps seizing on thick, jazzy chords, finally giving in to them with a quirky little groove:
This bit of pop music—that’s how Foss thought of it, and referred to it—is the arrival point for all that has come before, and yet it feels almost defiantly casual, impulsive.
The last coup comes at the very end—or, as Foss would have it, after the very end:
The final chord hits, but in its echo, we get that opening row one more time. Let Foss explain:

The score has the word ‘Fine’ written a bar before the end: the last bar is like an appendage or an error—the piano playing on without its master or the phonograph needle returning to the opening automatically, as the engine stops.

Foss, I remember, was exceptionally pleased with this ending. He was always proud of particularly clever or provocative things he had come up with, but this one went a little further, I think. Because Solo, in a way unlike any other piece I know, is a piece about style—modernism, minimalism, classical, popular—but written from an eclectic’s standpoint, outside style. The music is semiotically backwards: the stylistic signals show up too late, after the music is already going. It’s like those row forms in the piece’s opening section, constantly rearranging themselves in an attempt to keep up with the tonal allusions Foss wants to make, the theory trying to chase the music down. To listen to Solo is to experience that, but in the arena of category. Our sense of style is always playing catch-up to our sense of sound. Which is why that extra bar is, maybe, the key to the piece. It’s all twelve chromatic pitches, ready to spin out again. It could go off in some completely different direction. It probably will. The whole piece, Foss seems to say, the whole of music, is always there, outside of ourselves. We catch glimpses of it, and we call it style.

Redman and The Bad Plus were doing something of that, too, enough to trip my amygdalae into conjuring up memories of Foss and his tricks. The group ended up going in a few Foss-like directions, even—that “pop” progression at the culmination of Solo is not too far from the sort of power-chord-but-then-again-no changes that Bad Plus originals often feature. But mostly it was a common attitude, the kind of generously restless curiosity that easily slips back and forth across the line between celebrating a style and subverting it.

That sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, it can be deeply uncomfortable.


Societally speaking, this summer has felt awfully polarized. It seems like all the old dichotomies—black/white, rich/poor, right/left, east/west—have reared their heads in earnest. It seems like it, anyway. Maybe it’s just, confronted with an acceleration of the continual parade of the human capacity to behave abominably toward each other, we fall back into perceiving those dichotomies, because they give us something to hang on to. They let us make sense out of what, if we’re being really honest, we ought not to be considering as sensible. Even the ones that are closer to the truth than not can be a little too comfortable, providing a seemingly ready explanation that can obviate necessary action. Like so many other games involving language and categories, such categorization gives the illusion of absolving us, just enough.

I would hardly put musical stylistic categories into that, um, category. They can be somewhat useful. They can be undeniably fun. They can also cause undeniable trouble, but it’s relatively minor trouble, in the grand scheme of things. And it would be ridiculous to make any utopian claims to their existence or elimination.

But I will propose that there is something particular about style, and stylistic boundaries, that’s going on in contemporary culture. I don’t think it’s robust enough to call it a rule. A tendency, maybe. But it’s this: as style has become more pluralistic, it’s become less subtle. Looking around, listening around, culture is as stylistically non-hegemonic as I’ve ever experienced, anyway. But parallel to that is a kind of greater semiotic compartmentalization: the vast majority of cultural artifacts I encounter keenly announce their stylistic allegiance early and often.

This has been going on for a while. I was recently re-reading Retromania, Simon Reynolds’s study of the increasing weight of pop-music history, and he touches on this sort of thing in his discussion of the rise in the 1980s of what he calls “record-collection rock.” “Most really interesting bands have a map of their taste buried within their music for obsessive fans to dig out,” Reynolds writes. “But what was different was that the taste map was getting ever more explicit and exposed, to the point where the aesthetic coordinates were right there on the surface of the sound.” I would say that’s become a prominent feature of all cultural media. And non-cultural media, too. Remember the early days of the World Wide Web—when the evangelists were so sure that having more viewpoints and more voices would reduce extremism and promote consensus? Yeah, that didn’t happen. Instead, philosophies attained traction in as much as they could be efficiently signaled. Too long; didn’t read. Having that many voices meant that we could find the ones who agreed with us and hunker down.

Maybe that’s why I think that music that goes beyond mere stylistic pluralism, music that actually unscrews the back of the stylistic box and starts ripping out the wires, is getting more rare—and is a harder sell. The Bad Plus are pretty much their own brand now, but they got a fair amount of grief in their earlier days, just because no one could put a clear label on just what it was they were doing. Jazz? Rock? Ironic? Sincere? That it could be all of that and more took some time to sink in. A lot of the sort of new music we talk about in this space is in the same boat. Foss’s music, for instance: stylistically speaking, what do you call something like Solo, beyond a catch-all like “eclectic”? And (not incidentally) when was the last time you heard it?
It’s fascinating to hear the recording of Foss himself playing Solo. Looking at the music on the page, one might assume that it called for a steady, mechanically even performance, in line with the minimalist-ish textures and repetition that make up so much of the piece. (There’s a six-page stretch of the score that’s completely devoid of phrasing, articulation, dynamics—any expressive markings at all.) Foss, though—it’s ruminative dynamics and rubato all the way, the music and the tempo undulating almost throughout. The effect is somewhere between an early-Baroque prelude, a high-Romantic character piece, and a wayward Errol Garner introduction.

Foss probably wasn’t trying to make those connections; then again, such connections were second nature to him. You could always count on him to hone in on the avant-garde surprise in the oldest repertoire and the thread of tradition in the newest—finding, in the nuts-and-bolts pleasures of craft, the common ground between disparate musics. That seems like an attractive goal, but it also runs right into every psychological defense we have. Because it’s a reminder that a lot of other things we think of as inevitable, as set in stone, as just the way things are, really aren’t—which means the onus is on us. The music doesn’t make the style. We do. And that goes for the rest of the world as well.