Tag: genre blurring

Overthinking Genre

Container yard

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.

If the Medium Is the Message, Then Who Should Sing It?

Photo of a dimly lit empty stage.

Photo by Max Wolfe. (This image is in the Creative Commons and is available on Flickr.)

Composers of new music theater depend on singers to bring their characters to life. From conception to casting, we often face a difficult choice: who should be performing this material? As the stylistic divide between contemporary opera and musical theater continues to widen, how do we who write crossover material manage to avoid compromising our original intentions? Why is it so challenging to find the right singers to fit the bill, and is there value in writing for and/or casting singers who specialize in the “wrong” style as dictated by the form?

Once upon a time, the conventional wisdom was that classical training was the best foundation for all styles of singing, but that no longer seems to be the case as “legit” singing has fallen out of fashion in new musical theater writing. Of course vocal training for classical music and vocal training for musical theater need different foci, to an extent. Each requires meticulous attention to a separate set of performance traditions. American musical theater is mainly in English; opera singers need to master diction in several different languages. Musical theater performers must produce a healthy sound that will serve them for eight performances every week; opera singers must produce a healthy sound that reaches a hall of 4,000 sans amplification. Training programs have grown to address these individual needs, but they seldom cultivate all that musical theater and opera have in common. New York University offers two different voice curricula, one singer-focused at the Steinhardt School, and one actor-focused at Tisch. These programs do not share resources. Last year I had some opera scenes staged at a top conservatory. Students were required to audition with 20th-21st century arias in English, and they were encouraged to have musical theater songs ready as well. I was shocked to find that many of them did not have any English arias, and the only soprano who knew a musical theater song had to run to the school’s library in the middle of the audition to get sheet music for the pianist since it was not officially part of her repertoire.

I have not taken a voice lesson in eons, and I do not pretend to be an authority on the subject. But as I sit on the other side of the audition table now, I am well aware that the current gold standard for contemporary musical theater writing and performance is now this.

(Full disclosure: I am glad that it has spoken to millions around the world, but it is neither my personal preference nor my strength. I feel like people singing in this manner are yelling at me, and as a New Yorker I encounter enough yelling in my daily life as it is.) Thus I have surmised that there is now a vicious cycle at play: since Wicked and other shows written in that style are the plum gigs, it is important to possess the requisite vocal skills to snag them. So the premier training available for musical theater singers skews to that, whether or not it is what the singer’s voice naturally wants to do. Indeed, several singers I know have expressed frustration that, after many years of hard work, they have had to start their training all over again to build a more acceptable and marketable sound for Broadway. It is now possible to belt the high G flat in “If I Loved You” from Carousel and book the job—I have seen this happen.

The unfortunate old maxim endures: opera is all about the music, and musical theater is all about the text, so one demands top-notch musicianship while the other just requires better acting. I believe writers and performers all do themselves a disservice by using this yardstick. It creates stumbling blocks between all of us that don’t need to exist. Here’s one example: once in an opera workshop the conductor called me out for a lack of dynamics and articulations in my score. I couldn’t justify it at the time, and later I realized I’d gotten into a habit of under-articulating because I was so used to anticipating musical theater singers forging ahead fortissimo all the time, regardless of what I’d indicated on the page. I wasn’t communicating properly because I didn’t inherently trust the excellent performers around me. Here’s another: when I recently asked a well-known musical theater actress to play a role in my opera that would utilize her puppetry skills perfectly, she declined mainly because she was intimidated by opera as a whole. I even set about rewriting the part for her, but ultimately it was a missed opportunity to collaborate.

So what happens when we sit down to write with all of this in mind? Musical theater pedagogy guru Jeannette LoVetri talks about “the newer crop of composers who write for their own ears.” In context, she is referring to those who ignore practical technical considerations in favor of impressive vocal lines, and I am definitely not advocating for that. But when it comes to figuring out what timbre is best suited for each role we write, we must be true to our own ears. As the Baker’s Wife sings in Into the Woods, “Is it always ‘or’? Is it never ‘and’?” Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’s Anna Nicole was cast with a mix of opera and theater singers. Heiner Goebbels’s Surrogate Cities originally featured an operatic mezzo but later starred Jocelyn B. Smith, who bills herself as a soul singer. Both renditions of “Dwell Where the Dogs Dwell” (which starts here around 3:45) in that piece are equally arresting for completely different reasons. The rules are just not so hard and fast.

As my own opera makes its way through the developmental process and I am repeatedly asked to choose between opera and musical theater singers for the various roles, I continue to answer that question with only a question mark. I think there is something in the disconnect that’s worth exploring, a sort of aesthetic friction that happens when a line obviously steeped in musical theater tradition is sung operatically and vice versa. The more singers I meet in both genres, the more possibilities open up. As long as the dramatic moment allows for the “wrongness,” it’s just one more wrench in the theatrical toolbox to create a heightened world.

Giving Voice: Creating An Invisible Presence

Creswell, wearing headphones, sitting in front of a mixing console.

Mixing a Camper’s Track.

It wasn’t until I joined the teaching artist organization, Music Ascension that I first encountered the phrase “giving voice.” Like all good phrases, it has stuck with me and I’ve continued to refine my understanding of its meaning. Over the course of the past year working as a teaching artist, I’ve encountered a myriad of young artists and assisted in the development of their creative voices. The challenge is to help them develop as artists and individuals without imparting personal aesthetic and creative preferences. This is what giving voice has come to mean to me.

Learning how to become present in a young person’s work was initially a challenge for me. Like most artists, I’ve often felt insecure about myself and my work. My guitar playing wasn’t fast enough. I was a bad singer. My compositions weren’t that good. I’ve suffered from “impostor syndrome” and have questioned whether or not I should even be an artist. All usually before lunch.

It turns out that none of this matters when working with young artists.

In a typical songwriting course at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods camps, I began the first class with a creativity exercise. I had students list their five favorite things about being at camp. After that, I had them write a series of couplets about three of those things. Then I asked them to take their favorite couplet and add a second couplet that related. “Voila!” I would say. “We’ve just written our first verse.” Campers would be amazed and excited that they had started to write their first song. Once they had established their lyrical ideas, they would begin to sing little melodies for their lyrics. I would bring my guitar over and help the camper find chords that fit their nascent melody. In this moment I was no longer able to worry about my guitar playing or knowledge of songwriting. Instead, it was my job to nurture this seedling of a musical idea and help the camper grow it to a full song. As I began to remove any sense of ego from this work, I began to remove ego from my own creative process. I was faking confidence in the beginning, but as this process continued I began to gain confidence myself. (This growth mirrored the confidence that the campers were feeling in themselves). I started to apply this assuredness to my own work, pursuing ideas even if they lead me down an artistic rabbit hole.

The second challenge was learning to create an invisible presence. Like all artists, I have aesthetic preferences and opinions that guide my own creative work and processes. Although these preferences are fluid and ever-changing, they are always present. When working with campers, I had to learn to move beyond my own personal choices in order to honor the individuality of the campers’ creative and musical interests.

Prior to showing up to camp last year, I had never encountered dubstep. I knew it was a popular musical genre and that one of the most popular acts was Skrillex. (However, the only time I had ever encountered Skrillex was while on a Syracuse University alumni panel, where I promptly asked if Skrillex was the name of a cookware company.) On my first day at camp, I met a young camper who was enamored with dubstep and who wanted to spend the summer working on his first dubstep track. Rather than dismissing the camper or attempting to steer him in a different direction, I researched dubstep, the techniques involved in creating it, and listened to a handful of the most popular tracks. While to my ears, the entire genre seems to be derived from Julia Wolfe’s Tell Me Everything, it was a quality learning experience for me and helped the camper develop a dubstep track that he was proud of.

The final part of creating an invisible presence is learning when to push and when to pullback in the teaching process. This is the second year we’ve run the program at Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods. Many of the songwriting students from last year have returned to the program. With the more experienced students, I’ve been able to challenge them, expanding their understanding of lyrical and musical ideas. In order to do this in a fulfilling way for both parties, I’ve had to increase my own knowledge of pop, hip-hop, and other genres I’m less familiar with. In the past few weeks, I’ve challenged young aspiring rappers with the slam poetry of Saul Williams and Alix Olson, attempting to expand their social consciousness.

Creating an invisible presence is about eliminating ego, sharing in your students’ creative goals, and working to best further their voice, regardless of personal aesthetics. In my final post next week, I will talk about how expanding my openness to all forms of creativity has had a positive impact on my own work and creative process.

Man with cap sitting in front of a drum kit in a large room.

Recording a drum track.

Sounds Heard: Wayne Horvitz—55: Music and Dance in Concrete

LP cover for Wayne Horvitz's 55: Music and Dance in Concrete
Wayne Horvitz
55: Music and Dance in Concrete

(Other Room Music 001)
Music performed by Steven O’Brien, trumpet; Naomi Siegel, trombone; Kate Olson, soprano sax; Beth Fleenor, clarinet/bass carinet; Briggan Krauss, alto sax; Maria Mannisto, voice; Victoria Parker, violin; Eyvind Kang and Heather Bentley, violas; Roweena Hammil, cello. Recorded by Tucker Martine. Composed and mixed by Wayne Horvitz.

Listen to “55 (3)” from 55: Music and Dance in Concrete


© 2014 Wayne Horvitz. Streamed with permission.

Though Wayne Horvitz’s music has always been somewhat difficult to classify, it has usually adhered to a “jazz” sensibility. Even Wish the Children Would Come on Home, his previous album released back in May of this year which consists predominantly of pre-composed music performed by a brass quartet, exudes a jazz feel despite the overall lack of improvisation (except for a few tracks where Horvitz joins them for some impromptu mayhem). However, no matter how definitions can be finessed to tie all sorts of loose ends together, one would be hard pressed to associate his latest record, 55: Music and Dance in Concrete, with swing, bop, fusion or any of the myriad subgenres that have expanded this way of making music over the past century. Yet it is still clearly Wayne Horvitz and is utterly fascinating.

Each of the album’s tracks is cryptically titled “55” followed by an additional number, but those second numbers (which range from 1 to 29) are not presented sequentially. Horvitz, with whom I corresponded via email, was born in 1955 and was 55 when he began composing this music. So despite the seeming abstraction, this is very personal music. But it gets even more complicated. Though the opening track on the album is “55 (1),” it is followed by “55 (15)” then “55 (29)” and “55 (10)” etc., almost inviting listeners to determine their own path through the material. According to Horvitz, the tracks were simply titled in the order he created them but then he later sequenced them in an order that seemed more organic. The numbers go as high as 29, but he never completed three of the tracks. The 26 tracks, scored for various combinations of wind and string instruments, were actually culled from a total of 110 musical fragments. These fragments consist of performances of 55 pre-composed Horvitz chamber music pieces plus 55 improvisations all of which took place over the course of four days in the concrete bunkers and cistern at Fort Worden in Pt. Townsend, Washington where they were recorded by Tucker Martine (who has also worked with R.E.M., The Decembrists, Beth Orton, and others). Then Horvitz electronically manipulated and remixed these recordings so that the final audio result sounds nothing like what the musicians originally played. Then, these resultant pre-recorded tracks served as the sonic component for a modular site-specific multi-media work presented in a variety of locations within Fort Worden involving choreography by Yukio Suzuki and video by Yohei Saito.

Taken out of its original context the music still manages to comes across as part psychedelic soundtrack (think Barbarella), part mysterious fun house (think Sleep No More). I personally wish that I would have been able to experience the visuals as well as the music, though I’m not sure a DVD would have captured the complete experiential immersion that the collaborators were aiming for. At least the LP (yes, it’s available on LP!!!) comes with some large, tantalizing photos of the original production. Though there are only 13 tracks on the vinyl release (it has not been issued on CD!), all 26 completed tracks are available digitally on a download card included with the record. Additionally there’s a wealth of information (including some tantalizing video excerpts) on a dedicated website about the project.