Tag: labels

What kind of music do you write?

A still shot of a selection of records in a store

What kind of music do you write? Composers all get this question. All the time. I was at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago this past December where I spent a lot of time with composers, conductors, and band directors, and you can imagine how many times it came up. As composers, we even ask other composers this question knowing full well that the answer can often times be quite complicated.

While at Midwest, I finally had the opportunity to meet Libby Larson. (And if you have not met her, I highly recommend figuring out a way to do so because she is an absolutely wonderful person.) Even someone of her esteem asks me this question. What kind of music do you write? I rummage through all the different answers I have prepared for this precise situation depending on the audience. From one composer to another composer is a much different answer than to a potential commissioner, or to a family member, or to a random stranger I am sharing a car ride with. I begin to tell her that “my music is an amalgamation of my lived experiences represented in music,” while I am careful not to indicate an aesthetic to her. I then go on to explain that “my music recently has strayed away from a specific style or medium and that I have recently written pieces for live electronics, a semi-classical sounding woodwind quintet, and a percussion piece using found objects, all while in the process of developing a new work for wind band.” She then tells me that I’m doing the right things, by keeping my options open. Coming from her, this was like being told I had made all the right choices in life.

A year ago, I interviewed 20 composers asking them to describe their music and discuss if aesthetic was important to their work. After each conversation, I realized more and more that I was not ready to write about the subject matter. My perspective shifted from one where I thought aesthetic did not matter at all, to one where it really just depends. I was oversimplifying the topic.

Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us.

I was quite surprised to see that there were generally only three types of responses to the question, “What kind of music do you write?” There were the responses that used some sort of musical language or referenced an aesthetic—“I write tonal music” or “I write groove-based music.” There were the responses that noted some sort of ensemble—“I write opera” or “I write band music.” Finally, there were the more philosophical or non-musical answers—“I tell stories through music” or (as in my example to Libby Larson) “I write music that is an amalgamation of my lived experiences.” This is all composer to composer, of course. I personally do a little bit of the medium/philosophical approach more so than the others, but I definitely air quote and wince and say classical from time to time. After interviewing so many colleagues, the only thing I discovered was that I had no idea how to answer the questions about aesthetic I had at the time, and every person I spoke with seemed to have a different opinion.

So where does that leave us composers who may or may not fit in an arbitrary box? Shortly after I completed all of these interviews, I came across Hannah Schiller’s article on post-genre context here on NewMusicBox. We are definitely on the same page. She quotes Missy Mazzoli, who accurately says what I’ve been thinking for the past few years now: that the word composer is a good description, but the word classical is not. Every composer that I spoke to said that they would never self-impose a box on themselves. Annika Socolofsky wishes that we would just erase classical music genre boundaries: “It’s a narrow-minded viewpoint that is keeping us stale and super white.”

When I asked if they fit in a specific style camp, almost everyone said no. Aaron Garcia described their style camp as somewhere between “nerdy composer music and punk,” and Jay Derderian said, “I’m not sure if I qualify, but I gravitate towards romanticism.” Alex Temple said “poly-stylist,” which I appreciated because it acknowledges the fact that many of us are writing in more than one specific aesthetic. Tina Tallon said that she “often gets lumped into the experimental avant-garde,” but it isn’t what she is necessarily going for. Everyone else felt pretty strongly that putting a name on what they do limits their ability to create great art. Something that really stuck with me that a few people said was that “they strive for artistic honesty,” owning artistic choices as a means of expression.

The language that composers use to describe their music is incredibly interesting and should not be ignored. Shelley Washington, for example, suggested that her work was “a frankencake of sound, one forkful at a time.” What an incredibly unique thing to say! More recently Shelley has said, “I have heard others describe my voice as unique, but I feel like I haven’t ingested enough of other people’s music to be able to make that sort of comparison about myself.” She then went on to say that the concept of unique is “very weighted.” I single out Shelley here, because when I asked her about the composers who she admires and considers influences, her response was everyone—especially her teachers and colleagues—and that her musical community was just as important to her as her own art-making process.

One area that people seemed to all agree on was that labeling style is for the audience and musicologists. Tina Tallon made a great point that “style can be helpful for performance techniques, such as referring to a work by someone else as a way of conveying the sound the composer is going for more effectively.” The overall consensus is that composers just want to make their art and not be boxed in, though Marcos Balter does say that “people tend to be tribalists.” He also pointed out that “so much of these divisions exist because many composers believe there is power in numbers.” Almost everyone understood why these boxes exist, but most seemed to wish that they didn’t. Garrett Schumann made the point that “millennials are more inwardly focused,” which would explain much of the direction music has taken in this demographic area. Much of the music being created has become more about self-expression, as opposed to fitting into a specific mold. The idea that there is a wrong way to write music did not come across.

We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.

Overall what I learned was that today, a composer’s style is specific to them. Kevin Clark described it as “style as people,” and Alex Temple concluded that “music is written by people, and people have personalities.” Judah Adashi said something similar, explaining that he writes music that is “personal, rather than unique.”

I think it is important for composers to think about how we describe ourselves to others. Language matters, and quite often the words that describe us are the first things that our audience or performers know about us. These words are all triggers that, through centuries of performance practice, may dictate to performers how to play the music. The biggest thing I found is that knowing your audience is important. When you describe your music to someone who knows nothing about music, giving them anything but the most important tidbits of information about the inner workings of your process can create an artificial barrier to entry. Use language that they understand. My music comes from my lived experiences as a way to express my thought process in that moment or over time. If composers do their job well and communicate effectively what they want played to the performer in the score, anything more specifically categorically aligned risks indicating a performance practice that might influence interpretation. We have worked so hard to musically get ourselves out of arbitrary boxes, so we should take care to avoid putting ourselves back in them when we talk to each other about our music.


Much appreciation to all of those involved:

Garrett Schumman
Gemma Peacocke
Kevin Clark
Jay Derderian
Monte Weber
Alex Temple
Aaron Garcia
Dennis Tobinski
Griffin Candey
Ed Windels
Marcos Balter
Paul Frucht
Ben Salman
Annika Socolofsky
Shelley Washington
Will Stackpole
Tina Tallon
Judah Adashi
David Biedenbender
Lyn Goeringer
Garrett Hope

Building Audiences for Post-Genre Artists

Over the past two weeks, I have outlined a post-genre framework for characterizing music and posed questions that I have been grappling with in my own thinking. In my first post, my focus was on language and how we could realistically create a cohesive vocabulary to describe and discuss music in the absence of genre-based terms. In my second post, I dug into the role of listeners and how their pre-existing associations surrounding genre may or may not confound post-genre thinking. With these questions in mind, what I am left wondering about the most is how to build audiences for post-genre artists.

The main issue regarding audience-building centers around sources of funding. While conducting research on a vocal group called Roomful of Teeth this past summer, I was able to discuss this issue at length with Bill Brittelle. Brittelle, a strong proponent of post-genre thinking, is a commissioned composer for Roomful of Teeth and a co-founder of New Amsterdam Records.

There are a number of similarities between the music I have explored in my research by composers such as Brittelle and Missy Mazzoli, who are often lumped into the “classical” category, and the music that I listen to outside of my research, much of which is lumped into the “indie” or “alternative” category. One of my favorite bands, Dirty Projectors, comes to mind as a group that is unafraid to make new sounds and experiment with their music-making in a way that I connect with the music of some of my favorite “new music” composers. The difference between them, aside from the genre that their music is labeled under, lies in the way that it’s monetized. In our conversation, Brittelle described the following scenario:

We’ve talked about this a lot at New Amsterdam. There are two separate worlds of monetization, and there are these cliffs around what is monetized through the commercial marketplace versus what is monetized through the nonprofit world. Everything I do is essentially supported by a nonprofit. Anytime I’m presented at a performing arts center or I’m commissioned, there’s a nonprofit source somewhere back there. But let’s take David Longstreth [of Dirty Projectors] as another example—almost everything he does is supported by some kind of commercial entity. The volume of people he’s able to reach is very different because of that network.

We discussed his frustration that while post-genre music existing on the nonprofit model often struggles to find its audience, equally innovative and experimental bands are able to develop devoted audiences on the commercial model. He described it like this:

We look at the music and it’s not that different. I analyzed “Useful Chamber” by Dirty Projectors in a post-genre class that I taught. It’s an incredible piece of composed music, but it also has to do with the way that it lives out in the world and who it reaches through commercial channels instead of nonprofit channels.

Would shifting the way that post-genre music is funded actually build its listener base?

So not only does genre-based language mislead listeners about post-genre music, but it also affects how the music itself is monetized and thus how artists make their living and find their audiences. This presents a double loss for composers of post-genre music that are assigned a “classical” label, as the system of monetization they are engaged with may not be the right option for their music. The connection between systems of monetization and audience-building has to do with the types of people who engage with the music being funded by the two systems. Part of it may have to do with age; the nonprofit system is a donor-based model, and older people are typically the people with the money. The commercial model is based more on consumption, which is arguably more relevant to younger audiences. These two groups are on opposite ends of the age spectrum. But it also certainly has to do with the network and the types of publicity that result depending on which system of monetization the music is placed under. When it comes to the type of music that Brittelle is writing, much of which draws on synthesizers and drum machines, the ideal audience would likely be those listening to more commercially produced music that also draws on these types of sounds, rather than the types of audiences that read the classical music section of The New York Times and frequently attend performances put on by nonprofit organizations like opera houses and symphony orchestras. Therefore, perhaps a way to build audiences for music like Brittelle’s is to shift it over to a for-profit commercial system of monetization. The network that this would provide him and his music, along with the base of listeners that would be more accessible as a result, would certainly be beneficial. But then the questions become: How do we go about taking genre out of the way music is monetized? And moreover, would shifting the way that post-genre music is funded actually build its listener base?

We have already seen that this is a difficult shift to make. New Amsterdam Records, founded by Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, has aimed to do essentially this. They founded a record label whose aim was to promote classically trained musicians who fall between traditional genre boundaries on a for-profit model. An article in the Wall Street Journal last year described how, despite creating a much-needed outlet for post-genre music, operating on a for-profit model has proved to be difficult. A record that sells well for New Amsterdam will still only sell around 5,000 copies, which they explained is barely enough to cover the cost of production.

NewAm Founders

New Amsterdam Co-Founders Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Bill Brittelle.

While the minimal monetary success that New Amsterdam has had despite the switch to a for-profit model is discouraging, I believe that it does not mean that such an operation will not be more widely successful in the future. This issue is intrinsically tied to genre being central in musical criticism and promotion; even if the music that New Amsterdam is pumping out is accessible and innovative and could potentially appeal to a large number of listeners throughout the world, the fact that many of its recorded artists are still tied into the “classical” label to some degree will still deter people from listening and hinder efforts to create opportunities for post-genre artists to build their audiences and lead more sustainable lifestyles. Thus, the process of finding a fitting place for post-genre music and artists will be a multi-step process. Once we are able to create a cohesive language and fully understand how to discuss music in the absence of genre-based language, we can begin to shift the way that music is promoted and critiqued. Once the shift occurs in music promotion and critique, I hope that post-genre thinking will slowly begin to spread to audiences and listeners. And once this way of thinking about music gains some traction, I hope that listeners will begin to explore the music that they would have separated themselves from back when we labeled it as “classical.” These shifts could create the draw that post-genre composers need to build their audiences and create a fully successful for-profit post-genre label.

The Role of Listeners in a Post-Genre Context

Last week, I spent some time grappling with issues of language in a post-genre musical framework. I was left wondering how we could realistically create a cohesive language to describe, appraise, and promote music in the absence of genre-related terms. Is that even possible? The prevalence of genre in our current characterization of music, as well as the important role of the composer within this framework (which I also delved into in my previous post), led me to another issue that I have yet to fully resolve. Namely, I have been struggling to fully understand the role of the listener in post-genre.

There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds.

As I described in my previous post, post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective methods of characterizing music, instead focusing on a more subjective method within which music is viewed piece by piece with an emphasis on the intention and background of the composer. If a composer has no intent of writing within the “classical” genre label, then attempting to understand the piece through a classical lens is irrelevant. But what about the listener? There is no doubt that all listeners have pre-existing connotations surrounding certain types of sounds. Realistically, because we have discussed music in terms of these genre constructions for so long, a listener’s experience is likely to naturally include elements of: “This moment in this piece of music reminds me of X genre, which makes me think of Y connotation.” For example, imagine a situation in which a composer uses strings in a way that reminds a listener of “classical” music. The composer may have had no stylistic/genre-based intent, but that does not stop the listener from making this association. Does this detract from a composer’s intent in any way? What impact do these associations have on a person’s listening experience when it involves a piece written by a composer who has no intent of associating with any element of genre? This issue can be highlighted by taking a look at the piece Otherwise by Brad Wells, founder and conductor of Roomful of Teeth.

Wells’s piece draws on Sardinian cantu a tenore and belting, both of which are vocal techniques that are commonly employed by the group’s composers due to the singers’ vocal training in them. The score for this piece also instructs Dashon Burton, who sings baritone for the group, to sing his lines “bel canto.” The first instance of this bel canto singing happens just past the one-minute mark in the recording.

Wells has talked about his use of these different vocal techniques and styles in a previous interview, mentioning that he views them as different gears and colors for his compositions. While I was visiting the group at MASS MoCA, I had the opportunity to speak with him and was able to dig a bit more into his opinions on the stylistic implications in Otherwise. We talked about his decision to combine bel canto, belting, and Sardinian cantu a tenore, and I asked him whether he was interested in intentionally taking two specific and separate styles and combining them as a means of comparing them, or if his interest was purely in exploring colors and gears. He responded:

It’s purely in color. But for me, I think about it as if you were doing something visual. Say you were making a collage piece and you had some pattern that you got from a particular tradition that is super vibrant, and you wanted to put a stretch of that alongside something else. The origin of it, what it represents, is not at all how I would think about it. But the emotional charge that it brings is very much a part of it… What happens when you bring them together? What emotions are evoked? But speaking to Otherwise—part of it was just about brilliance, too. The belt-y sound that the three women do alongside the high bel canto baritone—they can keep up with him. That’s a pretty balanced spectral range going through both techniques, but they’re very different.

What I take away from Wells’s response is that, when writing using these stylistic influences and vocal techniques, his interest is not necessarily in the styles themselves, but rather in the emotional charge and specific color that each brings to the table, as well as how their combination allows for new colors and emotional charges. This is the individual intent behind the piece he wrote. However, when I hear Dashon singing his bel canto baritone lines, my first response as a listener is, “Wow, listen to that opera singer!” So despite Wells’s emotional charge and color-focused intent, the listener’s experience likely still centers, to some degree, around genre and stylistic labeling.

One of the outside walls of MASS MoCA which is partially covered with posters for exhibitions: Sol Lewitt, Federico Urbe, UNTL.

How do we reconcile the role of the listener, who may naturally use genre and style to label what they hear, within a post-genre framework? Does this confound the entire post-genre concept? In the future of developing a more concrete framework, it will be extremely important to address the role of listeners and how their pre-existing understanding of genre and style may affect their listening experience despite a composer’s intent. The way that I currently imagine the role of the listener working together with the intent of the composer is by emphasizing that post-genre thinking does not seek to entirely eliminate the existence of genre and style distinctions. It would be utopian to imagine a world where genre disappeared in a puff of smoke and no longer impacted how we processed music; currently, these types of associations are pretty intrinsically tied to people’s listening experiences.

Genre can be viewed as something that inherently shapes our liking and disliking of a certain piece of music.

However, perhaps by reframing the implications of genre, we can reconcile the role of listeners without ignoring these elements of their experience. For example, we could begin to think of “genres” as concepts that carry certain emotional or experiential implications on an individual basis. In this way, genre can be viewed as something that inherently shapes our liking and disliking of a certain piece of music, instead of as bins that pieces of music and composers must comment on. Rather than hearing a moment in a piece that reminds us of “classical” music and subsequently filing the piece away under the “classical” label and associating it with the historical classical tradition, we can reframe and think, “The sounds in that moment are reminiscent of what I think of as “classical” music, which makes me feel X feeling, which affects my experience of this piece and how much I like it.” In this scenario, the listener’s association does not involve them placing the piece into a genre categorization. Instead, the focus is on the individual experience of the piece and how the sounds in the piece affect how much they like it. This allows the music to exist on a piece-by-piece basis as opposed to being tied into a tradition or an institution. Of course, there is no way to get into people’s minds and actually change the way that they think about the music they hear; I believe that the more direct shift will come in conjunction with the development of a more cohesive non-genre-focused language. As artists and music critics/promoters shift their conversations about music, this way of thinking will likely seep into the minds of listeners to some degree. But for now, at the very least, this reframing of genre’s role in listening may serve as a way for composers and critics to rationalize the listener’s experience. As we move forward, we cannot disregard the listener’s potential tendencies towards genre-based thinking. We must figure out a way to understand what it means to think about genre in post-genre music.

Thinking About Language in a Post-Genre Context

I spent this summer immersed in the music of Roomful of Teeth, a “vocal band” consisting of eight singers with a commitment to exploring the expressive potential of the human voice. I was doing research in order to better understand how and why composers were using what—at that point—I was describing as “polystylism.” I spent my time labeling non-Western classical elements in the group’s pieces, gathering information on the composers’ backgrounds and “non-classical” experience (like Wally Gunn’s time spent in a punk band), interviewing the composers about their opinions relating to this topic, and eventually observing the group’s rehearsals at MASS MoCA during their intensive annual summer residency. Some time into my research, I grew uncertain about the basis of my research question; as I continued to wonder what the varied stylistic elements in each composer’s pieces meant, I also began to question whether they really had to mean anything at all. What if the composers just wanted to write this way, without any interest in “polystylism” or what their use of different styles means? Maybe this music, and the music these composers are writing outside of Roomful of Teeth, has nothing to do with stylistic elements at all.

Roomful of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth

A conversation with William Brittelle at MASS MoCA addressed many of these qualms. Brittelle, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records, is a big proponent of a post-genre way of thinking about music and has had a large impact on my understanding of the post-genre framework. These ideas seem necessary and are surprisingly intuitive.

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 “bin.”

At its most simple, this is a system of thinking about music that steps away from using genre as the main method of characterization and appraisal. 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. Prior to my shift towards this post-genre mentality, much of my analysis of Roomful of Teeth had to do with how non-Western classical stylistic elements broke the convention of what we’d expect from a group of classically trained musicians. Take Wally Gunn’s The Ascendant for example, a piece written for Roomful of Teeth and drum kit.

When first exploring the piece, I wondered why Gunn had decided to use the drum kit. What statement was he making by throwing a drum kit, more typically associated with pop/rock projects, into this group of singers? Was he actively trying to genre blend and expand classical music to include this type of instrumentation? My shift towards a post-genre aesthetic allowed me to rethink this analysis. My assumption that a composer’s use of drum kit had to mean something related to stylistic commentary is a problematic one within this framework; instead, by looking at Wally Gunn’s background and speaking with him about intent, I was able to gain a better understanding about this piece as an individual entity, rather than as a part of a collective genre-based musical identity.

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.

In our conversation, we discussed how she believed we, as a musical community stemming from the classical tradition, could go about breaking out of the classical bubble and getting people who may not typically engage with a string quartet to try out music like her own. She thought that language had quite a bit to do with it. According to her, using words like “new classical” is not exciting. She herself is an example of attempts at shifting the language surrounding emerging music; her group Victoire calls itself a band, and she often resists association with the term “classical.” When I asked how she talks about the music that she engages with, she responded:

I identify with the word composer, because I do come out of the classical tradition. I like that term, but anything beyond that, I feel like it’s always used against me to confine or associate my work with music that doesn’t belong with it or has nothing to do with it.

This pushing back against the “classical” label due to the fact that it confines composers and misleads listeners may be at the root of how a post-genre mentality can make its way into the mainstream. In our conversation, Brittelle addressed the importance of this, stating:

I think we have to get really aggressive about deconstruction. Every single time somebody tries to put you in that box, and tries to make things objective, you just have to push back on it. Every single time.

My response: That sounds exhausting. But perhaps by committing to a more active resistance to objective and genre-based language, conversations can begin about post-genre thinking in favor of a more accurate, individual intent-based characterization. My overarching question is then, what language do we use to discuss music instead of genre-based language? Or, more specifically, in a framework so focused on the individual, how do we create cohesive language that can be realistically used in the world of music to discuss and promote music? It may be helpful to look at postgenderism, which has worked to shift the language we use and how we discuss gender. I certainly do not have all of the answers yet, but continuing to ask questions about how we discuss the music we create and resisting genre-based language that we don’t identify with seem like steps in the right direction.


Hannah Schiller

Hannah Schiller

Hannah Schiller is a senior in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. Her research interests center around the current musical moment; she is particularly drawn to post-genre concepts and music emerging from classically trained musicians that is difficult to categorize. She recently received an undergraduate research grant from Northwestern to study the work of Roomful of Teeth and was chosen as an Alumnae of Northwestern University Undergraduate Research Scholar as a result of her work. Hannah is also a singer, arranger, and composer of a wide variety of music.

Finding a True Name in a Post-Genre World

name badge

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski, via Flickr

Writing just this week in The Daily Beast, Ted Gioia includes among his “Five Lessons The Faltering Music Business Could Learn From TV” the advice that the industry should “resist tired formulas.”

Now, no one’s really speaking up in favor of tired formulas as such, but reading on, it turns out what he’s really against is classifying music by genre. Observing that programs like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad became critical hits in part because they broke the predictable conventions of TV genre shows about cops, doctors, or lawyers, Gioia notes that “every album and song nowadays is marketed as part of a genre—rock, hip-hop, country, jazz, etc.

“But the very decision to sell songs to targeted genre fans has turned into an aesthetic straitjacket,” he continues, suggesting that the music business should “emulate the boldness with which the leading pay TV networks have sabotaged genre recipes.”
Still, even as Gioia correctly notes that there already are plenty of people making excellent music that doesn’t fit easily into a particular category, and even if you agree with the premise, the post-genre future remains at best, to borrow a phrase from the speculative fiction writer William Gibson, unevenly distributed.

Parts of it undoubtedly are widespread already. Thanks to technology, musicians and composers have access to a lot of useful new tools; computer-enabled formal ideas like the mash-up have emerged; and musicians are able to collaborate across time and space in ways that previously were impossible. There’s also the notion that by making it easy to find people with similar interests all over the world, the internet provides an alternative way to form musical communities that theoretically can make music scenes tied to geographic location less important.

Of course, the internet also can “silo” people into self-selecting groups that only reinforce their existing ideas and beliefs, which isn’t exactly broadening. And when geography isn’t the determining factor bringing musicians together, how do they find each other online? More often than not, it seems to be through shared fandom, often of specific artists but sometimes entire genres. (For handy examples of this, just consult the “musician wanted” section of your local Craigslist.)

Technology also has made the process of music discovery much easier. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, one might follow a reference to a previously unknown band or musician found in liner notes, Rolling Stone, or Down Beat to a half-dozen record stores and the library, and still come up empty handed. Now, anyone who wants to find out more about Sun Ra or John Cage or Edgard Varèse can simply type their name into a search engine, and in seconds the internet will deliver biographies, photos, journalism and critical opinion, and most important, audio and video.

So with the internet letting us hear just about any music and see any musician any time we want, for a comparatively low cost of entry, in theory it could provide an ideal opportunity to get rid of genres. Unfortunately, one thing technology can’t do is make the day longer than 24 hours. There’s more information, and more music, more easily accessible to more people than ever before, but no one actually has time to read or listen to more than a fraction of it. So we still must rely on gatekeepers and sorting mechanisms, one of which is musical genre, and radio, retail, presenters, and media all continue to categorize music according to whether it is rock, pop, hip-hop, country, R&B, classical, blues, folk, jazz, and so on.

While some musicians embrace genre labels for marketing purposes, others are understandably reluctant, or even antagonistic, toward having their music pigeonholed, or just want to make art for art’s sake. Nevertheless, presenters, labels, and media want to grow their audiences, for all the obvious reasons, and even musicians who claim to be unconcerned with commercial success still want their music to be heard. As long as that’s the case, genre labels seem likely to persist.

For evidence of that, look at what’s known broadly as “electronic dance music,” touted as a major growth area of the industry and one that seems to spin off hyper-specific sub-genres at a dizzying pace. Wikipedia’s list of electronic music genres contains 22 major sub-categories, each containing at least a half-dozen sub-genres, totaling more than 200 different varieties. Outsiders may be hard pressed to distinguish among, say, two dozen different varieties of house music, yet to those on the inside, the distinctions are critical enough to warrant coining new terminology.

If nothing else, this proliferation of sub-genre names should give listeners in the know a fairly specific idea of what to expect, and it also gives musicians and composers a wide variety of specific channels or identities that can be used to get their music to the public.

Given this example, I wonder if, rather than anticipating an end to genre designations, perhaps new music needs to cultivate a whole lot more of them, since much of the terminology currently in use is overly general at best, and vague or misleading at worst.
In marketing speak, it’s called “segmentation,” and it can serve a useful purpose in helping sellers identify potential buyers and buyers to find things that interest them. For music that’s distributed online, specific sub-genre designations could be particularly useful and can serve as keywords or metadata, helping listeners locate music of potential interest.

Even the umbrella term “new music,” while well understood by the readers of this publication, often is interpreted by others in terms of the plain English meanings of its component words, which can lead to some convoluted explanations.

In the 1990s, when I was a board member and later an administrator for New Music Circle in St. Louis, I was also playing blues and rock gigs, and I’d get into conversations with other musicians or fans in which I’d mention that I was working for New Music Circle, putting on concerts. Inevitably, they’d ask me some variation on the question, “So, what kind of music do they do?” and twenty years later, I find myself having similar conversations trying to describe the Mizzou New Music Initiative, with highly variable results.

Calling music “avant garde” or “experimental” seems to have a polarizing effect, immediately attracting interest from some while repelling others. “Contemporary classical” and “post-classical” are descriptive enough in one sense, but even setting aside the former term’s unfortunate oxymoronic quality, at least some of what we call new music doesn’t really have any relationship to classical music, so these terms are of limited use. On the other hand, the evocative term “creative music” may suggest something about the intent of those who are making the music, but doesn’t do much to locate it in terms of any specific sound, tradition, or genre.

Comparative recommendations—“If you like X, you may also enjoy Y”—can be useful, but only in those cases when you already know something about the person’s interests and preferences. That’s easy for Amazon or Google, but in casual conversation, or for a musician or composer trying to describe her latest work in liner notes, a news release, or a one-sheet, it can be little more than guesswork or wishful thinking.

Does new music necessarily need more than 200 sub-genres? Probably not, but if genre designations are going to be with us for a while, perhaps some imagination and some more colorful language could make them work to our advantage.

***

Dean Minderman is a writer and musician in St. Louis, Missouri, and the founder and editor of the website St. Louis Jazz Notes. As a consultant with the firm Slay and Associates, he currently works with the Mizzou New Music Initiative and other music-related projects of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, assisting with publicity, marketing, and strategic communications. A graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, he has experience as an arts administrator and consultant, advertising writer/producer, music journalist and blogger, publicist, and event producer; and as a performing keyboard player and singer, composer/arranger, and bandleader.

Who Cares If You Call It Indie Classical?

So the term “indie classical” seems to be ascending in popularity, along with the requisite hand-wringing about what it means, whether or not it’s a good thing, and whether or not it’s even worth thinking about. In particular, this article by Harriet Cunningham in the Sydney Morning Herald set off some entertaining conversation on Twitter*, including a plea from one of the composers discussed in the article, Nico Muhly:

(When pressed on the matter, Mr. Muhly admitted, “It’s a theoretical peeing of oneself.”)

This is certainly not the first time in history composers have rejected the labels applied to them (just ask John Adams or Steve Reich, or Debussy or Schoenberg for that matter). But to some people, there does seem to be something uniquely distressing about this label. A common complaint is that it describes cultural practices—a certain DIY aesthetic and entrepreneurial spirit—rather than musical qualities.

As a result, I thought it would be interesting to try and outline what some of the musical qualities of the so-called indie classical movement might look like. I do believe that there is an aesthetic at work, though it’s rarely talked about explicitly. Keep in mind that this is all very tentative; fair warning that there will be some gross generalizations and other dubious ideas open to revision.

1) Pop. Probably the most obvious characteristic of indie classical is that some influence from pop, rock, and/or minimalism is encouraged. In fact, at this point it seems almost obligatory for a composer to also be a DJ, or a member of a rock band, or something similar. At the same time, too much influence in one direction is discouraged, lest it tip the scales in favor of one genre or another.

2) Optimism. Consequently, indie classical rejects the traditional distinction between “high culture” and “low culture” in music. In this, it follows in the footsteps of polystylists like John Zorn, Alfred Schnittke, and William Bolcom, but here the focus is on integration, not juxtaposition. There’s an implied belief that it’s possible to “transcend” genres and the old classist assumptions that come with them. In general, this is a positive and hopeful project, and the music seems to reflect this optimism, favoring clear, clean, and immediate sonic gestures. Anything too fussy or overly elaborate is out. That’s not to say that it’s incapable of expressing darker emotions or complicated ideas, but somehow, a triumphal message always seems to prevail.

3) Privilege. At the same time, I’m not sure that the old classist baggage can be jettisoned so easily. In its resistance to clear genre identifiers, indie classical also reflects a fear of being labeled, which is in essence a musical embodiment of a cultural anxiety. It’s a little like hipsterdom in this way; people are quick to apply the term to others but less likely to apply it to themselves. In contrast to Milton Babbitt’s idea of the composer as specialist, indie classical composers believe that by rising above genre they can effectively communicate to anyone. By taking bits and pieces from genres without belonging to a genre, indie classical music shrewdly toes the line between appreciation and appropriation. And yet, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it’s still produced and consumed by a very specific audience. As a consequence, it’s more than a little bit willfully oblivious of its position of privilege.

I suppose I circled back again to discussing cultural practices instead of musical qualities, but as you can probably tell, I find them to be inextricably linked. On a final note, I should mention that many of the composers and performers I’ve talked to about this find any discussion of genre labels to be inimical to their working habits, and I’m certainly sympathetic to that perspective. Above all, you have to be obedient to your muse.

*Thanks to Jen Wang, Will Robin, Maura Lafferty, Ben Phelps, Nat Evans, Colin Wambsgans, David Dies, Meerenai Shim and Chris Kallmyer for their contributions to the conversation, which helped immensely as I worked to articulate my own thoughts on the matter.