This blog post is a result of many months of casual thought and casual conversations, boiled down into a perhaps more casual than usual blog post. Maura Lafferty graciously agreed to sort of have an organized discussion between our two blogs, so I would encourage you to read her post before you read mine.
My online life is wide-ranging but a little bit curated. I try really hard to stay actively involved with my friends on Facebook — and by friends, I mean people I know outside the context of that social network. I follow a few hundred people on twitter, and I actively follow a few dozen blogs about music, linguistics, computers, art. I follow them in a slightly old-fashioned way: they’re all tabbed, rather that RSSed, so I have to manually see if anybody has updated. I sort of prefer it this way, and sometimes I get far behind, so I like to check back in on things that are not technically “new” but which I might have missed over the course of travels or inattention. I removed the google alert I had on myself, and I had never taken out any others, so I can safely avoid anybody with my name in their mouth coming out of random air, as well as my friends’ names. The press thing is tricky, because sometimes a press outlet’s social media staff will @ me in a link to a review, so I become kind of aware of things in the periphery, but for the most part, I’ve been pretty successful in avoiding both preview and review press, and during the operas, the opera blog-o-sphere.
One thing that hasn’t been expurgated from my feed is a relentless and sort of obsessive focus on genre that people constantly throw around. I did a show in London that I thought was pretty great, and then online it was all indie-classical this and indie-classical that and I was like, do you know? Forget that. Nothing is gained by that description, even if it makes the PR people’s jobs easier. It attracts haters and lumps people together in a way that belies how actual communities of musicians function. Bedroom Community is a great example of how this can work well — there isn’t a Bedroom Community sound, there isn’t a manifesto of stylistic concerns. We like one another’s music, and we like one another’s processes as collaborators, and that is so much more important than trying to think of a name that could possibly encompass, like, that genius thing Ben Frost and Daníel Bjarnason made together and Puzzle Muteson’s album.
I realize that this comes from, in part, the printed (or formal?) press as well as the blogosphere. Reviewers and previewers get an enormous pass if they can describe a composer’s work as being part of some sort of Genre: post-minimalist, new complexity, Darmstadt School, chamber pop, whatever, or this new hellery, Indie-Classical. The other day, Maura Lafferty, who is a new music marketing person, tweeted a link to this article. I’m gonna address all those things specifically but let’s go through this carefully.
There are, I think, two global problems with genre obsession: one on “their” side and one on “ours.” On “their” side (and by they, I mean people who write about music either professionally or casually), it’s a shorthand for actually talking about how the notes and the rhythms work. On “our” side, it can become, for composers, both a social and musical crutch, where one ends up writing to one’s press-generated biography, rather than from a musical core.
Part of my objection to terminology is personal. I’ve been writing basically the same music since I’m 14. It’s gotten better, and it’s taken strange turns, but the thing is the same. What people call it has, obviously, changed with the ages, but the idea that anybody gets to define what I’m up to, for some reason, seems even more grotesque than misunderstanding it. I suppose part of this comes from a background of (admittedly East Coast American) hybridity: I’m a half-jewish homosexual who grew up in Providence with roots in Vermont. Even that sentence seems strange; I don’t think I would have coffee with somebody who self-described like that on the internet, and that’s the point: we are how we do. It’s an active life, it’s not these terrible sentences and hyphenations.
Another source of vexation is the counter-argument I see sometimes which is that musicians should be able to describe their music. I agree! Sort of. I can tell you what all of my influences are, and will do that with great pleasure. But I am not going to write a press-release for myself. And here is where we get to the “our side” problem. Once one has been been described a certain way in the press, there is a temptation to continue writing that way despite one’s better instincts. If somebody writes about your music — even as a compliment — as, like, “a natural and enormously successful fusion of the music of India and the classical techniques of the West, Hindi-Classical!” the temptation is to start writing as if that were the starting-point, rather than just some journalistic shorthand. It’s horrifying because it has nothing to do with anything. Also, how hard is it to just write about how the music sounds without invoking anybody else’s name or slapping a name on it? An exercise: talk about Beethoven Op. 111 without talking about any other composer. Talk about Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody without talking about any other composer. You can even talk about Nixon in China without talking about Satyagraha or Akhnaten; it’s respectful to John Adams to be able to do so. You can talk about Bach without invoking the Baroque; you can (and should) talk about Mozart without invoking the Classical — which is not something Mozart would have had to deal with in his day. He might have had to have dealt with some provincial horseshit about the current musical fads in Vienna or Salzburg or whatever, but we can all (with the possible exception of whatever his name is who writes even more disparaging things about Brooklyn than I do, Snuggles, in LA), in hindsight, realize how dumb that is.
(An comedic aside. I used to live in Deepeste Darkeste Chinatown, and moved, a few years ago, about four blocks north. Now, the zip code is still the same, but for real-estate purposes this neighborhood is distinct enough to have its own series of mortifying hyphenations: NoChiTo, for North of Chinatown, or, my favorite, Little Chittaly.)
All of this is in reaction to a series of tweets I got, and a link to this article. The article itself is worth reading and contains some good advice and some, in my opinion, shocking advice; the page itself I cannot speak about; a lot of the advice is really sound and practical, but her website is insanely frustrating, you can only sort by keyword, and am I wrong or does it look like the website you end up with if you make a typo in a url? Like www.nytmies.com; look at them side by side? Am I wrong? Or like Canadian Pharmacy. The comments on the article are amazing, too, because they advise people to use QR codes — I urge you to click around on the videos if you want to gain further insight into this particular genre of thought and its attendant design.
One of the big arguments on this page (which you’ve all read, right?) is that our Authoress, let’s call her A, was standing at the Mercury Lounge between shows and somehow ended up talking to somebody who poƒƒeƒƒ’t a show flyer. Already it’s problematic because who stands around at the bar at the Mercury Lounge with show flyers?! A comments that the artist “lost [her] forever” because:
Because not one sentence was included about what genre of music this artist played much less what his music sounded like, who he was compared to (sound alike). In other words what I could expect by coming out to his show. In short I had no idea what this artist sounded like.
Ooh, girl, did it ever occur to you that perhaps he was dead 2 u because he gave you a flyer at the bar at the mercury lounge? He could have spoken to you, struck up a conversation. If you took the flyer, it means you have more room in your apartment than I do. I will confess, I don’t think I have so much as beheld a show flyer since maybe 2001, and I think that turned out to be a 9/11 truth manifesto zine.
Now, the part of this post that I really liked, actually, was the next one, which I will quote here in full:
Me: What do you sound like?
Artist: I sound like absolutely nothing you’ve ever heard before.
Me: (annoyed and now understanding why he’s not where he wants to be as an artist) Really? So you have invented a new genre of music, and you don’t sound like anyone else in the history of music?
Me: Can you at least tell me what type of music you play?
Artist: It’s old school Hip-Hop
OK finally we were getting somewhere and, I totally understood his point, but here’s the problem with having an approach like his:
People are constantly looking for a context to put things into. And if you don’t provide them with one, they will move on to the next thing that their little pea brains actually can grasp.
The critical that was missing in both scenarios was: The Pitch
Yes gawd! She’s right, in a sense. It’s true that artists who are terrible about talking about what they do are doomed. (I would posit that artists who follow all of her advice will sound, in conversation, like people who are trying entirely too hard in a gross, off-putting way— we’ve all met those people where an interaction is so buzz-word coded and business card and godforbid a QR code gets involved. You get the sense that they’ve written a bio and are writing the music after the fact.) But it’s also true that artists should be able to describe the universe in which their music exists quicker than they should be able to describe what it is specifically that they write. I have had so much better luck by describing what I’m reading, what I’ve been listening to, what I like, what I am like, than describing my music. I’ve lured strangers to shows by having conversations with them about a book, somebody else’s music, that genius Diaghilev biography. That starts to create the game universe of my music, rather than just being like, “I am a pretty princess for the following reasons.” Context does not mean genre, which is something that lazy journalists do, as I said, to avoid talking about notes and rhythms.
When people ask me specifically, “what do you sound like,” I usually deflect, and try to talk about the music I love. Even in a crowded bar (not the Mercury Lounge specifically), I’ve gotten away with, “Well, the music I love the most is the music of the English Renaissance, so, old choral things, but also kind of American Minimalism from the 60’s and 70’s, so it’s electrified and sacred and fast and slow at the same time! You should come to the show!” Which is not to say that anybody should call it Electrified and Sacred.
I always think about this genre conversation in the same way. Anybody who tells you what “kind” of food they cook is running some kind of scam. The restaurant group Momofuku has been so successful by constantly resisting those definitions: it’s Korean, American, French… you could hyphenate it and identity politics it until your hyphen key falls off, and you still won’t get close to describing what it means to pan-fry dduk, make a sausage “bolognese,” after a fashion, add the numbing szechuan peppers-corn, and choy sum in a single dish. Can’t we talk about how insanely delicious it is (or insanely whatever: not delicious, too spicy, too obvious, not enough sear on each side of the tteok, and yes I did just transliter8 the Korean in two different ways suck it) instead of the hyphenation parade? And if they did have a single word for what it was, wouldn’t you be suspicious, as if they had hired somebody to come up with the same word?
If you asked somebody what kind of restaurant they ran, and they gave you some hyphenated shit, would you go? Wouldn’t you be more intrigued and charmed by them if they told you a very quick story about a Persian mom and an Italian dad but how even that doesn’t matter? And how you should come and meet Kevin, the bartender, and how there’s this thing they’ve been doing with polenta fries? You’ve all heard this conversation in college, right, where a white person meets a person of color and asks a question similar to, “Wait, so, if you’re from India, and you eat Indian food at home, do you call it Indian Food or do you call it, like, just Food?” The big point here is that genre is a performance, and the name of the thing is the last last last thing that should ever matter. People who are cooking in states of various translation (French woman living in Cambodia with a Spanish husband, Greenlandic woman living in Spain) don’t hyphenate what they call their dinner, it’s just Dinner. In music, the active performance of genre seems to exist after one’s press-bio, rather than before. My argument has always been that genre is a constant process, and you, the author, have no say in it. You can impose decorations on it, manipulate it through education, through the Hague, through Christ, through G-D, through England, through Tanglewood, through all sorts of fabulous and edifying things. But the Thing is the Thing.
So that’s my little sqreed about that. I’d like to open it back up to Maura, though (and of course to Ariel!), and of course to all of you, in the comments thread, and ask a few more questions. I’m wondering if I’m missing some enormous point about how I should just lean back and embrace this name that gives me a dark itch. Or it could also be that artists should never, ever, worry about how they’re described by PR, as it’s not our job, and instead we should be writing music. Another question I have is about the very word “Indie,” and specifically how that can ever really mesh with classical music, which relies, oftentimes, on enormous institutions shuffling around large amounts of money. Our heroes from the 60’s, who stopped taking money from the academy because they weren’t going to get none, are very recognized by major presenting organizations around the world; it’s still socially groups of friends, the Glass and Reich ensembles, and even the Bang-on-a-Can universe, but they’re not having, like, a bake sale on Prince Street to fund an album. I wonder when an “indie” filmmaker stops being one? Does Indie Rock stop being Indie when a band sells out the O2 arena three nights in a row? Okay bye.