Quick thoughts on language, composition and ‘post-genre’ music


I was intrigued by this article by Bienen School of Music senior Hannah Schiller, recently published in NewMusicBox. Schiller tackles the thorny subjects of language, specifically how we describe certain kinds of music-making, in a post-genre context.

I absolutely agree: language is a problem. What do we call what that musical stuff that our community likes and makes and listens to and writes about? Classical music. What does that mean? Western art music. What does that mean?

It means we’ll manage, master your language. And in the meantime, I’ll create my own. So continues the Tricky lyric – and it’s what I think Schiller is getting at too. That is, that the words we use to describe that musical stuff we all like etc are terribly loaded and often don’t work well at describing what it is we mean. Here’s a relevant passage from the book:

Any examination of what might qualify as Western art music in the twenty-first century shows that the borders of this definition have become highly permeable and fuzzy. Clearly it can accommodate scored works for (predominantly) acoustic performers, like the Ustvolskaya and Reich examples [Piano Sonata no.6 and Different Trains, respectively]. But what about Japanoise, which is created for recording and employs many of the facts of recording, such as overload and distortion, as part of its aesthetic? Can it include Westerkamp’s soundwalks, which involve no performers at all and do not take place in anything we might recognize as a conventional concert space? What about Richard Barrett’s (b. 1959) Codex series (2001–), which is a set of guided instructions for group improvisation, or Amnon Wolman’s (b. 1955) text pieces, which do away with the performer-audience divide and even raise questions as to the way in which they are listened to. And what about Ludovico Einaudi (b. 1955), who, in albums such as Le Onde (1996) and Nightbook (2009), combines aspects of eighteenth-century classical style with minimalism and sentimental pop balladry to appeal to a mass audience?

So much for the “art” and “music” elements of the term. But what about the “Western”? As globalization is one of the main forces to have influenced music of the last two and half decades, what is meant by the “Western” in Western art music deserves some consideration. First of all, it no longer means quite what it used to. At one time, before the Internet, before satellite communications, before the explosion in commercial recording, before global organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations, the West of Western art music was much the same as the West of geography: Europe and North America. Now, as can be seen in the examples of Bright Sheng and Merzbow presented in this chapter, as well as many hundreds of other composers from South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, it is something more complicated than that. One can compose Western art music without necessarily coming from or living in the geographical West.

Here, “Western” is as much a historical construct as it is a geographical or geopolitical one. It refers to a kind of music making that belongs to a tradition originating in the West (and propagating many of its values) and maintains certain continuities with that tradition (especially in its modes of production and consumption, and perhaps also in some of its formal properties), but it need not be physically situated there. Those who write Western art music enter a particular sphere of connected approaches, styles, chains of prestige, and flows of cultural and financial capital, just as an Algerian rapper enters the different sphere of approaches, styles, chains of prestige, and flows of cultural and financial capital that define hip-hop. Likewise, to be accepted into that sphere, musicians must meet certain conditions.

In the face of such problems, Schiller suggests, we need to come up with some new terms. In my own work, I lean on the idea of ‘composition’ as a description – it’s in the subtitle of Music after the Fall, and it was the subject of a paper I recently gave at the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference (title: ‘The limits of “composition”: On frames for music and frames for music history’) in which I experimentally adapted Rosalind Krauss’s ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ to recent compositional practice to see what it had to say about ‘composition’ as a genre-limiting category. On that note, I was especially interested to read in Schiller’s article that while a musician such as Missy Mazzoli (pictured) rejects most genre identifiers, she still holds on to the notion of composition as a mode of distinction:

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.

What bothers me a little about Schiller’s article is how in its search for new language and new contexts it draws on some pretty old-fashioned ideas: authorial intent, the individual genius and the passive audience:

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.

Genre isn’t (just) something that composers write within (although it is partly that, to varying degrees); it’s a socially determined matrix for making sense of things. It’s not just the case that a composer writes a string quartet; a listener also hears it and thinks ‘oh, a string quartet’. Both sides of that equation are active parts of the musical process; what’s more, they don’t always have to agree. Focusing solely on the intent of the composer leads down some dark (but not interesting) alleys, not least towards what I believe to be a destructive focus on the individual’s wants or needs or self-expression at the expense of those of the community. (Without wanting to get too heavy, this is a trajectory that Adam Curtis has identified as at the root of many of the 21st-century’s ills.)

I’m not sure, incidentally, that my own usage of ‘composition’ as a term of distinction gets around that problem entirely either, since – as my RMA paper was forced to conclude – it depends to a very great extent on the self-identification of composers themselves as composers. Although, as I made clear, that self-identification occurs because of a wider in-group/out-group dynamic that incorporates wider aspects of prestige and remuneration according to the musical world in which those musicians operate. There isn’t an easy answer here, and critical sensitivity is required.

The original Tricky verse, incidentally, is pretty nihilistic: You and me. What does that mean? / Always. What does that mean? / Forever. What does that mean? It means we’ll manage, master your language. / And in the meantime, I’ll create my own. / By my own.


2 thoughts on “Quick thoughts on language, composition and ‘post-genre’ music

  1. I think it would be good for creative musicians to reclaim the word “composer”, not because they see themselves as emerging from a particular tradition, but firstly because all the alternatives are clumsy and/or pretentious, and secondly because feeling one has to find another name for what one does seems to me like an act of retreat and self-marginalisation. I think the word needs to be wider in its application rather than narrower. If it’s going to include both me and Einaudi it also has to include Björk and Thelonious Monk.

  2. i always use the term composer in its blandest, widest sense – someone who creates original music – rather than something more culturally specific. so, it includes schoolkids, pop musicians, ‘classical’ composers.

    when i went to art school i was strongly warned against using the term composer. i found this briefly useful, to rethink the label. but now i reclaim it and call myself ‘artist and composer’, drawing on both backgrounds.

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