Thursday, January 19, 2017

Defying Genres and Blurring Borders

I know that my readers come here for incisive reflection on music, sometimes analysis, explorations of the repertoire, examination of aesthetic problems and the occasional foray into humor. And sometimes I even post things like that!!

Today's post is inspired by a record review in the Wall Street Journal of a new disc by Bohemian Trio titled Okónkolo. You will want to read the whole thing, I am sure, but here is a sample:
With “Okónkolo” (Innova), Bohemian Trio offers welcome liberation from the baggage of expectation. This ensemble’s instrumentation—saxophone, piano and cello—offers few, if any, reference points. Substituting saxophone for violin makes for a quite different ensemble than Ravel envisioned when composing the Passacaille from his Piano Trio in A minor, which arrives near this recording’s end. The trio’s chamber music adheres to no conventions.
The really cool thing about the 21st century, apart from our imminent apocalyptic destruction due to zombies or global warming or fake news, is that now when we read a review of a recording we can go right to YouTube and listen to what they are talking about. Here is the title track from the album, Okónkolo:

And here is the Ravel Passacaille in their arrangement:

Nothing terribly wrong with any of that. What I find interesting is the way the review frames and describes what they are doing. The main cues come from the headline and sub-head:

‘Okónkolo’ by Bohemian Trio Review: Chamber Music Without Borders

Classical, jazz and Afro-Cuban sounds meld together on an album that defies genre.

"Without borders", "defies genre" and from the body of the review: "adheres to no conventions," "these musicians honor heritages that blur more than reinforce borders."

Do you detect the same obsessions that I do? "Borders", "conventions", "genres" all these must be blurred, defied and ignored. This is a long-standing meme, of course, but it has grown steadily in recent decades. There is a political resonance, as well. The underlying ideology is that of globalization. There must be no more local and regional, everything must be global, international. Instead of the unique flavor of specific traditions and heritages there is a blending and blurring of them all together. This trio are not a jazz trio or a chamber music trio, though they play both jazz and chamber music. They are without borders while they defy genres.

I see a congeries of aesthetic problems here. The most salient is simply that when music and musicians ignore conventions, defy genres and blur boundaries they do so in order to create something genuinely new. But there are always odd contradictions and ironies. In tossing aside one set of boundaries and conventions, what often happens is that older ones are revived in new garb. The atonal serialism of Schoenberg and Webern revived a number of very old contrapuntal procedures that had largely fallen into disuse. Stravinsky made extensive use of Russian folksong in evoking the atmosphere of primeval Russia. Bartók made a quite different use of Eastern European rhythmic and melodic elements in creating his new musical language and so on.

What creative artists are always seeking is character, individuality, not a grey soup of blurred influences.

Another important issue involves understanding the function of borders, boundaries, conventions and genres: these all offer frames and contexts to aesthetic objects. They are extremely important in focusing both the flow of creative ideas of the artist and in giving a context to the listener. Artists don't so much ignore all conventions and genres as choose and shape them to their needs.

Just as the veil seems to be falling from the agenda of the global elite in erasing national boundaries, so too all this talk of music that defies genre and is without borders seems more and more to be meaningless blather. What could it possibly mean to "defy genre" anyway? To hell with you minuet!?

Yes, of course artists are always in search of something that is both new and individual, but frankly, when I read the kind of description given to this trio, I already have a sense that what they are doing will be anything but new and individual. Instead, odds are that it will be the same bland stew of jazzy harmonies and world music rhythms that I have heard a thousand times before. Is there anything new and individual in the musical approach? Not that I hear. Instead of a liberation from the baggage of expectation, we get a rehashing of old baggage heard many times before.

At least that's what I hear! Feel free to disagree in the comments.


Jives said...

Well put, Bryan.

This very competent and enjoyable group's clear reference point is jazz, and to my mind (gourd solo and grafted-on cello cadenza aside) they do not stray very far from that descriptor. I think the pianist's approach is atypical and refreshing, but I also have a clear reference point for that, see Herbie Hancock on his Inventions and Dimensions album from 1963.

so yes, the usual blather about transcending genre is starting to sound especially hollow these days.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Jives.

As usual, you add some very useful points. This is a competent and enjoyable jazz trio, who have an affinity for both classical and world musics and yes, the pianist's approach is possibly the most interesting, because atypical.

Anonymous said...

It is curious to see you suggest that a resistance to fixed genres is an "elitist" thing, when the vast majority of the human population now listens to some fusion of Western pop music with local rhythms or instruments. Not only did these musics of the masses not exist a century ago, but even over that century there have been successive transformations as new influences were added into earlier mashup genres. One could take the example of Nigeria over the last fifty years: highlife in Nigeria turned into Afrobeat once American funk and Yoruba music was added into it, and then Afrobeat in turn started drawing on synth music, and then the example of American rappers was eagerly welcomed and sparked one of the best hip hop scenes in Africa. Meanwhile, around the world it is generally only the wealthy and well educated who are concerned with maintaining the "purity" of any indigenous genre (or with adopting Western jazz and classical without immediately starting to mix them with other musics). Caring about canons and strictures is an elitist pastime.

Bryan Townsend said...

Actually I was saying that the agenda of blurring boundaries and genres has become a cliché, but yes, part of a certain kind of elitism. But the caring about canons is a different kind of elitism--the good kind!