Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Hiding the Genre

I'm not sure if this is the most deceptive era in history, but it sure feels like it sometimes. No, I'm not talking about political campaigns! In music there has been a long-standing project to blur the lines between different kinds of music, to essentially wipe out the idea of stylistic distinctions. Part of the reason for this is probably commercial: it is probably good marketing to just tell people this is really great stuff you are going to love without actually specifying too much about it. But another reason is that the progressive world-view seems very fond of the idea of erasing distinctions. This might have something to do with the idea of also suppressing the idea that people can and should make reasonable judgements about things like art. Perhaps this correlates with the general urge towards equality in everything.

But the simple truth is that a great deal of music falls into four simple stylistic categories: folk and traditional music, classical music, jazz, and popular music. There are some interesting blends out there and there are certainly many pieces in one style that are influenced by other styles, but these general categories are still fundamental. This does not prevent, however, a lot of articles in the mass media from either ignoring or seeking to obfuscate this simple truth.

I just ran into an, ahem, "classic" example of this. In today's Wall Street Journal there is an article titled ‘TranceClassical’ by Maya Beiser Review: A Cello Bows to All Genres. Maya Beiser is a cellist with a new album that they describe as follows:
During her lengthy career, cellist and composer Maya Beiser has explored sacred songs, the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Woodstock-era rock, and numerous pieces by contemporary classical composers ranging from Philip Glass to Michael Gordon. On her new recording, “TranceClassical” (Innova), she brings these disparate interests together in what amounts to a philosophical retrospective and a career-spanning playlist. Rather than deliver a pastiche, she unites her interests with characteristic flair.
This is the kind of criticism we have these days: it must always consist of unalloyed praise. Let's have a listen to one of the tracks from the album. This is an arrangement of the Air from Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3:

The video aside, what we have here is a very old-fashioned, 19th century style slow tempo performance with a great deal of vibrato. Nothing wrong with that, but it is rather soppy and melodramatic. Let's listen to another sample from the album. This is an arrangement by David Lang of the Velvet Underground tune "Heroin":

Sounds a lot like the recent Brian Eno piece "The Ship" with its slow-motion low growly vocal. Let me put up just one more piece by Maya Beiser, not from this album, but from 2012. This is "Just Ancient Loops", a live performance from the Bang on a Can marathon:

Maya Beiser is certainly a very versatile artist, but I didn' t quite get the feeling from the first two clips that that was where her central focus was. Frankly, just about any reasonably well-trained cellist could have managed those performances. But the last one is more individual and telling, I think.

So what sort of artist is Maya Beiser? What category is most comfortable for her? She is really not a classical artist, I don't think, nor a pop artist. Certainly not a folk or traditional one. No, I think it is pretty clear that she is a jazz musician.

The reveal is found at the very bottom of the Wall Street Journal article describing the job title of Martin Johnson, the writer of the article:

Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.


Jives said...

Sort of a silly name for an album...but that may have been the marketing department. We get the cool cache that "trance" carries, with the gravitas that "classical" brings. Presto (heh...), trance-classical, a new and totally inaccurate descriptor for the music on the album.

Titling aside, when I ask myself, who is the audience for this album, I"m left with the answer "everybody and nobody at all." Beiser seems to be trying to please everyone, from casual Sunday-morning listener (Bach Air) to earnest hipster (VU) and everyone in between. That cover of Heroin seems to have totally enervated the song and missed its point. Oy, and the loopy machine. Have we had enough of being amazed by the loop machine yet?. Yes, yes, you can loop it and play along with yourself, it's not magic, it's not that hard to do, and it ensures that your piece will go nowhere harmonically too.
Ms. Beiser is also extremely photogenic, good on her. But remember the old days when you could have an ugly mug and still be admired?

Bryan Townsend said...

Jives, I think you nailed it! This album is for everyone and nobody at all. The reason that stylistic categories exist is due to the variability of taste. It also helps you find music you like. The purpose of all this stuff is to obfuscate, conceal and confuse!

Jives said...

I think it must be so. 'Genre' is becoming something of a dirty word, lately. As if we are supposed to be over that concept by now, post-genre (ick). Surveying her activities, like you say, Beiser is a sort of "progressive jazz" musician. And notice the marketers (and maybe she too) are doing their utmost to avoid that label here. It's all diversity for diversity's sake, never mind unity of purpose, and for me it results in a tepid, shallow sampler. The only commonality is her. And her Bach is 'meh', why do it? Much more interesting to hear Beiser lay into a whole album of VU covers, to dig DOWN into something.

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, that just wouldn't be "diverse" enough!

Anonymous said...

Yes, diversity as a cherished artistic value is so commonplace, not just in music. To mix genres -- often purposelessly -- is seen to be 'enlightened'. The funny thing is that mixing these genres, at least in commercial music, often lowers quality. Symphonic metal comes to mind.

Observing your obvious admiration for Steve Reich, what do you think, then, of his experiments with popular music -- I'm thinking of his collaboration with Radiohead, for example. Dangerous confusing of genre boundaries or healthy inspiration?

Bryan Townsend said...

Striving to be diverse and versatile is a marketing device and I agree that the usual result is diluted, unfocused, poor quality music.

I haven't heard Radio Rewrite--the idea didn't seem that interesting. But obviously I should give it a listen. I have never found anything interesting in Radiohead and the near-reverence with which they are regarded is a mystery to me! What do you think of Radio Rewrite?

(One of the reasons I haven't ordered the CD is that Radio Rewrite is accompanied by two other pieces I think are not terribly strong: Electric Counterpoint and a transcription of Six Pianos.)

Anonymous said...

Radio Rewrite is alright, I guess. I haven't heard the Radiohead pieces it's based on, but the chord progressions and melody lines do not sound strictly like Reich to me. The melodies, though deconstructed as it were, sound especially weak. And the slow movements were forgettable -- or rather, I remember being more than happy to forget them. It's also got an electric bass that got on my nerves.

Around the middle movement, I think, it picks up. What I presume are the Radiohead elements become less noticeable, or he's basing it on a better Radiohead song.

I was going to say that maybe late Reich is less inspired, but then I remembered how much I liked WTC9/11.

Maybe the problem is borrowing from one band in a genre that is much more homogeneous and lower in quality than classical music. How much less interesting would Bartok's string quartets have been had he only taken notice of one particular local folk group? (Perhaps if one buys into the idea that Radiohead is exceptional, then this is great music. But not for me.)

Better to get to know the idiom rather than just slapping a few chords and melodies from one piece onto another.

Jives said...

I think there is fertile ground for collaboration or at least some blending and dialog between the alt-popular and art music genres. In fact, I've noticed an interesting new (another one!) definition for the word "classical" developing in the electronic and experimental music scene, as a label for music which dares to be quiet, incorporates some acoustic instruments, and cultivates the kind of transparent texture where counterpoint and harmony can really shine through. Since it's 2016, tape loops, field recordings, digital processing are in the mix too, all evocative tools to me. I've found a lot to like in recent albums by Zach Cooper


and Strie


Again, this isn't classical in the usual historical sense, but it vibrates in the same regions of frequency that classical music does, and the artists seem to proceed with great care, attention paid to each note and gesture. I can see why the reviewers gravitate to the associations that the word brings.

Bryan Townsend said...

@slugging: Haydn is just full of musical ideas originally from gypsies or Hungarian recruiting bands and he makes wonderful use of them. Anyway, I guess I have to listen to Radio Rewrite!

@jives: Oh, you bet there is! In fact Reich comments in some notes somewhere that he is happy to be the site of a reconciliation between popular and classical musics. I will give a listen to those clips you link to. Sounds interesting.