Monday, March 19, 2012

Let's say I'm a trained ballerina

Let's say I'm a trained ballerina (I'm not). If I then want to be a good salsa dancer, I take 6 months of classes, I ask questions, I watch others do it, I practice and get feedback from my dance partners. In all of this I develop my own skill and mastery of the style.

As a musician, my background is in classical. But I want to write music and perform as a singer-songwriter. So,  I approach songwriting and performing the same way. I want to develop my own vocal style, so I am taking lessons from a vocal coach who specializes in working with songwriters. I want to make use of orchestral instruments in my arrangements, so I am studying arranging/composition. I want to incorporate my French horn playing in my songs, so I'm busting out the Kopprasch etudes. I want to incorporate dance into my performance, so I'm brushing up on various dance styles. I want my songs to be heavy on percussion, so I'm studying drumline cadences and meeting with percussionists. I have no experience commanding a stage or a microphone as a solo artist, so I am starting to play open mics. I am miles away from where I want to be and I have a ton of work to do. This blog keeps me accountable and tracks the process.

In the contemporary classical world, there has been a notable rise (or rebirth) of the composer/performer in recent years. For the second year in a row the annual MATA Festival of new music by "young" composers from all over the world [full disclosure: I am MATA's publicist] will feature a composer/performer night called "Responsible Parties." (Performance on Thursday, April 19; roundtable discussion with said responsible parties the next morning, Friday, April 20.)

It's not exactly singer-songwriter fare. They've got video constructions, music for sheet metal, music for piano wire installation, part of an opera. Crazy interesting stuff. Often there's no singing at all = not songs. Lesley, Kate, and Matt's pieces are sung, so on that level are songs, written by song-writers.

Jacob Cooper, Triptych: II. Black or White
Cecilia Lopez, Mechanical Music for Sheet Metal
Kate Soper, Only the words themselves mean what they say
Lesley Flanigan, Snow
Matt Marks, sneak preview of The Little Death: Vol. 2 with Mellissa Hughes
Eli Keszler, Cold Pin

Still, within this greater movement there are those who more closely resemble singer-songwriters in that the music is primarily a) sung b) by the person who wrote it: Corey Dargel, Gabriel Kahane, to name a couple. Shara Worden fronts the band My Brightest Diamond as singer/songwriter but has moved into the world of composition.

One thing I've observed in my role as a publicist is that music which crosses multiple genre lines will, as a result, be received and evaluated by multiple and distinct sets of values, expectations, and reference points.

Case study: My Brightest Diamond released All Things Will Unwind in collaboration with yMusic [for whom I handled press via New Amsterdam Records] a few months back. ATWU is both an album by a songwriter-led-band (in indie rock terms) and a collection of short pieces for chamber ensemble with voice (in classical terms), and it was reviewed accordingly depending on the writer/outlet.

Sample review:  My Brightest Diamond
All Things Will Unwind
Peter Zimmerman,  Glide magazine (Peter has a classical/choral background)

Primary values/expectations by which "contemporary classical" music is measured:
  • Separation of composer and performer is usually the standard. (Unimportant/unexpected that the two be merged.)
  • Composer
    • Musical innovation / experimentation / originality (composition)
      • structure/form
      • texture
      • color
      • rhythm
      • harmony 
      • media/instrumentation
    • Reference points: Western classical canon of repertoire (development from Gregorian chant -->  Bach --> Mozart --> Mahler --> Reich --> contemporary movements/trends
  • Performer
    • Technical proficiency
    • Mastery of performance practice by style/period
    • Infusion of personal interpretation
    • Reference points: Past performers (e.g. Horowitz for piano); past recordings (comparison against "definitive" recording of specific works)

Sample review:
My Brightest Diamond
All Things Will Unwind
Amanda Petrusich, Pitchfork magazine

Primary values/expectations by which singer-songwriters/bands are measured:

  • Overall listener experience/mood trumps technical proficiency
  • Many elements of structure are (largely) assumed.
    • It's a song. Has words.
    • Melody is primary vehicle, voice is primary instrument.
    • Melody-dominated homophony. Instruments as ornamentation, accompaniment, setting of mood.
    • Short pieces (3 minutes); longer is significant.
  • Personal expression, authenticity trump "proper" technique.
    • Distinctive voice is imperative.
    • Story-telling (theirs or others)
    • Intimacy
    • Lyric-driven
  • Stage presence, persona.
    • Visual style, brand.
    • Use/command of microphone assumed.
  • Songwriter/band as icon, singing soundtrack for others lives. What does it sound like to be me/us now?
  • Reference points: Past artists (i. e. for songwriters -  Billie Holiday --> Woodie Guthrie --> Bob Dylan --> Joni Mitchell --> Sufjan Stevens), current rock trends.

All of this said, as artists should we care? I often hear from artists that genres and labels are super annoying, only for marketing, for people with tiny minds, or that they don't matter at all. "I write whatever I want," etc. Yes! Write that music! Write music because you have to! But what about performance practice? What about the ballerina who wants to be a successful salsa dancer? Does style/genre/label not matter then? If you're dancing salsa, does it matter to the audience or reviewers that you are accomplished en pointe, or does it only matter whether or not you 'bring it' with your salsa? And if you merge those two and become a salsa-rina, what will be your reference points and measures of success?

And music critics, how do you approach music that draws from multiple traditions, or that falls between genre lines? By what criteria and reference points and values do you measure that music? If you're reviewing a classically-infused album for a rock outlet, do you hold the album to rock or classical standards? Both? Meet halfway? If a rock musician composes a symphony, does it matter that s/he is one of the best rock artists of all time? Or does it only matter whether the symphony holds its own by classical standards? And if a conservatory-trained artist releases a singer-songwriter album, does it matter to you or the audience that that person can achieve great technical heights as a classical musician? Or does it only matter whether the album rocks?

[House rules are in effect. Be opinionated, be sincere, be civil.]


  1. As I happen to both "compose concert music" that uses some dance beats and play in a punk band that quotes Puccini, this is an issue that comes up a lot. My own personal take, as a music creator, is sort of an "I could care less" about what genre/boundaries the actual material of the music fits into, but when it comes to marketing and people's preconceptions about music, I find playing to the opposite crowd one might expect has been helpful.

    In the classical world, I've seen myself listed as a "Los Angeles punk rocker" in concert reviews, and I know for a fact that at least a few reviewers have paid attention to my band because we draw so heavily on classical and progressive/experimental musics, as opposed to being a normal punk band, whatever that is.

    When it comes to actually listening, though, I try not to draw a conscious distinction, and just let the music sound the way it sounds.

  2. Update: Gabriel Kahane's clear-minded response regarding intentions and perceptions of his own music lives here:

  3. I can only speak to this as it applies to literature, but I think that genres are useful, and that people who say that they aren't working within a genre aren't being 100% accurate - they may be resisting a genre, but resistance is a form of working in. Genres are mostly useful as a form of shorthand - a set of shared assumptions between the artist and the audience. So, for example, a ghost story carries with it the assumption that ghosts exist. The characters in the story might not believe in ghosts, but the author doesn't have to take a few pages to explain that, in the world she's created, people live on after death as ghosts.

    This is important, because there's a lot of fun to be had by playing around with these sorts of generic assumptions. So, for example, The Shawshank Redemption was on tv last night (spoiler alert if you somehow haven't seen this movie yet). I think part of what makes the ending of that movie so satisfying for people is that it includes a reveal that the movie was actually not in the genre you thought it was. You've been watching a prison break movie this whole time, and you didn't know it. But it also has to work as the movie you though you were watching, which is a story about friendship between two inmates. Similarly, without artists being aware of genres, we wouldn't have a show like Community, which gets a lot of its jokes from its audience's awareness of generic conventions.

    So, and this is easy for me to say because I'm not a musician, I think the most interesting thing to do if you're working at the intersection of two genres, is to try to use your work to comment on both of those genres. That sort of contrast gives you an opportunity to say something about the limitations of being, say, a contemporary classical composer, or a singer songwriter.

  4. Alex Ross's thoughts on the matter (and on the general wonderfulness that is Steve Smith, editor of Time Out New York, classical contributor to The New York Times) here:

  5. As a classically trained singer who also does the singer-songwriter thing, I can relate to this a lot... but a lot of it comes down to the audience. Until you really start carving out a following of your own, you basically are doing gigs where the audience is not one that you've chosen- the venue has chosen them for you, or the other acts, or the greater festival, etc.

    I'm not saying that you always have to give the audience what they want and reduce yourself to dancing monkey... but as far as "what's important" - is it important to you to know that you have classical training, or important to them? In most singer-songwriter settings (again, until you have your own following, and contingent on the other acts you're being curated with), it won't matter. What will matter in any setting- opera, singer-songwriter, rock stadium, house gig- is if you convey an emotional message honestly with the music.

    When I step up to the mic at karaoke in a room full of judgmental gay men, they don't give a crap if I'm classically trained, or if being a musician is my job, or if I'm an office drone that has never taken a voice lesson in my life- they care if I "bring it."

    Then again, all of this only strongly applies to the *performing* aspect, not to composition, arrangement, networking, recording, etc...