A large yellow stroke is painted over the words "art-pop"

A Brief and Hasty Argument Against Genre

I spent the afternoon talking to a pair of truly intelligent journalists who wanted to know why it is that I so often bristle against discussions of genre, e.g.:

I thought it might be a good idea to lay out, briefly, what it is that I object to about genre as a discourse. Here’s the thing: For the most part, everything that is new is a hybrid of two or more things that came before. This has always been the case.


Whether it’s Ligeti marrying the rhythms of West African drumming to the pianism of Debussy (with a little bit of chaos theory thrown in for good measure) in his first étude, “Désordre,” or Sufjan Stevens blending the ecstatic folk singing of Judee Sill with Philip Glass’ Music in Twelve Parts in “The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades,” progress is often found in the alchemy of disparate idioms. But the thing is, these sources, and the exoticism engendered by the apparent chasm between them, are only as interesting as the craft that’s brought to bear on their marriage. Anyone can put a hip-hop beat under a 12-tone row. The question is: Is it expressive, and is it in the service of something authentic?

What so often gets lost in the discourse on genre is precisely the issue of craft and the extent to which craft is or is not present in these hybrid works. I wish that we could start conversations about a work of art from a place of examining its craft and then, if necessary, work our way back to talking about the component parts or idiomatic reference points that comprise the language of that work. One of the dangers of simply talking about genre qua genre, aside from the fact that hybridity is the order of the day, is that the quality of the work becomes secondary to its stylistic attributes.

If we just call it songwriting, there’s a better chance that more listeners will give it a chance…

But the other thing I find irritating about all of these hyphenated-descriptor-laden genre conversations is that I believe they’re alienating to a lot of listeners. If you describe your work as “art pop song,” you threaten to drive away listeners who may not think they’re sophisticated enough to like “art music” or who generally don’t care for such highfalutin things. As far as my own work as a songwriter is concerned, my credo is to let whatever is sophisticated or complex be a humble and often invisible servant to the primary concern, which is to tell a story or depict a character in as clear and succinct a way as possible. If we just call it songwriting, there’s a better chance that more listeners will give it a chance than if we silo the thing as “art song” or “chamber pop” or what have you.

Now, I know that descriptors often provide a useful shorthand for letting a reader know what something is going to sound like, but in an era where kids are making playlists that run from Kendrick Lamar to Karlheinz Stockhausen, shouldn’t we allow craft, rather than categorization, to lead the conversation?

See the original publication of this article and more from Gabriel Kahane here

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Gabriel Kahane

Gabriel Kahane is a songwriter living in Brooklyn, NY. His newly released album of chamber music, The Fiction Issue, is available at https://gabrielkahane.bandcamp.com . …more 

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1 Response

  1. Brighton says:

    Great post from an exceptionally talented musician. I think the problem is that in 2016 America, the quality of the work is in fact secondary to its stylistic attributes. Audiences don’t listen to convert music, they have a lifestyle experience. Most composers today know that the program notes are more important than the music itself. We’re not composers any more, we’re brands.

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