Collaborating Across Genre: The New Generation

When chamber sextet yMusic released their 2011 debut album, “Beautiful Mechanical,” they changed the conversation of what modern cross-genre collaboration could entail. Although musicians of other genres had been adding classical elements to their work for decades, yMusic’s approach was unique: They produced a classical album first, but the tracks were written primarily by pop artists, including Son Lux, Annie Clark (otherwise known as St. Vincent), and My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Nova (formerly Shara Worden). The album may now be six years old, but the material continues to evolve, as does cross-genre collaboration as a whole. It has grown in popularity, making significant waves amidst fans and critics alike – enriching the individual genres that intermingle while broadening the musical language of its participants.

One of the most evocative compositions from “Beautiful Mechanical” is Clark’s “Proven Badlands.” Its bassoon beginnings meld into delicate flute and cello melodies, before meditative acoustic guitar plucking enters the fold. The composition builds, soaring and swinging in an almost jazzy fashion, incorporating a forlorn trumpet and a staccato viola line. The musical whims reflect Clark’s own work as St. Vincent, while also distinctly belonging to yMusic.

yMusic violist Nadia Sirota says a piece like Clark’s illustrates how collaboration, particularly between disparate genres, can wind up transcending the original work. 

“Every single time we perform it we change something,” she explains. “We can’t resist tweaking that piece, but the result is something that is definitely Annie’s voice and also us, because we’ve put so much of ourselves into that arrangement over the years. That’s the type of collaboration that is so foreign, on some level, to the classical type of composer.”

The boundless way in which musicians approach composing and songwriting nowadays has a lot to do with backgrounds that embrace diverse musical experiences.

Commingling genres is not a new concept. It’s responsible for the birth of rock ’n’ roll and the genesis of hip-hop, and orchestral instruments have buoyed pop-charting songs for decades: Just look at the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” But new takes on the medium, plus the shedding of perceived boundaries between genres, have opened new possibilities.

There are small but powerful collaborations that add nuance to a song, like yMusic’s brief appearance toward the end of Dirty Projectors’ “Dance for You.” They can also intensify the emotion throughout an album, like when the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO) collaborated on Radiohead’s “A Moon Shaped Pool” – a fusion spearheaded by the band’s resident classical composer, Jonny Greenwood.

Whether classical artists’ contributions are subtle or grand – ranging from creating orchestral arrangements, helping songwriters realize their visions, or offering new interpretations when performing – the results can be transformative. Now, classical additions have started to make a more prominent mark in the electronic, pop and R&B realms as well.

LCO, co-founded and co-run by conductor Hugh Brunt and violist Robert Ames, prizes itself in promoting the best new music from a variety of artists to a growing audience. Ames says that the boundless way in which musicians approach composing and songwriting nowadays has a lot to do with backgrounds that embrace diverse musical experiences.

“Most of our musicians are under the age of 30, and a lot of them are improvisers as well as orchestral-trained musicians. A lot of them produce their own electronic music,” he says. “A lot of them put on their own new music nights. They’re really a collaborative bunch.”

Cross-genre collaborations are growing audiences beyond the respective genres’ realms, too. LCO has also appeared on the Frank Ocean albums “Endless” and “Blonde;” these, along with “A Moon Shaped Pool,” were all critically-acclaimed popular albums. Radiohead and Frank Ocean have charted high on the coveted Billboard 200, a space not typically occupied by classical artists. Conversely, a non-classical artist recently impacted the classical stats: “So There,” a collaborative album between Ben Folds and yMusic topped both the Classical and Classical Crossover charts in 2015.

The process of cross-genre collaboration leads to increased sonic palettes and a broadened musical language.

Along with audience numbers, these types of projects expand musicians’ creativity and flexibility. While on tour, Folds would ask yMusic members to improvise on stage. “As somebody who was trained classically, I am not used to improvising,” Sirota admits. For her, it was “terrifying.” But she adds, “As a musician, you have to constantly put yourself out of your comfort zone because that’s how you get better.” 

That’s a learning curve that’s beneficial for all artists involved. The process of cross-genre collaboration leads to increased sonic palettes and a broadened musical language. Robert Ames remembers working with the British electronic producer known as Actress, whom Ames describes as having an “incredible attention to detail and quiet, pernicious-sounding things.” While preparing for a live performance, Actress and the LCO musicians “spent a lot of time in workshops and improvisation sessions. [Actress] would play a lot of electronic sounds and we would try to recreate them on our instruments.” 

He continues, “We were finding new sounds and we were learning to work in a different way. At the same time, [Actress] was opened up to a whole new palette of colors that you can only find in a symphony orchestra.”

Cross-genre collaboration has come to mean more than blending disparate parts; it’s about cultivating a fresh perspective for both the listeners and the performers. “First,” yMusic’s recently released collaborative album with Son Lux, was recorded only a short while after the sextet first experienced the music. yMusic’s violinist Rob Moose explains, “We were interested in capturing the sound of the group nailing the material for the first time, lending an almost live energy to the recordings.” 

Ames says cross-genre collaboration encourages artists to innovate. “I like the idea of minds coming together to create something new,” he says. “Instead of thinking of it as a fusing together of two worlds – there could be a danger of it becoming an unnatural meeting – you try to genuinely find something new together, taking the best experiences that both parties have doing what they do.”

And as Moose relays, classical musicians are already natural collaborators. Collaboration is “the heart of chamber music. The way that we learn to listen to each other – cue, breathe together, make eye contact, trust and feel things in unison – is absolutely applicable in a variety of settings,” he explains. “There is no reason to limit one’s musical orbit if one has a genuine interest.”

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Althea Legaspi

Althea Legaspi is a Chicago-based freelance music journalist. She is a Rollingstone.com night editor/writer and Chicago Tribune contributor. …more 

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