If The Box Doesn’t Fit, You Must…?


I haven’t written a proper blog post in nearly two years, but the issues that haunted me then —  musical genres and audience access — continue to be topics which I’m deeply interested in, topics which affect me as a composer and performer, and as someone who’s interested in growing an audience while our audience is growing young children.


At some point I wrote a series of posts on genre — how I danced around genres, how I tried to eliminate genre labels with a “genrectomy”, and how I later found meaning in genre labels as a shorthand way of describing, or at least multi-tagging, a work or a band.  Here’s an update.


Things have improved on at least one front: if you’re a string player in the USA, you can spend your summers attending Christian Howes’ Creative Strings Workshop in Columbus OH, Mark O’Connor’s Method Camp in NYC, Mike Block’s String Camp in Vero Beach FL and the Global String Intensive at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, among others. During the academic year, a number of colleges throughout the US are offering programs geared more towards string players with creative impulses — Christian Howes wrote great a roundup in 2014. Many more string players are improvising, playing by ear, writing their own music, finding new possibilities on their instruments, all of which makes me incredibly proud and green with envy — I wish these opportunities to learn were around when I was a budding violist.


Unfortunately, at least for now, you are unlikely to hear this music in a concert venue near you. Why not? I have a couple of guesses.


First off — while students in these camps learn and create in a multitude of styles and blends from all over the world, the world of concert organizers is roughly mandated to book classical, jazz, world music and pop. If your music doesn’t neatly fit into these broader boxes, your work becomes a tough sell — and, in the era of high quality home entertainment, selling tickets is hard enough to shows that are the perfect fit for each category. Don’t take my word for it – here’s a quote from an established presenter with whom I had an email thread last year: “As adventurous and diverse as our programming may be, our offerings appeal primarily to two types of audiences members: mainstream chamber music fans and jazz fans. We do not have a record of presenting music that crosses genres nor do we have a good venue for doing so.”    This sentiment is not uncommon.
Secondly — this new music can be more informal and benefits from a more casual atmosphere than an arts center will typically allow. Some of it is more intimate. Some of this music may encourage an audience to dance, to drink alcohol, the audience may feel compelled to take fan video and tweet — neither of these is generally possible in a traditional venue.
Thirdly —  the further musicians veer off from a traditional path, the less they have in common with the faculty makeup at their college or university and the curricula of their students. The creative skills you learn at these camps are not the skills that will help a student gain employment in an orchestra nor a chamber group, thereby limiting their practical usefulness in “the real world”…   Still, creative strings players have a lot of great YouTube hits (here are three great examples) and their audience keeps growing.


YouTube hits aside, we don’t know yet how to bring this music to a larger audience in our community.  Is it “folk” or “jazz” or “roots” or “classical” or “world” — what if it’s all of the above, or none of those? With increasing frequency, performers and composers blur genre distinctions which can’t be marketed to a “core audience”.  It’s divide-and-conquer in reverse — if a musical act can only represent half a genre, then, theoretically, only half of that audience will buy tickets.


What if these hybrid bands and composers were not outliers but the new normal?  No forward-thinking composer or performer wants to be labeled as “classical” or “jazz” or “folk” or “world” (or “pop” or “rock” or “experimental”); we all want to explore multiple terrain and continue to develop a language, a listener, a collaboration, and see where it leads. Perhaps this is most challenging for the performer-composers among us, whose music eschews genre boundaries, develops a sound that cannot be described as “classic” or “rootsy” or “authentic” but dares to become a primary source of its own.


I can speak for myself — I have no ambitions to be a “classical” composer, though I’ve written a number of works for traditional ensembles and am exceedingly comfortable with notating music;  though able to improvise on chord changes, I have no ambitions to write “jazz” music; though I’ve collaborated with a multitude of musicians from all over the world, I avow no allegiance or authority to any “world” tradition.  And yet, I’m involved in all of these worlds every day, as composer and performer, and I am not alone in this mutant-like direction.


The format of genre-specific programming has to change, and I’m optimistic that it will.  A new generation of musicians is devouring musical idioms through the genre-free venues like YouTube, and reinforcing them through the great educational camps and college programs mentioned above.


The genre-free cross-pollinated music is here — where are the venues where it can grow?


Speaking of YouTube, sharing with you the NPR Tiny Desk Concert of my ensemble, Ljova and the Kontraband – hope you will enjoy.

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