Don’t Hem Me in, Bro

Don’t Hem Me in, Bro

At the Peabody Conservatory, where I teach, our music theory curriculum is “styles based.” After a year of tonal foundations, the curriculum moves chronologically from Baroque counterpoint towards more recent music, focusing on shared contemporaneous stylistic traits and on compositions that exemplify the sound of the times (the Zeitklang?). At the far tail end of this sequence, I take a day to talk about the most recent trends. This also allows me to give the students an opportunity to ask how to categorize various living composers who interest them but who otherwise are not covered in the class.

Invariably, a student asks the dreaded question: into which movement do I place myself?

After years of teaching and composing, one would think that I would have a good answer. But I don’t. Instead, I hem and haw. I name names of other composers who influence me. I describe the things about which I think while preparing a new piece.

Recently, I was described in concert publicity as a “microtonal composer.” But the piece that was being performed was composed strictly in equal temperament, I thought. Until I took a closer look at the score and found several microtonal glissandos. Since the microtonality wasn’t structural, I totally discounted it, thereby paradoxically making the label more apt than I had initially realized. More recently, I was called a “known local composer,” a sobriquet that I found somewhat disturbing in its implication that Big Brother takes interest in my compositional output (I can assure you, gentle reader, that I am not “known” in the Biblical sense).

Composers often express their discontent with the labels placed upon their music, including the friends called a “spectral minimalist” (which sounds remarkably fun to me) and “a composer in the European style” (which is wrong on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin). Even those whose music appears to be the Platonic essence of a specific style generally abhor being labeled within that style.

In general, artists tend to value originality and freedom of expression. Meanwhile, critics and theorists need to categorize and sort, even if only as part of the practical task of deciding what repertoire to include in any given discussion—and what to exclude, a more fraught consideration. Gestalt theorists tell us that this task is an essential part of human cognition. We constantly seek out patterns and create beautiful categories into which we pour our experiences. We intuit the difference between a dog and a cat, even though, at times, a description of the former can sound remarkably like the latter (try describing a Pomeranian dog). We accept anomalous examples—like the beloved platypus—as exceptions without forgoing all attempts at categorization, but our teaching of art generally errs towards setting norms, creating a myth of standard musical practices while avoiding discussion of the original thinkers who were uncharacteristic of their times. At times even the most central composers defy our attempts at placing them neatly within a specific style (is Beethoven a Classical or Romantic composer?).

As a teacher, I want my students to understand the context for the music they enjoy. As an artist, I want to be free to create the music I want to hear without worrying about its relevance to pre-ordained (or post-ordained) groupings. Even if someone tailor-fits a category to my previous works, I would chafe against these seams, immediately seeking ways to escape the straitjacket of expectations. But the next time I’m asked about my music, I would like to be prepared with an answer. It would be helpful to have a pithy description at the ready that encapsulates the possibilities I foresee when I sit down and prepare to start a new piece.

How do you solve this issue? Do you have a description that fits you? Have others found a simple way to limn your music that you appreciate?

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12 thoughts on “Don’t Hem Me in, Bro

  1. ChristopherAdler

    I believe that categorization is important and useful, for critics and analysts, and all of us, because it gives us ways to talk about ideas which transcend an individual work and may be windows into larger trajectories of culture.

    However, those categories should emanate from works, not from people. People change. Artists change, explore, mix, subvert, … Works once released, generally, exist in some kind of fixed form, as so are much more amenable to being positioned into these larger trajectories of culture.

    Composers should rightly bristle at being categorized as people unless the entirety of their compositional output clearly fits in the same category.

  2. Armando

    The solution?
    Post-modernism. It’s a convenient blanket rubric for “anything goes.” Let the theorists and musicologists sort it out.

  3. colin holter

    Post-modernism. It’s a convenient blanket rubric for “anything goes.”

    Open question: Does everyone agree that “anything goes” is necessarily synonymous with an aesthetic response to the postmodern?

    Because I don’t.

  4. jhelliott

    Intelligent, compelling post-modernism does not seem to be based on an “anything goes” approach. It is a conceptual approach that can be inclusive of many seemingly contradictory, incompatible things, and it levels the field in terms of validation of certain styles and traditions over others, but this last quality varies greatly from one “postmodernist” composer to another. It is a label that seems to be used cavalierly. It is thrown around much too imprecisely for it to have much meaning anymore, at least to me.

  5. Alex Shapiro

    Stylistic categorization is the bane of any living, creative person’s existence (and might not make some deceased composers happy, either, were they to discover in what virtual bin they’ve landed). Yet these pigeon-holing descriptions are often a necessity for those who seek to write about what it is that we so ardently create.

    I’ve come upon a solution that works for me (your mileage may vary). Influenced by and immersed in many styles of music– within the same week or even the same piece– I’ve coined a term that suits my own explorations: pan-genre. I’ve found it to be fitting, descriptive, accurate, and best of all, a good opener for further discussion on the broad nature of contemporary music these days, with the person who (possibly regrettably) began our conversation by asking me about my music.

    I also prefer pan-tonal to the old and somewhat charged atonal, because really, very, very little music is without a tonal center at one moment or another, no matter how fleeting.

    But my favorite response is that of my buddy Alvin Singleton, who when asked what his music sounds like, simply replies, “it sounds wonderful!”. Now that’s a category I’d be happy to be lumped with. Music journalists: take note!

  6. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    As a new teacher, I have found myself in the awkward situation of having to categorize music from across centuries, back to back. I teach a course for English as a Second Language students to familiarize them with musical vocabulary in the English language. This necessitates much listening, and I often find myself playing a good deal of recent music, since (to my mind) often the aesthetic goals of a piece can be detected more easily than with, say, Mozart. In one particularly disorienting class, for instance, we covered Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna,” Xenakis’ “Nuits,” Adam’s “China Gates,” and Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus.” Piece by piece, these is easy to categorize, when it comes down to it. And frankly, sometimes, for the sake of getting students to know what they’re dealing with, it DOES come down to it.

    Mozart screws me up, though. I usually just say that he lived in a time where pitch was the most important element, followed by form. Then with Beethoven, dynamics became more important. But I dunno, this is all simplistic and demeaning.

    My students asked me the same thing, David. What do I compose like? I told them that I like writing instrumental chamber music, and I like some extended techniques. I’m bad at writing melodies, but I’m trying to get better because I like them. Oh, and come to my concert to hear some music and find out for yourselves. After all, you ARE musicians…..

  7. ChristianBCarey

    When I interviewed John Wolf Brennan some years ago, he said, “Who’d want to be pinned down in a stylistic pigeonhole? Pigeonholes are such dark and claustrophobic places.”

    I like that some of the post-tonal folk are getting the “postmodern modernist” tag.

    Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it? :)


    When people ask what my music sounds like, I play them two clips: Jody Redhage singing one of my triadic-inflected songs and my serial piece for alto flute and piano. Hopefully, this thwarts the overgeneralization issue.

  8. ScottG

    Very interesting article! You write: “As a teacher, I want my students to understand the context for the music they enjoy. As an artist, I want to be free to create the music I want to hear without worrying about its relevance to pre-ordained (or post-ordained) groupings.”

    For me, the solution to this problem is to stress that what you’re experiencing are relationships between your music (or your students’ music) and some other music. The end. Your music is not relating to a genre, or a style with a name, or a catchy label… but to other music. Play the students a piece of music you think they’re relating to. When you write your music, notice the ways in which it’s similar to other music. Refuse to care what name that other music has. Makes sense to me, at least.

    Because all music can’t help but relate to other music. It’s impossible not to relate. So you learn about how you like to navigate those relationships. And you teach your students lots of music and give them lots of ideas so they can find their own path through that web of “past music.” Names are secondary, added later, and generally disliked. So ignore them.

  9. Armando

    Open question: Does everyone agree that “anything goes” is necessarily synonymous with an aesthetic response to the postmodern?

    Well, I don’t really, either, but it’s a quick, rather glib answer to a very complicated, self-absorbing question.

  10. smooke

    First, thank everyone for these comments. Very constructive dialogue, which I appreciate greatly.

    I think that Alex/Alvin Singleton have a great solution. Another friend wrote me to tell of Birtwistle’s response when the Queen asked him the same question: It’s like Beethoven, only better. Mischa is exactly correct that we need to get people to go and listen. All else follows from that. Christian has a similar response in that he plays two specific short pieces for questioners. Scott’s way of teaching sounds very well conceived and is one that I will utilize.

    On the issue of Postmodernism: Armando was clearly joking in his initial post, but by doing so he arrived at an essential feature of that label (and really all verbal descriptions on music). I once took a graduate philosophy seminar on Postmodernism in which we spent the entire semester trying to arrive at a definition of the term Postmodern. As I recall (this was over 20 years ago), the closest we ever came to a definition was Lyotard’s “that which, within the modern, questions the representability of representation itself” (mind you, I may be misremembering this quote, but that’s the way it’s stuck in my head for more than two decades).

    The problem here, is that since denotation is the central issue in the Postmodern, it really cannot be strictly applied to music except through collage. And yet musical a movement arose of composers who refused to be limited to a single style (even within a single piece) that appears to be somewhat unified. Which we ended up labeling Postmodern. Which became a convenient catch-all category for anything. Which is just silly.


  11. ScottG

    I’ve always thought the only workable definition of Postmodern was a time-related one. Anything after 1945 or so is Postmodern. It’s after the “Modern” era, and “postmodern” is the next (uncreative) name that seems to have stuck.

    All the other stuff is so subjective. And we don’t really allow for it in Music History classes anyway: we lump everyone from a time period into one “era” for convenience’s sake, and for the sake of comparing contemporary artists. Their specific musical style doesn’t come into play. I don’t see why our era should work differently.


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