The Unanswered Question

The Unanswered Question

Maybe you’re sipping a glass of wine, mingling with some friends of friends, and somehow, before you know it, someone lets the cat out of the bag. And now you’re faced with that dreaded question you’ve never developed a pat answer for: What kind of music do you write?

Ugh, I wish it were an easy question, and really, it should be. Besides the fact that a lot of the music we create lacks a household name—like disco or acid jazz—an all-encompassing descriptive becomes even more difficult to pin on it when your creative interests diverge from standard notated scores and venture into digital music, working with video, and performance art. Without the proper über-term at my disposal, I usually answer with some nonsense which attempts to reference classical music—the context in which I most often create—while hinting at more emerging cross-disciplinary approaches to the art form. However, as my boyfriend recently pointed out, “experimental chamber music” is a terrible reply. To most people at a cocktail party, the word “chamber” has no connection to music whatsoever. Besides, why define a creative trajectory by the number of musicians typically used to perform it? Seems rather perfunctory.

Seeing that I’ve been on the name quest for awhile now, attempting to construe a one- or two-word response that is not only intelligible but also gives artistic insight into the kind of music that I write, I asked my boyfriend how I should answer the question next time it arises. “New music,” he responded, “isn’t that what you call it?” I scoffed, thinking this description was too vague. “It’s better than ‘experimental Rick Springfield’ or whatever you just said.” We delved further into matters and finally agreed upon “conceptual music.” Think of it as shorthand. By and large, people know what conceptual art is and how they feel about it, so why not piggyback from there? It paints a vague idea of how the music is created and what it might sound like. Of course this is an assumption, considering I haven’t tried it out yet.

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10 thoughts on “The Unanswered Question

  1. david toub

    Yeah, I can’t stand that question. People always want to know what one’s music “sounds like.” I used to say things like “well, it’s music my wife can’t stand,” or “it’s repetitive,” etc. Now I just say “it sounds like me” and leave it to them to figure out.

    All of us like to categorize things. We like to put things into neat packages like “minimalism,” “serialism,” “postminimalism,” “postminimalserialism,”…whatever. I’m no less an offender than anyone else. But in the end, the categories tell you nothing about the music itself, only the names that other people like to call it.

  2. Alex Shapiro

    One word will do it
    My favorite reply to this question is that from my pal, composer Alvin Singleton. When asked what his music sounds like, his simple response is, “Wonderful!!”.

  3. RustyBanks

    I simply say that I’m a neo-postmodernist. That clears it up don’t you think?

    Actually, just send them to your website. It saves a lot of time.

  4. Jonathan Newman

    Joking aside, I actually dread that question less than I used to, since I decided on the simple (and I think elegant) answer of “Concert Music”. You’d be surprised how well that works. That one word in front of “music” gives an immediate picture of artistic intent, a general sense of the musicians involved, and really, one’s whole Life Decision. And it’s so much less judgmental than “Serious Music”. The only thing missing is specific style, which is sort of a hazy/subjective thing anyway, isn’t it? And yet this answer is so general, it works for any style or forces — for instance, Randy, I know you write “Concert Music” … I just got an e-mail about your music, to be played on a concert … It works!

  5. altometer

    I just got the question last night from a someone I’d just met. And he was an intelligent guy, an amateur musician, and not necessarily probing in order to put my music in a tidy box.

    Nonetheless, I still found myself offering my typical non-answer: “good music.” My other stock reply is “Hirsch Music.”

    And, as was suggested above…

  6. ydandaman

    I don’t know, I always thought “concert music” was just as bad if not worse than “serious music”, because all music is played at concerts (rock, jazz, hip-hop, etc.). It basically amounts to another non-answer like “I write good music” or something, which is fine if you’re the clever type, but doesn’t really get to the gist of a very legitimate question we should all be constantly asking ourselves (although I hate getting asked it as much as anyone).

    I think for most of us the answer that would make the most sense to people would be “experimental” music which it is by definition because once music stops being experimental then it is well defined including a genre name.

  7. Colin Holter

    I have a few older relatives who introduce me (somewhat spitefully) to their friends as an “atonal” composer because they know it’ll get a distasteful reaction. I wish I knew a better way to tell them I write “music you don’t like.”

  8. altometer

    Dandaman: you’re right.

    At a Creative Capital artist workshop a few years ago they emphasized the importance of knowing your elevator speech. That is, to give a real answer (to the question) in about one or two sentences.

    The objectives:
    1. keep it short
    2. make it meaningful
    3. give the person who asked something memorable
    4. make it sound interesting enough that they might follow-up with more pointed questions, really wanting to find out about your schtick.

    Admittedly, I haven’t refined my elevator speech… but I suspect it would be more useful if I did.

    Has anyone else had success with a similar approach?

  9. jbunch

    elevator talk
    I usually just tell them what I my compositional goals are. I might give a response like: “I am interested in writing music that examines musical instruments and forms as cultural artifacts – that asks questions of our assumptions about beauty, form, sound production, etc. I think we tend to make easy assumptions about these things based off our past experiences and what people tell us, but I try to explore those assumptions, sometimes affirming, sometimes rejecting them in whole or in part.”

    It’s not really flashy or short at all, but if I sense that someone really wants to know, I chance it. If not, I just say “it’s weird sometimes, but I like it.”


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