File Under: Ambiguous

File Under: Ambiguous

Ian Moss

A few years ago, as part of a senior seminar on the subject of “Concert Music Since 1970,” I gave my fellow classmates an unusual listening quiz comprised of (among other things) 45-second snippets of obscure electroacoustic chamber works and random bits of forlorn art-rock suites. The only assignment that afternoon was to identify the “tradition-stream” of music that the sample came from: “classical” or “popular.” Never mind the vast oversimplifications and distortions that such a binary worldview entails; the point of this exercise was to ask, “when the chips are down, can you guess based on sonic content alone whether this music came from someone identified with the Western art-music tradition or not?”

I came up with this “Family Feud“-esque exercise because, let’s face it, for all the genre-bashing and boundary-breaking that has been taking place in new music over the past 40 years or so, the fact is that the mainstream dialogue in this country still makes a very clear and final distinction between “classical music” and “everything else,” forcing people outside of our little community to apply these rigid black-and-white categories to our ostensibly category-less music. After all, it’s really hard to talk about communication between two genres when the local record store routinely banishes one of them to a hermetically sealed soundproofed room with an entirely different staff and browsing etiquette.

Anyway, my classmates did pretty well for a while. The first excerpt, Allemande from the Suite for Sampler and Orchestra by Heiner Goebbels, was easily pegged as a classical piece on the basis of instrumentation (despite a highly audible electric bass sound). The second selection, a portion of one of Sonic Youth‘s guitar feedback-laden SYR collaborations with DJ Olive, mystified the gathered multitudes for a while until they heard Kim Gordon wailing “I woooonnn’t biiiite you!” near the end of the chosen passage.

The one that really stumped them, though, was the opener from Nosferatu, a film soundtrack by the ever-inscrutable French avant-rock band Art Zoyd. The music features such diverse elements as slowly oscillating siren sounds, cheesy ’80s-style “orchestra hit” samples sprinkled liberally throughout the texture, and a frantic keyboard line that sounds like it was lifted straight out of a video game. The whole thing is just weird enough to suggest that there may be some larger artistic goals behind it; but if so, those goals were not immediately apparent to anyone in that room. Indeed, there was hardly any debate or discussion among the listeners—all of them, including Dr. Robert Morgan (class instructor and author of W.W. Norton’s Twentieth-Century Music textbook), just gave up without even trying to classify the music.

It used to be that instrumentation was a fairly reliable indicator. The sound of an unaccompanied orchestra or a string quartet at one time pretty much defined classical music, while electric guitars were only found in rock or jazz. But stereotypes about art music and popular music have been steadily unraveling in recent decades, from the sonic complexity and performer virtuosity that used to be native to the classical tradition, to the commercialism and strict limits on length that once upon a time set popular music apart. Today, as each new generation of composers emerges on the scene having grown up with the popular music of their time, and as the names of certain of the avant-garde elite (Cage, Stockhausen and Reich, to name a few) establish greater currency in the popular music world, we find ourselves with an interesting and increasingly complex situation in the 21st century. As musicologist Robert Fink states in his seminal essay “Elvis Everywhere“:

…we are now talking about “pop” musicians quoting “classical” composers in a context where there is little or no clear-cut sonic differentiation between the styles. One has to be able to identify the sound of dance musicians quoting the marginal bits of the avant-garde canon that already sound like dance music.

Despite all of the recent discussion in these pages and elsewhere on “the future of classical music” and related subjects, nowhere have I seen a comprehensive definition of terms drawing out the distinctions between what we refer to as “classical music” (and its contemporary outgrowths) and whatever-it-is-we’re-calling-stuff-that’s-not-classical-music.(Just to define my own terms here, let me say that I am looking at these categories from a populist point of view—that is, what they have come to mean as defined by the conventional wisdom of the day—and that I am using “classical music,” “avant-garde,” and “art music” more or less interchangeably. I am also lumping jazz in with “popular music,” simply because this seems to be the industry standard according to Amazon and its brethren.)

Maybe the combined assault of many artists upon these boundaries over the past 40+ years has had an effect after all (the effect of confusing everybody!). Yet, on a practical level, the fact is that all sorts of people—magazine critics, record store owners, arts presenters, booking agents, Internet blog authors, reviewers on—make such distinctions every day, for either their own benefit or for ours. Indeed, the Art Zoyd example notwithstanding, it actually surprised me that my classmates did as well as they did in pigeonholing the music into one category or another. Clearly most of us do have some sort of internal sense, a set of guidelines for determining how to think about music that we hear, honed and conditioned by the thousands of hours we’ve spent listening to it.

So what are these so-called “hard distinctions,” when even old standbys like complexity, virtuosity, length, and use of electric instruments are no longer helpful? I argue that there are really two sonic cues that still hold a lot of weight when it comes to categorizations. In addition, there are places where pop music still (for the most part) refuses to go, even if classical music has not similarly limited itself, and of course a number of “extra-musical” considerations, having to do with the process by which the music is created, that can help us draw distinctions between art music and vernacular music. Naturally, your results may vary—I would expect someone who grew up listening to ambient techno, jazz, or musical theater, rather than classic rock as I did, to have a very different perspective on where the exact divisions lie.


Percussion of all kinds has a long history in classical music, but the use of drum set remains a rare device even today. Moreover, composers by and large tend to call for the percussion ensemble to emphasize accents, articulate short melodic lines, and fulfill other specific functions within localized portions of the piece. Musicians from the popular tradition, on the other hand, employ the drum set essentially throughout their songs, and for just one primary purpose: to keep the beat. In this way, the drummer essentially replaces the role of conductor in classical music ensembles. The difference, of course, is that the conductor (ideally) is inaudible, while the drums are consistently loud—extremely loud. As a result, this sound can serve as a powerful aural cue for distinguishing between contemporary classical music and a rock band or jazz ensemble—accurately, too, because many of even the most adventurous bands are loath to dispense with drums for more than a few tracks at a time. The drums do not even have to be “real” to provide such a cue, as the presence of synthetic drum pads represents a primary sonic distinction between classical computer music and techno. A few art music composers have challenged this boundary. Alfred Schnittke calls for rock-like drums in the “Credo” of his Requiem, and as expected they absolutely dominate the mix in the recording. Lois V Vierk and Glenn Branca, two composers who commonly write for multiple guitars with unusual tunings, use drums in much of their work (cf. Vierk’s Red Shift, Branca’s Symphony No. 5), as do many of the composers who write for the Bang on a Can All-Stars. However, I find that even in the aforementioned cases, the drums are often buried in the texture to an extent that most popular musicians would never allow. It is equally rare for bands to use certain percussion instruments (such as marimba) more traditionally associated with the classical repertoire, but a few, such as Tortoise, gleefully buck the trend.

The other “automatic” indicator for me with regard to popular music vs. art music concerns the use of singers. Plenty of art music composers call for singing in their pieces, be it operatic soloists, choral music, humming, or the repetition of spoken nonsense syllables in some repeated pattern. However, the presence of a prominent, continuous melodic line, with actual words, sung by one or two untrained, non-operatic voice(s), screams “pop/rock” to the listener. This effect works regardless of the character of the sonic background—even if the singing is limited to a small part of the composition, and even if the melodic line is atonal, as in some of the songs by Thinking Plague and Sonic Youth—and becomes even more amplified if the composer him- or herself is singing his or her own work. After all, this use of the human voice is the reason we use the word “song” to refer to compositions in the style of popular music—a term so ingrained that we even use it to refer to instrumentals. Moreover, none of the other vocal techniques mentioned above are commonly employed in popular music. Within the context of the pop/rock section of the record store, classical singing style remains pretty much the exclusive province of opera stars making crossover albums of popular standards, and nonsense syllables rarely appear outside of humor and novelty records. It may be argued that the harmony vocals so common to popular songs constitute a kind of choral singing, but true choral-style (or even barbershop-style) writing is quite rare. Pink Floyd‘s quasi-orchestral suite “Atom Heart Mother” from the album of the same name provides an interesting exception to several of these rules. Another intriguing counter-example is Laurie Anderson, the performance artist whose work really does defy classification. Her hit song “O Superman” employs a number of unusual vocal techniques including speaking, nonsense syllables, and electronic manipulation through vocoder, and if one tried to force it into either category the song would break the rules outlined above. (It should be noted that this distinction is under particularly recent attack, as artists such as Mikel Rouse, Phil Kline, and Corey Dargel have been gaining notoriety in new music circles with songs that rather directly challenge this categorization. It may not be much longer before I feel compelled to put this in the category of “One-Sided Boundaries.”)


Whereas the above barriers between popular music and art music arguably hold true on both sides of the classical/popular divide, there are also a few helpful distinctions when determining that something is not popular music, if not vice versa. To wit:

While much of postmodern art music has re-embraced tonality (or, at the very least, triadic harmonies), very little popular music has experimented with atonality. There are, of course, exceptions: free jazz was probably the most high-profile and widespread movement to dispense with traditional tonality, but other artists such as those associated with the Rock In Opposition movement also ventured into uncharted harmonic territory. It is also worth pointing out that certain sub-genres of popular music, including noise rock, “industrial” electronica, and hardcore rap, essentially ignore pitch as an element of music—a stance a number of avant-garde composers have taken as well. Nevertheless, the vast majority of popular musicians work with a solidly triadic harmonic language, borrowing chords and scales primarily from the jazz and blues traditions.

Twentieth-century art music bears no absolute allegiance to the notion of continuous movement; certain composers are notorious for their pointillistic scoring and pieces that actively seek to abolish any sense of rhythm or meter. This phenomenon is rarely seen in popular music; almost all songs feature a rhythmic drive, or “groove,” most often provided by the bass and/or drums. Even deliberately jerky rhythms tend to be jerky within some kind of structured, repeating pattern (usually the four-beat measure), giving the effect of syncopation rather than pointillism. Again, free jazz musicians did experiment with this technique, as well as a select few of the rock bands that they influenced, the most prominent being King Crimson (cf. “Moonchild” after 3:30, “We’ll Let You Know”). The opposite extreme, namely a sense of space created by placing rhythmic events as far apart as possible, is also much more common in 20th-century art music than in popular music—with one notable exception: writers of ambient electronica have exploited this particular practice as a defining aspect of their work. Nevertheless, the concept of “groove” remains a vital element of most popular music, and this distinction continues to set it apart from the world of art music, despite a growing number of composers who employ continuous movement in their pieces.

A related issue separating the two traditions involves the avant-garde’s penchant for musical extremes—extremes of dynamics, metric/tempo fluctuations, affect—all piled on top of one another in the same piece. As with the previous two distinctions, this characteristic certainly does not hold for all art music of our time; however, popular music seldom exploits the full range of its materials in this way, at least not within the same song. It is true that much alternative rock of the early 1990s (e.g., Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) did feature enormous differences in dynamic and timbre between the verse and chorus sections, but this obvious contrast was valued more for its visceral effect on the listener rather than for its aesthetic ramifications. John Zorn (if one considers him part of the jazz tradition) does merit mention as an exception here: his pieces/songs oscillate wildly and rapidly between stylistic and technical extremes. The European art-rock bands—King Crimson, Henry Cow, others—were also known to employ this technique on occasion. Of course, the work of the minimalists, as well as other pieces such as Stockhausen’s Stimmung, stand out as examples of postmodern art music that maintain a consistency of aural effect throughout.

Finally, a favorite technique of 20th-century classical composers has been a reliance on theoretical, mathematical, or otherwise “rational” bases that then serve as generators of material for their pieces. The period following the 1960s brought about a revival of “intuitive composition” in art music, but theoretical constructs have never claimed a large following among popular musicians. The art-rock group Emerson, Lake, and Palmer did write a 20-minute suite called “Tarkus” which employed quartal harmonies throughout. There is a whole sub-genre of indie rock called “math rock” which is characterized by unusual and sudden rhythmic contortions based on everything from intersecting matrices to the Fibonacci sequence. For the most part, however, intuitive composition and improvisation rule the roost when it comes to popular music.


Finally, we can always (and sometimes have to) look at extra-musical factors to help us decide where to place a piece of music.

The first process-oriented distinction concerns musical notation, which for centuries embodied the act of composition in the art music world. There have been sporadic examples of non-notated concert music here and there, most often involving improvisation of some kind. The score for Steve Reich’s epic Music For 18 Musicians did not exist in written form until a graduate student transcribed the entire piece as part of his doctoral dissertation. Pieces that are wholly improvised from start to finish are exceedingly rare outside of jazz, with performance artists such as Pamela Z providing some of the only exceptions. With the exception of tape/electronic music, postmodern art music almost always relies on some kind of score—whether in the form of standard notation, graphic notation, or a set of instructions. This is one category for which the gap between art music and popular music has actually widened in recent decades, as sheet music used to play a crucial role in the dissemination of popular music in the days before recording technology became widely available. Nowadays, however, it is quite rare for popular musicians to fully notate their songs before rehearsing and performing them. (Of course, in collaborations with orchestras or like ensembles, those arrangements are thoroughly notated.) A few exceptions do exist: Mike Johnson of the art-rock group Thinking Plague has been known to write out some of his orchestrations, especially with the band’s later albums, while Dave Kerman of the 5uu‘s produces sketch-scores (rather skeletal in nature) for many of his pieces. Guitarist Mike Keneally, who earned his fame as one of Frank Zappa‘s “stunt guitarists,” claims on his website that his composition “‘I Guess I’ll Peanut,'” “…was scored out very carefully on manuscript paper, sitting at the dining room table at Chatfield Manor.” Even Captain Beefheart (real name Don Van Vliet) dictated his compositions to his drummer, who would then write out the music in standard notation.

A related issue is that musicians in the popular idiom tend to congregate in bands, whereas avant-garde composers almost exclusively work alone and write pieces for solo performers or ensembles. The concept of a composer writing a piece for someone else to play is nearly unique to the world of art music. Rockers Frank Zappa, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and even Billy Joel have moonlighted as classical composers, writing pieces for the likes of the Ensemble Modern and the London Symphony Orchestra, but such “crossover” pieces generally fit quite clearly within the confines of the 20th-century (or earlier) art music idiom. Of course, there are professional songwriters who create material for others to sing, but this phenomenon is not exactly comparable to the art music system. The songwriter rarely exerts the kind of control over the final product that is customary to the classical composer—in this way, the position is really more akin to the screenwriter for a film. Bands do exist in the context of art music, but they are few and far between. Chamber groups such as the Bang on a Can All-Stars and the Icebreaker Ensemble resemble bands in their instrumentation and in the way in which they have developed a core repertoire over a period of time, but their manner of operation (esp. commissioning and playing works by composers outside the group) fits the mold of classical ensembles more accurately. Several of the early minimalist composers (La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Philip Glass) fronted their own performing ensembles which would tour and record as a unit. However, those were situations in which one composer’s music dominated the repertoire. It is practically unheard of to see a group of art music composers operating under a fully democratic “band model”: actively collaborating with each other on the creation of new material; letting the new material evolve over time and repeated performances; and playing only (or mostly) their own original material during concerts.

Other process-based differences between the two worlds exist as well. The economic and institutional systems surrounding art music are completely different from those surrounding popular music (club vs. concert hall, for-profit vs. non-profit, etc.). So, too, is the relationship cultivated with the audience, not to mention the sizes of those audiences—though, in fairness, it must be pointed out that the commercial viability of “adventurous” popular music is not significantly higher than that of contemporary classical music.

This last category becomes more salient as we consider that non-musical elements are becoming more and more primary in recent years in determining what it means to be part of the “art music” tradition. From where I sit, the most important factors appear to be artistic intent and a certain amount of fluency in said tradition, but how to verify an artist’s sincerity or credentials in these matters? Lately, there seems to be a rise in what I call “categorization by association”—the use of non-musical traits such as a musician’s background, education, list of influences, the kind of language used in his/her bio and press materials, record label, friends, and perhaps most importantly, what others have said about them in the past (the reigning “conventional wisdom”).

I’ve encountered this myself recently as part of my occasional assignment writing short descriptions of CDs for NewMusicBox‘s SoundTracks. Recently, I decided to take a chance on Anarchestra, a project led by composer Alex Ferris who writes for homemade percussion instruments. The CD arrived with minimal packaging, graced by little more than a pixellated image of some of the instruments and a link to the band’s website on the reverse side. No track listing, no explanation, no credits, nothing. The fact is, were it not for that website link, I would have had a hell of a time trying to write about that CD. We live in an age when it is often impossible even to tell how the sounds on a given recording are generated, much less why or whether it was planned. For all I knew, the out-of-tune melodies could have reflected a terminal case of tone-deafness on the part of the composer, rather than a longstanding interest in instrument-building and the music of other cultures.

I think we need to try to understand that, as much as some of us may loathe the very idea of categories and the inherent restrictions they seem to place on our music, there is a huge demand for them on the consumer end. There is such a relentless onslaught of music out there now that nobody has heard or ever will hear—people need some way to think about your music before they hear it, so they can decide whether or not it’s something they might like. And the so-called gatekeepers in the industry—the record store owners, the journalists, the bookers, the label representatives—by and large feel a responsibility to provide this context to the consumer base. That’s no reason to feel trapped by the system, however—on the contrary, this means that as artists, we have an unprecedented opportunity to influence how our music is perceived by outside entities. In particular, artists whose music straddles disparate genres can take advantage by presenting or marketing themselves differently according to the audience at hand, without having to compromise the actual artistic product. Maybe you’re a composer of electroacoustic music to Kalvos & Damian and a chamber rock band to Northsix. By thinking about such things from the very beginning, it may well be possible to increase one’s reach rather than limit it.

One thing that has become apparent to me is that “classical music” (as distinct from popular music) is a very flexible concept—its definition changes and shifts along with the new music that claims it as its heritage. “Genre-bashing” music tends to have the effect of warping boundaries rather than breaking them. If the vast majority of musical cognoscenti were to decide (for example) that yes, free jazz is part of the Western classical music tradition, well then, it would be. Classical music is what we make it. I do not feel it is helpful, however, to speak wistfully about how categories don’t matter or smugly about how one’s own music transcends categories, without recognizing that there is a whole world of people out there who would just as soon slap a “File Under: Classical” label on your CD without giving it a second thought, or a first listen.


Ian Moss is a Brooklyn-based composer and Development & Marketing Associate for the American Music Center. In addition to his works for chorus and other acoustic forces, Ian is the leader of Capital M, a unique electric chamber ensemble that occupies the enigmatic territory between hard rock, experimental jazz, and early minimalism.

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