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Overthinking Genre

Overthinking Genre

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Second Inversion is a project dedicated to rethinking classical music, presenting new and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre. What does that mean? All corners of the classical genre? Even just “genre”? And how does one describe, define, and label this sonic palate that is perhaps most commonly referred to as “new music”? It’s a question I confront daily, but there’s no clear answer and it’s a hot topic in recent blog posts and Facebook discussions within the community.

I’ll back up and approach it from my perspective at Second Inversion, but first, a little history. It’s the newest online streaming channel from  98.1 Classical KING FM, joining the longstanding terrestrial simulcast, Evergreen channel, Seattle Symphony channel, and Seattle Opera channel. Back in 2012, four twenty-something KING FM staffers were assigned to create this new channel. Week after week, Seth Tompkins, Rachele Hales, Jill Kimball, and I would convene, brainstorm, mull over a bunch of questions, ponder ideas; two years later, Second Inversion was born. Here are some things we figured out during the incubation:

What should we call this? Second Inversion. It has some insider music theory nerdery but for the general public, we hope it implies something different, fresh, turned around, and reimagined.

What’s our catchphrase? Rethink Classical.

And the longer succinct description? New and unusual music from all corners of the classical genre.

What are our platforms of presentation? A 24/7 audio stream hosted by the four of us and new music experts from the community, a blog-style website, and on-demand audio/videos of locally produced performances.

What’s our visual representation? Sketched out and brought to pixelated life by Seth Tompkins, this image conveys a mix of old and new: our foundation in classical music through a tuxedo (typical symphony uniform) combined with a relaxed, modern flair (big headphones).

Second Inversion logo

How do we reach our audience? Word of mouth, Facebook, Twitter, KING FM cross-promotion, community partnerships

It gets a lot tougher from here:

What kind of music should we include and what are the boundaries? Since we’re rooted in a classical radio station, we decided to keep the word “classical” in our identity but in an expansive, open-minded, exploratory, reaching-to-the-fringes way. It’s music that you almost certainly wouldn’t hear on the dial at 98.1 KING FM.

As a starting point, we combed through our KING FM database for music by 20th-century composers. It yielded works by John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jennifer Higdon, Arvo Pärt, and many others. We also found a few albums featuring artists primarily known for classical music but breaking down the boundaries a bit, like Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley’s Shuffle. Play. Listen., Hilary Hahn and Hauschka’s Silfra, and Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt’s Night. We also culled some outside-the-box ideas from our own personal libraries, like Daniel Bernard Roumain’s Hip-Hop Etudes, Jonsi, film and video game soundtracks, The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Zoë Keating, Portland Cello Project, Jherek Bischoff, and the Vitamin String Quartet. At the time, we basically had no New Amsterdam, Cantaloupe, BMOP/sound, New Focus, New World, or Parma recordings in our library. Many outreach e-mails later, we wound up with an immense quantity of creative new music and quickly discovered how varied, eclectic, and difficult it is to not only define but organize into a streaming channel.

I’ve kept tabs on what other people are calling this music, so I’ll share my compilation: new music, contemporary classical, art music, composed music, formal music, indie classical, avant pop/rock, orchestral pop/rock, symphonic pop/rock, chamber pop fringe classical, crossover, sound art, orchestral synth, modern classical, new concert music, cross-genre, experimental, eclectic, adventurous, avant-garde, innovative, cutting edge, up-and-coming, experimental, ambient, cinematic, electroacoustic.

I believe all of those categories and adjectives describe the music we play on Second Inversion at any given moment. They’re all useful, but no single category or even combination of those descriptors is enough to give you the full picture. Further explanation and conversation about the music is more important than deciding what to call it, and even better is listening and letting it speak for itself.

As for organizing it into a streaming channel? In the spirit of discovery and inclusion, it’s a mixed bag, but centered around context. There are fascinating stories behind the music, performers, composers, instruments, and sounds, so almost every piece has a human introduction or closing commentary. We strive to present a diverse offering, but I increasingly take comfort in the fact that there’s not a single correct way to curate and that it probably won’t suit everyone at all times. I’m letting go of the pressure to define what it is, and I’m putting more emphasis on presenting high quality audio productions that represent the music of today. I couldn’t agree more with Gabriel Kahane, who said, “…in an era where kids are making playlists that run from Kendrick Lamar to Karlheinz Stockhausen, shouldn’t we allow craft, rather than categorization, to lead the conversation?” Thankfully, people are crafting a lot of really great music, and we’re here to give it a centralized home.

At the end of the day, there are still record bins with categories and digital platforms with tags, but in my dreams, we’ll reach a point where all of these “subgenres” are so fused with other types of music that we can just call it all…music.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “Overthinking Genre

    1. Maggie Stapleton

      Hi Jon,

      What we’re hoping to accomplish with Second Inversion is to make it a music platform that covers a lot of different boundaries and reaches new audiences, including the next generation of classical music lovers. Tie-ins and crossover with other genres is one way of approaching it (assuming that’s what you mean by “selling out to top ten commercial music media outlets”) but really, our #1 intent is quality, integrity of art, and variety. I went to your audio page and think that much of your music would work well on Second Inversion (listening to the Violin Sonata right now). I also think the Turkina Sonata for two pianos would work really well on Classical KING FM, too, as a way to open our core audiences eyes to contemporary classical music that is really quite accessible. If you’re interested in submitting recordings for formal airplay consideration, you can find out how to do that here:

      And I encourage you, if you haven’t yet, to try listening to Second Inversion’s stream – and see if there’s something in the mix that works for you!


  1. Richard

    On King FM, especially in the late hours, the 20th century composers are disproportionately represented by minimalists like Arvo Part and Philip Glass. I hear them at least once every night, while I don’t hear any Dallapicola, Sessions, Gaburo, Martirano, HORDES of others. I feel there is an argument to be made that minimalists don’t generally belong in the modern classical genre because of the lack of formal development.


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