Thinking About Language in a Post-Genre Context
Image: Luke Palmer

Thinking About Language in a Post-Genre Context

I spent this summer immersed in the music of Roomful of Teeth, a “vocal band” consisting of eight singers with a commitment to exploring the expressive potential of the human voice. I was doing research in order to better understand how and why composers were using what—at that point—I was describing as “polystylism.” I spent my time labeling non-Western classical elements in the group’s pieces, gathering information on the composers’ backgrounds and “non-classical” experience (like Wally Gunn’s time spent in a punk band), interviewing the composers about their opinions relating to this topic, and eventually observing the group’s rehearsals at MASS MoCA during their intensive annual summer residency. Some time into my research, I grew uncertain about the basis of my research question; as I continued to wonder what the varied stylistic elements in each composer’s pieces meant, I also began to question whether they really had to mean anything at all. What if the composers just wanted to write this way, without any interest in “polystylism” or what their use of different styles means? Maybe this music, and the music these composers are writing outside of Roomful of Teeth, has nothing to do with stylistic elements at all.

Roomful of Teeth

Roomful of Teeth

A conversation with William Brittelle at MASS MoCA addressed many of these qualms. Brittelle, composer and co-founder of New Amsterdam Records, is a big proponent of a post-genre way of thinking about music and has had a large impact on my understanding of the post-genre framework. These ideas seem necessary and are surprisingly intuitive.

Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized “bin.”

At its most simple, this is a system of thinking about music that steps away from using genre as the main method of characterization and appraisal. Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer. The individual is quite important to post-genre thinking. This framework focuses on viewing individual pieces separately from what other composers are creating as well as from preexisting expectations, allowing composers to write whatever it is they want to write. It is not about rebelling against existing genre conventions, but instead about allowing full expression of an individual composer’s musical worldviews. What is most appealing to me about post-genre thinking is that it does not seek to create a new musical movement or shift our music-making; in actuality, it serves as a more accurate representation of much of the music already being created today, and seeks to provide a better fitting system for discussing this music.

While there is still much work to be done in terms of devising a concrete theoretical framework for post-genre and understanding how this framework would be applied widely in the musical world, it has already served as a helpful tool for my thinking about new music. Prior to my shift towards this post-genre mentality, much of my analysis of Roomful of Teeth had to do with how non-Western classical stylistic elements broke the convention of what we’d expect from a group of classically trained musicians. Take Wally Gunn’s The Ascendant for example, a piece written for Roomful of Teeth and drum kit.

When first exploring the piece, I wondered why Gunn had decided to use the drum kit. What statement was he making by throwing a drum kit, more typically associated with pop/rock projects, into this group of singers? Was he actively trying to genre blend and expand classical music to include this type of instrumentation? My shift towards a post-genre aesthetic allowed me to rethink this analysis. My assumption that a composer’s use of drum kit had to mean something related to stylistic commentary is a problematic one within this framework; instead, by looking at Wally Gunn’s background and speaking with him about intent, I was able to gain a better understanding about this piece as an individual entity, rather than as a part of a collective genre-based musical identity.

The need for a shift toward post-genre seems most evident to me whenever I try to find language to discuss much of the music that interests me as a performer, composer, and listener. When asked by friends and family what kind of music I am interested in, I usually end up giving a rather vague description like, “I guess it’s ‘classical’ (always said with air quotes), but it’s not like Mahler or anything like that. It’s really cool. You’ll like it; I promise.” The word “classical” does not serve to accurately describe much of the music that is shoved under its label. I’m talking about music by many of the composers who have written for Roomful of Teeth, including Brittelle, Missy Mazzoli, and Sarah Kirkland Snider, as well as other composers such as Ted Hearne and Jodie Landau.

In my conversations with these composers, a central topic was genre-based language’s inability to capture what it is that they feel their music is doing. One of the composers I spoke with was Missy Mazzoli, who composed Vesper Sparrow for the group, and is also the leader of her own band, Victoire.

In our conversation, we discussed how she believed we, as a musical community stemming from the classical tradition, could go about breaking out of the classical bubble and getting people who may not typically engage with a string quartet to try out music like her own. She thought that language had quite a bit to do with it. According to her, using words like “new classical” is not exciting. She herself is an example of attempts at shifting the language surrounding emerging music; her group Victoire calls itself a band, and she often resists association with the term “classical.” When I asked how she talks about the music that she engages with, she responded:

I identify with the word composer, because I do come out of the classical tradition. I like that term, but anything beyond that, I feel like it’s always used against me to confine or associate my work with music that doesn’t belong with it or has nothing to do with it.

This pushing back against the “classical” label due to the fact that it confines composers and misleads listeners may be at the root of how a post-genre mentality can make its way into the mainstream. In our conversation, Brittelle addressed the importance of this, stating:

I think we have to get really aggressive about deconstruction. Every single time somebody tries to put you in that box, and tries to make things objective, you just have to push back on it. Every single time.

My response: That sounds exhausting. But perhaps by committing to a more active resistance to objective and genre-based language, conversations can begin about post-genre thinking in favor of a more accurate, individual intent-based characterization. My overarching question is then, what language do we use to discuss music instead of genre-based language? Or, more specifically, in a framework so focused on the individual, how do we create cohesive language that can be realistically used in the world of music to discuss and promote music? It may be helpful to look at postgenderism, which has worked to shift the language we use and how we discuss gender. I certainly do not have all of the answers yet, but continuing to ask questions about how we discuss the music we create and resisting genre-based language that we don’t identify with seem like steps in the right direction.


Hannah Schiller

Hannah Schiller

Hannah Schiller is a senior in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. Her research interests center around the current musical moment; she is particularly drawn to post-genre concepts and music emerging from classically trained musicians that is difficult to categorize. She recently received an undergraduate research grant from Northwestern to study the work of Roomful of Teeth and was chosen as an Alumnae of Northwestern University Undergraduate Research Scholar as a result of her work. Hannah is also a singer, arranger, and composer of a wide variety of 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.

3 thoughts on “Thinking About Language in a Post-Genre Context

  1. Michael Robinson

    I found much of value here – this is an impressive take on music today. My belief is that American jazz superseded European classical music as the preeminent Western classical music of the time from roughly 1940 to 1970, followed by various forms of rock and pop doing the same to jazz, with some overlapping of dates, of course. After roughly 1970, things are truly up in the air! In addition, the evolution of Indian classical music brought by Ravi Shankar and his followers greatly inseminated both composers and improvising musicians in the West beginning during the reign of jazz, rock and pop, demonstrating an intellectual and expressive domain second to known. These, I feel, are the reasons why questions of genre have been obfuscated, and individual artists today draw upon myriad pan-global classical traditions. At the same time, the true significance of American jazz , rock and pop, and Indian classical music, is often unconsidered or unacknowledged beyond false subjugation for culturally indoctrinated racial reasons over aesthetic merit.

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  2. Joachim

    I think the principle of defining genres and influences behind an artistic work is that creativity is not the sudden existence of a new idea but rather a nuanced combination of existing ideas. Theoretically, you could trace Wally Gunn’s addition of a drum kit to specific influences that existed beforehand but simply hadn’t yet been combined. Analyzing and refining this creative process would ideally serve to suggest new avenues of artistic inspiration.

    That said, what exactly leads to every decision in every piece can be infinitely complex, so trying to analyze pieces based solely on broad genres certainly has its limits and flaws. And there is certainly something to be said about oversimplified labels in public discourse.

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  3. Andrea

    Strangely I think that in rewarding ourselves for being more genre ‘unfocused’ and ‘post-genre’, it actually only shows us how genre ‘focused’ we really are. For me this whole revelation that there can actually be music without ‘genre’ only reflects a Western popular music view that obsesses over ‘genre’ in the first place. Practically everyone (especially in the anglo priveleged world) can only hear music in terms of style. So there’s pop, rock, hip-hop, country/western, jazz, folk/world and oh yeah, classical. And then we just combine or not combine different styles and see what we/me get. So if someone combines say ‘country’ and ‘hip-hop’ we raise our eyebrows and go, wow, see look it’s ‘post-genre.’ But how does the music work?

    I really think style is surface. Unless something actually changes in the physical mechanics of the music we’re still dealing with the broader umbrella of ‘popular music’. If someone loops four bars of Bach and then does something over it that fits squarely within that time frame, most likely it’ll be some kind of popular music. Which goes to show how Bach can actually cease to be Bach and that musical mechanics are more powerful than surface. There’s nothing ‘post-genre’ in this example, it’s just illustrating for us the aesthetics of popular music: reliable repetition, comfortably equal time frames, the number 4, etc, with material it’s not usually associated with. So whether or not Ludovico Einaudi includes a few 19th century classical stylistic references or not, or studied with Berio and Stockhausen, doesn’t really matter to me. How does this music work? I’d say what we’re hearing in Einaudi overall is ‘instrumental pop music’ and I’m sure he’d be completely happy with that description. There’s nothing ‘post-genre’ about it. It fits very cleanly within the genre of pop music. If you listen to most mainstream film music scores nowadays and ask yourself, how do they compare to film scores from say 50 years ago, you’ll find that the ones today reflect more the aesthetics and often use the same exact building blocks of popular music today. So for me, most film music today is also instrumental pop.

    I could go on and try to make better arguments but overall the general feeling seems to be that most people are not too keen on this perspective and would prefer that I just be really excited about how ‘post-genre’ everything is nowadays. Look, I don’t see ‘contemporary classical’ music or ‘new music’ or ‘contemporary music’ as Western (yes some people in the world actually call contemporary classical music ‘contemporary music’ and they are not talking about ‘contemporary’, some style of popular music) . There are people all over the world doing this in China, Uzbekistan, Iran etc. There may be western origins but there’s no reason why we should first think to call it ‘Western art music’. I really don’t understand when people think we all think that. Would you call the heavy metal music of Pakistan ‘western’ since heavy metal was first started in the West?

    All I’m saying is let’s not get distracted by style and surface while ignoring what the music is actually doing. The fact that people are incorporating influences from all over into their music is no surprise today. What we should be surprised by is how they use their materials. And honestly for me the distinctions still holds, either the musical mechanics will be challenging or they won’t. What I consider ‘challenging’ is of course my own, but anyway I hear distinctions between musical mechanics.
    I’m not going to get confused if a classical composer includes rock influences and vice versa. And I won’t get confused if a classical composer sets out to include pop influences but then in the end is actually just making pop music. Philip Glass said it himself. Not that this is everything to music or is it a judgement on its value or if it will be any good, but I don’t think you can escape what you are physically doing by combining styles on the surface. If there’s no substantial change, let’s hear it for what it is. No you’re not blurring the popular/classical genres. And calling something post-genre ignores the fact that music is not only about surface. And by the way it’s not necessarily the classical music world that needs to be chastised so much, if anything it’s the popular music world, mostly grown and marketed by the West, that needs to be chastised. In this world, there’s ‘Music’ (that’s pop, rock, etc), the stuff we listen to, right? (all of which can be described with the word ‘song’), and there’s Classical Music (insert descriptors…) (also all of which can be all called ‘song’ whether it’s symphony or a song). All non-Western musics (wait, who said pop is western?) are lumped under the term ‘World’, ignoring other cultures’ classical music etc and their popular music. Basically it’s not American, so it’s World, get it? No, I don’t get it. It’s not ‘American’ folk music, though. What’s ‘American’ folk music? White people folk music? Look anyway, I don’t think I explained myself very well, but for me as soon as someone uses the term ‘post-genre’ they sound very Western-centric to me. Because the whole genre obsession comes from 20th century western popular music in my opinion. Marketing. In this view’Classical’ music is all lumped in one ‘genre’ (because it’s such a minority – it’s not worth delving into distinctions, or just out of ignorance, or out of actually questioning the validity of some of its music especially certain contemporary classical music) and ignores the hundreds of years of different explorations and then all the different music that’s been made in the last 100 years. I know this post-genre view has been adopted as thinking that sounds more open-minded and tolerant, but it actually sounds closed minded and Western-centric to my ears and obsesses over surface instead of substance.

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