July 21, 2021

Music and musical genre

By ajamot

How would you define your music ? Is it contemporary, electronic, computer music…?

This is a question that many of my colleagues in the same situation ask themselves.

We are independent composers, not supported by the state, we are very little played, but we diffuse our works in the whole world, and especially, we enjoy an almost total freedom.

And in this case, it is very common to slip from one genre to another, according to the inspiration, but also to the practice.

Sometimes it is enough to modify just the timbre of a theme, of a motif, so that suddenly, it changes genre, and passes from contemporary music to film music or electronic music.

We are used to classifying music in this way, according to the timbres, the instruments used, the rhythms, the scales used…

And so, if in your compositional approach, you practice the mixture, the meeting of heterogeneous elements, it becomes relatively difficult to characterize your music. One then turns to the instruments or devices used, and one then speaks about computer or electronic music, which in the end does not mean much…

And in this case, in the world of contemporary music, which remains a small niche in the current musical production, you are quickly disqualified. Which is of little importance in itself.

Do you have examples of composers who have put forward this approach?

Yes, of course I do. I’m thinking first of all of American composers like Frank Zappa or John Zorn, who have established this sometimes unbridled eclecticism as a rule of composition. But as a listener, it’s a delight to go from one genre to another, in the same piece or on the same recording.

And others, like Ryuchi Sakamoto, are unclassifiable, succeeding with the same brilliance in an experimental piece, a pop song or an orchestral music for the cinema. One could think of the musicians of Can, or of Tangerine Dream, who at the dawn of the seventies, knew how to mix Ligeti or Philip Glass with drums and synthesizers, and reach a much wider audience than that of contemporary music.

Cultural mixing has been around for a long time, but the music establishment refuses to give it any value, even though it only reflects the reality of our practices as listeners.

While surfing YouTube or Netflix, riding the subway, shopping in department stores, we are constantly subjected to a sonic melting pot that doesn’t bother us. This is the soundtrack of post-modern existences, and the above-mentioned composers simply accept it, integrate it, without judgment.

They had predecessors like John Cage, whose multiple pieces use random recordings of popular music. Or the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, even if, as with Cage, it remains anecdotal.

Is there a common point among all these composers?

Yes, and that is electricity. It is perhaps the last frontier that protects the reserves of academic composers. 

When you go to hear the creation of a work by a composer today, you can be almost 99% certain that everything will be electrified, computerized, digitized, the lights, the box office, the backstage, except the music: no synthesizer, no computer, no electric guitar or organ!

And yet, all the creators I mentioned earlier quickly understood the advantage of integrating these types of instruments into a modern musical composition. They are affordable, very flexible, and don’t require a decade of learning before producing a proper sound, as is the case with most classical orchestra instruments.

Isn’t there also a certain contempt for eclecticism among contemporary composers and specialized journalists?

Absolutely! To mix genres, influences, techniques would be a demonstration of an inability to create one’s own language. 

Which leads to the question: should each composer create his own language to find his personal voice?

One can doubt it. Bach and Mozart did not, technically speaking, invent much, but they pushed to perfection a language that they shared with hundreds of other composers of their time.

Technical innovation is not essential to produce an interesting work. It is only one part of the mysterious equation of a successful score that one wants to hear again.

One could even retort to all these sad gentlemen that one of their idols, Pierre Boulez, did not invent much either. He took the organization of the pitches from Webern, the rhythmics from Stravinsky, and a certain harmonic and temporal roundness from Debussy.

And the famous integral serialism was after all only the industrialization of Messiaen’s intuition in his little piece Modes de valeurs et d’intensités…

We can see that most of the objections of musical academism to an eclectic approach, and not denying the rest of the sound universe in which we live, are based on corporatism, intellectual laziness and bad faith.

But we must understand them: for the first time in the history of Western music, the composer has almost disappeared from the artistic and intellectual scene.

So everyone defends his own little business, his own little world, hoping that he too will pass into posterity.

It is striking to see nowadays that, even among educated and curious people, the names of Rihm, Sciarrino, Dusapin evoke absolutely nothing… and this sometimes goes as far as Glass, Reich, Pärt or Penderecki, although they are much easier to access than the former…

This is the tragedy of our time. By dint of intellectual terrorism, intolerance and contempt, we have disgusted the small audience that once naturally supported the innovators. The world of contemporary music, particularly in Europe, has become a sad and heavy ghetto, where works are performed less than a dozen times (with luck), then disappear never to emerge from the university documentation centers, that great cemetery of lost illusions.

It is thus quite normal that I, and many others, with the help of a computer and a powerful sound bank, give a chance to learned music, and that we try to give it back its joy, its color, its vigor, by mixing styles and genres.

We will probably make mistakes, but we will strive to embody a music that is truly alive… and of its time!

© 2021 Alain Jamot