Antidotes to hemming in

The estimable David Smooke posted a new column over at New Music Box yesterday. He dealt with one of the most imposing challenges facing composers today, especially at the early and middle stages of their careers: being hemmed in by requests for stylistic categorization.

“What does your music sound like?”

It seems like an innocent enough question, and from the questioner’s perspective it may indeed be a simple attempt at conversation or an opening gambit in the larger conversation of locating a composer’s aesthetic. But to the composer on the receiving end of this query, it can be a loaded one. Nobody who writes music likes to be pinned down as sounding like a particular sound byte or in a distinct genre or, heaven forbid, exactly like another composer. To borrow a curious and odious term in common parlance, nobody likes being “pigeonholed.”

When I interviewed John Wolf Brennan some years ago, he said, “Who’d want to be pinned down in a stylistic pigeonhole? Pigeonholes are such dark and claustrophobic places.”

The “ism” craze – postmodernism neoromanticism, totalism, postminimalism, etc. ad nauseum – has made the usefulness of shorthand designations all the more complicated and, often, all the more baffling. I like that some of the post-tonal folk are getting the “postmodern modernist” tag. Doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, does it?

As you can see from the byline above, what I’m about is leveling some of the pigeonholing designations that are rampant in both the music industry and the academy. That’s why you can turn up here one day and the subject will be Elliott Carter, on another it’s just as likely to be David S. Ware or Weezer.

It’s a conscious decision, but it’s also reflective of my own interests. I’m passionate about lots of kinds of music, and am a firm believer that there’s good music to be heard in many different styles. I’m so glad to be creatively active in a time period where there are several thought-provoking writers with similarly catholic tastes discussing music: Alex Ross, Steve Smith, Frank J. Oteri, and the aforementioned Dr. Smooke. They frequently inspire me to continue to expand my ears, refine my viewpoint, and, best of all, they always have great suggestions for the ever-expanding listening lists.


When people ask in turn what my music sounds like, I play them two clips: Jody Redhage singing one of my triadic-inflected songs and then my serial piece for alto flute and piano. Hopefully, this thwarts the overgeneralization issue!

Otherwise by cbcarey

Bagatelle for Alto Flute and Piano by cbcarey

4 thoughts on “Antidotes to hemming in

  1. Christian,

    Here I am invading your blog again while listening to Jason Moran on WWOZ playing his version of “Planet Rock.” I too cringe when I feel I’ve somehow painted myself into a corner creatively. And I always take steps to rattle my cage and place myself in musical projects where I’m not 100 per cent comfortable. I just grew up believing that that is what an artist is supposed to do.

    Reading Ned Sublette, Michael Veal, Greg Tate, Robert Palmer, Roger Wood, Amiri Baraka has profoundly impacted how I conceptualize what I do and where I might go as an artist. I wish these were names dropped as often when discussing “isms” and “new music.”


  2. Chris,

    Those are wonderful authors to serve as antidotes to hemming in. Thanks for mentioning them. I’m really enjoying your reports about your new hometown on the front page. Music scenes need to be shared too, to encourage visitors and broaden our horizons!

  3. Thanks. And I’m really enjoying writing and sharing experiences here at Sequenza21. It’s another way (aside from making music) for me explore and discover new music and ultimately to broaden my own perspective. And the musicians here in Houston really appreciate the coverage.

    I should also mention my man Mark Kemp who wrote a great book about race and music in the South called Dixie Lullaby. He also writes for Rolling Stone, but his Facebook page is where a lot of fun discourse on music occurs.

  4. It’s a theme for our era, Christian — the same reasoning behind my “infinite number of curves.” Remains to be seen how future generations will try to sort this out, but that’s their problem, I suppose.

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