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