Music of the Excluded Middle

I was highly gratified by what Nicholas Thompson, the subway-station musician and Washington Times editor, had to say (linked here on Arts Journal) about the failures of the recording industry. In particular, what he said that was relevant to the new music I follow was this:

The music industry tends to divide both bands and audiences into broad, set formats: alt-music, hip-hop, and modern country. There is an obvious reality to these categories, but in truth, they exist largely for the benefit of record companies, which can then narrow and target their promotion efforts. Unfortunately, most bands and artists can’t get to first base unless their music fits one of these formats, and there are many other bands and other types of music – like mine – that don’t fit into any set genres. Many people’s tastes stretch well beyond formats, and they might want to buy some of this music if they heard it. Indeed, it’s almost guaranteed that somewhere between these formats, the next big thing in music is brewing. But figuring out how to profitably micro-market heterogeneous bands to scattered audiences is something the music industry has not yet figured out how to do.

Said more concisely here than I’ve probably said it, this nevertheless overlaps with a general point I’m been making for many years. One of the explicit aims of composers of my generation has been to close up the huge gulf between classical and popular music, to recreate the possibility of music having as much foot-tapping energy as rock, but also the theoretical interest and structural weight of experimental music. The greatest emphasis of musical creativity in the last 20 years has been on working between genres, specifically on work that is not “contemporary music” in the good old classical sense, but that belongs in some third section at Tower Records in between pop and classical.

For instance, William Duckworth’s Time Curve Preludes for piano – much of this hour-long work transfers bluegrass patterns to the piano, adding in the piano style of John Lee Hooker, yet also threading in Gregorian chant and Eric Satie quotations in rhythms structured according to the Fibonacci series. This is absolutely enchanting music on first listening, and interesting to analyze, too. I’ve never played this disc for anyone (Lovely Music, with Neely Bruce on piano) without the person going out and buying it.

Or how about Pamela Z? Her song with the Qube Chix, “Bald Boyfriend” (Ishtar/Dice Records) is pretty strange, three voices with only clarinet, drums, and an electric razor for accompaniment, yet it causes riots of laughter when I play it in classes, and everyone wants a copy:

I want a bald boyfriend!

I want a bald boyfriend!

I want a guy who’s well-behaved,

Who’s neat and clean, whose head is shaved!

I want a man who’s on the move,

Who’s charming, smart, whose dome is smoooooth.

But where would you classify it? It’s absolutely not commercial pop, but it’s thoughtful, funny, smart, and too much fun to stick in the classical music bin, and the same is true of Pamela’s music in general.

Or, even more explicitly, Carl Stone’s Hop Ken, an electronic piece that samples a recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, but repackages it in pounding rock rhythms laced with Celtic folk (EAM Discs).

Or Mikel Rouse’s opera Dennis Cleveland (New World). This well-known opera in the form of a talk show, with characters singing and speaking from the audience, revived last year at Lincoln Center, is entirely in a pop beat with pop-style lyrics. Yet the scenes are around 10 minutes each in length, and the form so sophisticated that passages recur superimposed over each other in different tempos and keys at once, without ever becoming unintelligible. At its 1996 premiere, it was the first show at the Kitchen in New York to ever attract scalpers.

I could multiply examples all week; this music is my life. My generation has produced an enormous body of in-between music, inventive in its structures and techniques, but fun and foot-tappingly infectious. And it officially doesn’t exist because it’s too much trouble for the record companies to invent a new category for it. Which leads to endless speculations for me and my composer friends: Is there really no audience for in-between music, what I’ve called music of the excluded middle? Are pop fans completely happy with pop conventions are they are, violently resistant to all innovation, and do classical fans really only want notated acoustic music with an orchestral or chamber-music style of rhythm? If so, why do audiences react with so much enthusiasm when I play this music?

Or is it simply that the recording industry kills new genres, or music between genres, because they can’t efficiently market it and make money off of it? I’ve long felt that what we have here is a huge body of lively music, the most important and characteristic music of our time in fact, artificially separated from its potential audience by narrow-minded, bottom-line-oriented corporate thinking – and composers punished explicitly for trying to heal a disastrous breach between the art and entertainment worlds that should never have been allowed to calcify in the first place. The recording industry has made tons of money from shoring up our cultural neuroses. And if they’re finding that cash cow impossible to sustain, under the pressure of musical energy seeping through the infinitely porous internet – well, maybe that’s the best thing that could have happened. Down with the big music corporations, down with classical music as an empty, iron-clad category – and up with a healthy music scene that sees no reason to honor categories!