Home > Uncategorized > It’s Not All Good: Cross-Genre Fails… and Some Successes

It’s Not All Good: Cross-Genre Fails… and Some Successes

I have just added a listing of suggested readings and recordings related to cross-genre similarities. As I compiled this list, derived mainly from references for my book chapter from this upcoming publication, as well as e-mails I’ve sent to myself with links to relevant articles and blog postings, I thought about about my own complex opinions on genre overlaps.

For some first-time visitors to this blog, it might seem safe to assume that I am an unwavering advocate for any effort to connect genres. I will say that I am keen on emphasizing affinities among music from different genres, especially since such categorization continues to remain prevalent and prevents people from making such connections. From the perspective of library and information science, the classification of vinyl albums, cassettes, compact discs, and other “physical” recordings, emphasizes genre. That’s usually the case for browsing, like in a library’s public area, or in a store that sells music recordings. (“Closed stacks” collections, typically kept behind a library service desk, may draw upon chronologically-oriented accession numbers.) Of course, considering the nature of such items, it can’t be helped. There has to be some way of classifying them, and genre has prevailed as the most useful default. Cataloguing practices operate along similar principles, with genre as a primary type of subject heading. Chapters one and four of Mark McKnight’s Music Classification Systems (2002) provide a useful overview of these practices, including the hierarchical Alpha-Numeric System for Classification of Sound Recordings (or ANSCR, pronounced as “answer”).

Before I get on a tangent about how the treatment of recordings online (recommendation algorithms, tagging practices, etc.) can indirectly reflect genre-based categories, my primary point is to discuss how cross-genre connections might not always work. Our own subjective assessments of similarity are never “wrong” per se, even if we can’t always step back and analyze why one piece reminds us of another. An ever-shifting array of similar musical and extra-musical facets, along with our physiological and affective (or emotional) responses, informs those hunches. In fact, that is what I am most interested in researching, because they can be elusive and pose new questions about the nature of music.

Compared to the aforementioned highly personal connections, conscious efforts by musicians to fuse genres simply provide firm evidence of cross-genre affinities. Someone made some kind of connection, and created a work to reflect it. That said, such efforts are not always effective. From my own perspective, I have felt disappointment at the execution of some musical crossovers. At best, some of them have a sense of novelty that’s at least worthy of a listen, and they might serve some useful pedagogical purpose. Usually, however, I feel that they try to fit together ideas that are too incongruous. This is not because of genre differences. Either they do not effectively exploit the potential of cross-genre similarity, or they try too hard to bring together two musical notions that stretch credulity.

My first encounter with such a hybrid came in the form of What if Mozart Wrote “Born to be Wild”, which I obtained at some point in high school. It didn’t take long before I stopped listening, and the CD languished for years in my collection until I decided to sell it. Looking back, I think I found the novelty of the whole idea appealing. Yeah, you can play just about anything on any instrument with the right amount of practice. But does the cross-genre reimagining work well in relation to the original? From what I can recall, the logeyness of the performances sounded a bit like a caricature of how a proper classical piece “should” sound, while using the notes from various rock songs.  Personally, I also tend not to be too keen on solo instrument performances, or works played by small ensembles. And, of course, just try to imagine a string ensemble playing the song mentioned in the album’s title.

Or, depending on your frame of reference, any of the others.

Conversely, unless “the kids” all like such things, simply playing the notes from a classical piece real fast on an electric guitar isn’t going to make them interested in classical music. I link to the website for “The Great Kat” because I vaguely remember someone saying something to that effect years ago on NPR (maybe around 1995-1996), and I think it was her (This might be the interview I recall.) There’s a faint whiff a patronization, and trying too hard, in that notion. Around the same time, I was exploring recordings of Jimi Hendrix, and wondered in particular how he might have approached the Liebestodfrom Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

I think it would have worked, especially given the dreamy nature of the original work, as well as Hendrix’s propensity for improvisation and his psychedelic approach.

Interestingly, Allen Ginsberg actually selected Tristan und Isolde to accompany a 1959 LSD trip at the Mental Research Institute, inspiring him to write a poem named “Lysergic Acid” (Long 2008, 111-114).

Returning to my experience with What if Mozart…, I gravitated more towards the Romantic composers at the time. In fact, I would argue that such a style seems more appropriate for some of the songs on the album. For instance, without much effort, I could more easily imagine “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” (also given the “Mozart treatment”) performed in the style of a Richard Strauss composition. The tension-filled quiet that can build into a frenzy of emotion, the simultaneous usage of multiple melodies (polyphony), the late German Romantic vivacity.

And that’s without mentioning the fact that producer Phil Spector, in his typical approach to recording practice, tried replicating the denseness and ethereal effects associated with Wagner’s compositions (Long 2008, 114-115) . I would even venture to compare the build-up to its climax with that of the Trojan March from Hector Berlioz’s opera Les Troyens.

I’ve had similar sentiments about a number of songs, ranging from The Doors’ Crystal Ship to Alanis Morissette’s a cappella Your House. In fact, just a few years ago, someone actually created an orchestral score for the latter, overlaid with Morissette’s voice. Not quite what I had in mind when imagining such accompaniment, but still an impressive effort.

Not quite as impressive was a YouTube video I stumbled upon roughly a year ago, and which seems to have disappeared. Called “Salome’s Kiss (conclusion: the kiss and it’s [sic] power,” it’s a “rock-influenced” version of the concluding minutes from the final scene of Strauss’ opera Salome. The performers include a soloist, a pianist, and a guitar player. For anyone who knows of my Salome obsession, combined with the central topic of this blog, it should come as little surprise that I initially felt quite excited about this find. Based on what I can remember, I can pinpoint my subsequent disappointment to the presence of the piano. Furthermore, the final scene’s concluding moments should simply overwhelm, an effect the piano and single electric guitar didn’t quite achieve. I probably would have added at least one other guitar, possibly a bass as well, and some form of percussion (whether a drum kit or timpani). That said, there were some interesting stylistic elements brought in on the guitar; taking on the final scene’s menacing clarinet trill, the guitar sounded like it would have fit in quite well on a nine inch nails album, while the concluding section possessed some Hendrix-like virtuosity. Vocalist Maria Tegzes did quite well, bringing to mind such voices as Birgit Nilsson and Montserrat Caballe.

The examples mentioned here provide a sampling of how we can conceive of cross-genre similarity. The more intentional crossovers may not work very well for a number of reasons, while the more subjective connections of broad listeners could provide a springboard into teasing out some intriguing similarities worthy of further exploration.

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