Sunday, October 4, 2009
Recently, I was part of a discussion about what "genre" was. My interlocutor claimed that genre was (basically, I'm paraphrasing) a way of consuming. If you were listening to something in the chamber music genre, you knew that it was written to be played and heard in a relatively small, intimate venue. An orchestral work would be written to be heard in a large hall with a large audience. My argument with this was that, given the economic demands on "classical" music, nearly every concert takes place in a medium-to-large sized hall, with a fairly substantial audience. In other words, commercial necessity has supplanted their definition of "genre," and this is to say nothing of cds, which reduce this idea of genre into a private listening experience that can occur almost anywhere. Subsequently, this definition of genre simply cannot be correct, as pieces across genres are consumed with such similarity as to seem indistinguishable to an outsider. The response I got was that these ways of consumption are still valid, and are implicit within the creation of a work of music in the chamber music genre.
I still disagree, however. I think that genre is a set of shared or common listener expectations.
Audiences of country music have certain expectations as to instrumentation (and, by extension, the sound world of the music in general) and lyrical themes (and, by extension, the inherent values system of the music). Audiences of symphonic music have expectations as to the overall structure of the work (multi- and various movements, typically with large climaxes at the ends of the first and last movements) and the general way they will consume this music (for a fee, in a large hall, with a large orchestra, and with an accompanying set of social expectations). [The fact that I've been reading Christopher Small's Musicking is readily apparent from that last description, I know.] The genres are not inherent in the production of the music (though the composer or artist learns these generic traits and choses either to abide by them or subvert them), but reside in the audience's reception of the music. When I listen to a Hadyn symphony or a Garth Brooks song, even before I hear the work I will have a set of expectations about the artist's style in particular and the genre as a whole. These expectations are what is manipulated by the artist to create the piece. Ergo, without certain stylistic expectations, there is nothing really for the artist to work with, and no musical style as such can exist.
I suppose I should be even more specific, and say that this was really a discussion about how genre functions, as genre is at its most basic level an advertising method, a way of grouping like products so they can be marketed to like consumers (one of the assumptions of which is that everyone who likes 'rock' likes the same thing... making no distinction between John Mayer and Alice in Chains). However, I turn this over to you: what do you think genre is? And, how does it function? I do this not out of laziness, or the fact that I'm asking a question that's almost impossible to answer definitively. I've been thinking about what I hope to get out of this blog, and am starting a trend towards more interactive discussion, as the miracle that is the Internet shouldn't' exist solely for me impart my views. And, I already know what I think. Now, I want to know what you do.