modes of listening 6: genre

More than any other mode of listening, this one is the most familiar to us; it guides our choices when we are picking a radio/online music station, a CD purchase, a pick from our music collection. Like I get a craving for a taco, I get a hankering for a particular genre of music: swing-era jazz, doo-wop, harmolodics, late-romantic classical; spaghetti western filmscores, etc etc. You get the idea. Genre can be very broad – e.g., classical, jazz, rock, country – or can be granular and provincial, identifiable only by the cognoscenti – think Norwegian death metal, big beat techno, or period-instrument Baroque.

Genre guides our musical choices for a variety of reasons. Genres typically embody particular moods or emotional states – we want to celebrate a positive event, we choose a polka not a requiem. We want to dance, we pick disco not serialism. Often, genre music becomes a soundtrack for life events – wedding music, for example – and we want to revisit genre to reminisce. In this instance, genre listening overlaps with sentimental-mode listening. Genres also embrace complex sociocultural identities – cry-in-your-beer country music attracts one group of people, while Memphis soul attracts another group, even though each genre may be created mere miles apart.

For me, genre listening becomes the most fun as a tool of musical humor, and myriad examples are possible. Consider these two Roxy Music performances of “Remake Remodel”: the first from 1972  in their original incarnation with Brian Eno, and the second a reunion tour about 30 years later. From the beginning the Roxy Music band concept was a genre mashup from appearance to performance. In the 1972 video Bryan Ferry, in ducktail and tux tails, Brian Eno in Mardi Gras feathers and genderbending eyeshadow and mascara, and Andy Mackay with his Boots Randolph-in-extremis sax establish their departure from rock’n’roll as usual. At about the 4:20 point on the timeline, the band engages in trading-fours, itself a jazz convention, mashing-up soul, surf guitar, Morton Subotnick electronica, and with Ferry on electric piano, a banging-out of Cecil Taylor-esque clusters. By 2001 the musical formula was the same, albeit with a slicker, more luxe presentation, less hair, and the introduction of new genre tropes, such as John Barry’s James Bond theme in the trading-fours at the three-minute point. In both cases, fun was had by all.

By the turn of the 21st century, the genre mashup had become its own genre across pop, jazz, and classical music. In the latter, Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998)  had already established what he called “polystylism” as a part of his musical vocabulary, where musical periods, styles, and conventions were combined into complex works, such as his Concerto Grosso n.1 from 1976-77 . A like-minded but later contemporary, John Zorn (1953-) established his musical identity in large part through the genre mashup and revisits this motif in an extraordinary and huge body of work continuing into the present. Zorn embraces virtually all genres of music, working within them, stretching them to the outer limits, and recombining them into new concepts, aesthetics, and structures.  An introduction to how Zorn works might be his treatment of Henry Mancini’s theme “A Shot in the Dark” from the Pink Panther film. The Mancini 1964 original, itself a bit of a genre mashup, mixes a wry melody played on the chromatic harmonica, with a surf-guitar riffing accompaniment, interspersed with big-swing big-band punctuations. Zorn’s five-piece band Naked City recorded a version in 1990  which illustrates his humor and some of his techniques. The arrangement is based upon intercutting free-jazz interplay with structured quotations from the original Mancini score. The cut begins with a free improvisation where the band members play with the chord structure, make noises, invert and restate melody and countermelody fragments, culminating in Fred Frith’s ascending picked-bass line, introducing the melody. Accompanied by Wayne Horvitz’ cheesy Farfisa organ, itself a tribute to Mancini’s mid-1960’s period original and pop classics like “96 Tears“, Zorn’s alto saxophone takes up the punctuations, retaining the big swing. Zorn’s solo springs from his own style of swing, bop, squeals and swoops. A group improvisation takes it to the coda and out. Remarkably, such a transformation retains the cocktail-jazz sexiness of the original too!

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