Does genre still have a place?

June is the inaugural CutCommon Young Writers' Month


This is the winning blog entry in our inaugural CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Competition


I love music. I love wine, too.

Pairing the two – whether it be a delicate garnacha while listening to a Catalan folk song arranged by Llobet, or a bold South Australian shiraz with a jazz guitar trio blowing over a Monk tune – is always a pleasure. But this time, I’d like to pair them as a parallel for how we might consider the categorisation of our experience and the senses: both taste and sound.

Putting the experience of sound into words has always been a tricky task. Genre has, no doubt, been somewhat useful in categorising musical styles. But, when genre is used more broadly, it can become vague, and meaningless. How many times have you heard, ‘I’m not a fan of jazz’, ‘I don’t like classical music’, or ‘I don’t like chardonnays, they’re too oaky, I prefer sauvignon blanc? It seems limiting to write off an entire grape variety because one or two winemakers haven’t been to your taste. But it isn’t all that different from dismissing ‘classical music’ just because your first experience was accompanying a friend to Berg’s Violin Concerto. You’re only experiencing one variety, from one region. One vintage.

Word choice carries meaning. Like any word, genre terms carry the baggage of  musical characteristics, raised associations, assumed representative musical figures, and ties to image and identity stereotypes. In my view, this is why genre doesn’t cut it as an adequate descriptor. It is limiting in nature. And it limits one’s openness to new experiences and new sounds.

When we hear  a genre term – say, ‘new music’, being contemporary classical composition – we access our mind’s hard drive for the folder titled ‘New Music’. But we are limited by what’s in there: our own prior knowledge, experiences, and created associations – or maybe just a folder called ‘Untiled-1’?  Basically, the musical description we end up communicating in genre terms will depend on what’s in the other person’s hard drive. In certain circles, genre can be effective and specific – lieder, piano trio, or jazz orchestra – but in others, the use of genre may send you back to square one.

Musical activity in the 21st Century is incredibly diverse. Traditional and emerging music genres are becoming increasing interpenetrated; so much so that our conceptions of genre cannot stand as adequate and articulate descriptors. How should we categorise or talk about the music of Kendrick Lamar, one of the biggest names in the music world in 2016? The artist’s conceptual album investigates different psychological states in an introspective personal struggle of African-American life. Kendrick pulls in some of the biggest names in jazz, collaborating with saxophonist Kamasi Washington and pianist Robert Glasper to produce an album that defies CD store categorisation in its eclectic composition. Should it be placed in ‘hip-hop’, or ‘new releases’? Or,  what about the cosmopolitan sounds of Australian oud virtuoso Joseph Tawadros? Is the ‘world music’ genre really a sufficient descriptor in the 21st Century, placed alongside all music since the ’80s that incorporates ‘otherness’ but doesn’t fit neatly into more familiar categorisations?

There will always be those searching for ways to categorise new composition that emerges on the forefront of any creative and innovative musical practice. But I think contemporary music deserves a discussion of sound in terms of its sonic profile, a description that focuses on the experience of sound. Contemporary music deserves a description delivered by the restaurant sommelier, not the front and back of a wine label: an articulate description of  texture, instrumentation, colour, and experience that breaks away from a reliance on genre to do the talking for us.


This is the winning blog by Myles Oakey and published as part of CutCommon Young Writers’ Month. About the author:

Myles2016 CutCommon Young Writer of the Year Myles Oakey is in his fourth year of a Bachelor of Music/Bachelor of Education at the University of New South Wales. He loves playing classical guitar – though he’s also studied jazz and contemporary music. Myles is a member of the UNSW Balinese gamelan ensemble Suwitra Jaya. He took two educational trips to Bali, during which he performed at the Bali Arts Festival in 2015. Myles received the Dean’s List Award in 2014-15. This year, he won the Honours Bursary Award for Music and it’s allowed him to undertake additional research in the field of ethnography in music. His dream is to pursue a career in music research by “writing ethnographies that capture the diversity of musical activity and experience in music-making”. 



Featured image Marlon E via Flickr, CC2.0.

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