Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet?

The way we talk about any subject is vital to its reception. Scientists these days are practicing their ‘bar pitch’: a 3-minute explanation (in layman’s terms) of their research topic. It’s tough for anyone (scientists, businessmen, or anyone highly specialized in their field) to adequately explain a dense topic in a short amount of time–especially to put it in matter-of-fact language that’s retainable.

Are you doing ground-breaking cancer research but get lost in your own jargon? Sorry, you just lost that grant. Musicians: trying to reach new (read: untrained) audiences? I’m sure they’d love to hear a lecture about Varese’s use of tri-chords in Hyperprism.

It’s not that these things aren’t inherently fascinating or valuable, but if the chasm between interest and understanding is only made more vast by your techno-babble, chances are it’s going to be tough to meaningfully advocate for anything you do. Like any marriage counselor will tell you, communication is key, and we’re married to our audience as much as we’re married to our art. They are the ones, after all, who purchase that art. It is critical then that we practice our ‘bar pitch’ for the music that we love.

But, Dan: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.

I don’t think we’re talking about the same ‘talking’. Advocating for art (or your field) occupies a different plane of that verb. The ‘talking’ I’m talking about is smart marketing, business savvy, and the ability to get people interested to the point of attending. Then, after the show, you can try to dance about architecture. That ‘talking’ is trying to meaningfully convey a musical experience through words. Tough, I know, but at least you ‘talked’ enough to get people to show up.

Well, then. Where do we start? How ’bout a name?

“Hi, my name is Dan and I think you be interested in my… uh.. show. It’s classical music, but not really classical, because it’s not music by guys who died hundreds of years ago. But it’s still composed and constructed in a manner that is somehow more ‘complex’ than pop music, but less stuffy than the dead guys. You know what I mean?”

A challenge that I come across frequently, as I did when making this website, was “what do I even call this stuff?

New music? Contemporary music? Contemporary Classical? Modern? Avante-Garde?

To me, there’s particular baggage with each one of those. Anything involving the word ‘classical’ when it comes to music by most people under the age of 100 irks me, especially considering that music by my 20- and 30-something friends scores a 0 on the ‘classical’ scale, aesthetically. In fact, there’s very rarely anything classical about music written in the last 100 years, so let’s stop using a convenient term that record labels put on our music to create neat little bins at the record store or on iTunes. Let’s take those options off the table.

Is this really what you think of when you hear Xenakis?

Is this really what you think of when you hear Xenakis?

The terms ‘modern’ and ‘avante-garde’ seem to have overstayed their welcome after it was the label for a lot of progressive music in the ’50s and ’60s, which, amazingly, is the music many people think is still being written these days. While this music totally rocks (Boulez, Babbitt, etc.), it’s not the most palatable for new audiences (and wasn’t meant to be) and, when audiences see those composers on a program, it still dredges up a lot of uneasy feelings about the kind of music that’s going to get played.

We’re left with ‘new music’ and ‘contemporary music’ from my original list. Obviously I chose ‘contemporary music’ (judging by the banner at the top), and I did so mostly because ‘contemporary’ carries a little more distinction towards the kind of music we’re talking about on this website. Frequently in Nashville, if I say “I’m playing a bunch of new music tonight,” people think it’s just another singer-songwriter set. At that point, they also wish they had worn one of those beautifully sarcastic shirts that say, “Please, tell me more about your band.” I’d like to avoid those sentiments, so ‘contemporary music’ it is. For now.

As the title of this article suggests, I’ve been wondering recently if the title we’ve given this genre of music subtly affects an audience’s reception of it. If I called this rose another name, would it be as sweet? If I called David Lang’s newest album ‘indie-rock’ and the National’s latest album a great ‘song cycle,’ would the context for reception be shifted? By adjusting context, have I altered the genre? Beyond that, if I put the National in the classical bin, would people who had never heard of them still buy it?

Classical Music's hottest new ensemble.

Classical Music’s hottest new ensemble.

That’s just the start of this conversation. What do you call this stuff?


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