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Classical 101

Composers Incorporated: Genre-Benders

Wikipedia-public domain
The album artwork for David Bowie's sixteenth studio album, 'Tonight.'

The recent death of David Bowie has sparked an outpouring of videos, tribute articles and a flurry of photographs showing the many faces (not to mention incredible outfits) of the artist. One trail the articles  have seemingly left untouched is that of recognizing Bowie as a composer. 

One video in particular has brought my attention to this vernacular discrepancy; we see Bowie and Philip Glass in conversation, and it is quite clear that one is considered a "Composer" and the other is relegated to a different title, irregardless of their influence on one another.

Phillip Glass states, "People think about pop music or classical music as fixed categories, well, actually the people that work in those fields..." and David Bowie immediately nods and interjects: "very rarely feel the confines of those." It's a tiny interaction but it highlights the fluidity of music.


Is it possible that genres are in fact obstructions to art and music? I would think so. 

I remember sitting in Ohio State University's Mershon Auditorium, last year, for Laurie Anderson's performance with the Kronos Quartet. The work that Anderson and the quartet brought together was phenomenal. Any label would have really taken away from the work's ability to stand alone.

Here is a bit of what I heard and saw:



iTunes sorts music into well over 200 categories and sub-categories. Everything from Christmas: Rock to Urban Cowboy and Neo Soul has a distinguishing title and a set of characteristics that magnetize it to like-minded works. 

Obviously organization helps people find, store, and sell music. That is no question. But what happens when an artist is labeled? Is it fair to label a human as being someone who creates only one type of art?

Artists such as David Bowie, Bjork, Klaus Nomi, Freddy Mercury, Monserrat Caballe, Eileen Farrel, even Sting and EdinKaramazov are considered to be "Crossover" musicians. This simply means that their music occupies more than one genre on Billboard charts. 

Essentially, rather than allowing artists to explain and determine the categories, or lack thereof, into which their music should fall, we socially construct definitions and barriers around album sales and marketing.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Looking Ahead

Today, there are entire record labels designed to produce music of this ilk without necessarily labeling it as such: see Brooklyn-based label New Amsterdam

Later this month, I'll interview local composer, drummer and teacher, Luke Brevoort, about his newly-released album Ultimo Maximo as well as other genre-bending artists you can hear around Columbus. 

Here are a few examples of what we commonly call "Crossover artists," but hopefully one day these musicians and many more can simply be referred to as composers and given the prestige and gravitas their music truly deserves. 

Rest in peace, Starman.