Genre Omnivores, or If We Listen to Everything, What Does it Mean?

by Donna Lowe    ¦   March 23 2017

Let’s think about this term “omnivorous listening” for a moment. The concept excites me when I contemplate the listening part (ANYTHING and EVERYTHING! All genres, with no boundaries! Where to begin?), but it dismays me I’m when faced with writing about it (anything and everything? All genres, with no boundaries? Where to begin…?). Excitement still wins out, however, because boundless musical curiosity and discovery have always been guiding forces in my life, from the nights I lay awake as a kid transfixed by the CBC late-night radio programs Brave New Waves and Nightlines; to the present, where I am lucky enough to make my living surrounded by music in both its aural and physical forms every day.

The listening well is deep for us omnivores these days. With the advent of streaming audio services, Youtube videos, and (hopefully) the endurance of libraries, we have the great fortune of being able to—almost literally—listen to both anything and everything. We can indulge any obscure musical passion and become aural connoisseurs of the clawhammer style of banjo playing or the sackbut if we so choose, just by watching clips of them online (all 84,000 of them in the latter’s case). But of course there are implications to all this audio wealth, for both music’s listeners and its creators. Putting my excitement about bottomless listening aside makes me wonder things like how genre even persists within this musical soup, let alone how one category manages to distinguish itself from another. Will every cross-pollination of style continue to be labelled and re-labelled until every piece of music has its own sub-field in the genre taxonomy? The list of descriptors in many musical biographies these days is frequently a multi-hyphenate mix of pre-post-fusion-hybrid-mashup that becomes basically meaningless in its all-inclusiveness. And who decides on and/or applies these labels, anyway?

Or maybe genre no longer even matters. On March 10th the New York Times Magazine released its Music Issue, complete with a flashy online feature entitled “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going.” This bold declaration alone is probably worthy of its own blog post—as are the choices of songs in the list—but what interested me about this piece was a couple of statements from the introductory essay by Nitsuh Abebe. In fleshing out his intriguing thesis about music being connected more to identity than to genre, Abebe downplays the latter by stating that “everyone, allegedly, listens to everything now,” and goes on to entreat artists to “figure out whom they’re speaking to [sic] and where they’re speaking from.” This feels like good advice, and advice that might apply to omnivorous listening as well: fully receiving a musical experience of any genre may have as much to do with knowing who we are as listeners and what exactly it is we enjoy about music than buying into dictates about what kinds of music we are “supposed” to appreciate.

To that end, I’d like to tell you about a couple of pieces of music I have thoroughly enjoyed recently, after I got over my initial misgivings about the unusual sonic pairings they both suggest. What they have in common are things I value in any artform: elements of surprise and reinterpretations of the familiar that make my senses wake up. I like it when I think I know how something’s going to sound—and how I have therefore labelled it subconsciously—only to discover that I don’t know at all until I hear it. That kind of discovery has no genre, and the thrill of it is the drug that keeps me listening with an omnivorous appetite.

  1. Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile. A jazz pianist and a bluegrass mandolin player walk into a bar…and it’s no joke. These two styles of music may seem light-years apart from each other, but they are more similar than they appear: both contain long melodic lines over standard chord progressions, value virtuosic technique and a thorough knowledge of harmony, and involve a history of reworking classic tunes in energetic ways. These two players are at the top of their respective games, and hearing them interact is a treat. Listen and watch as they tear into a remarkably upbeat version of the Bob Dylan ballad “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” I literally whooped at the end of this after hearing it for the first time—it was just that exciting to me.
  1. Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Spring 1. The combination of orchestral music and electronics may conjure visions of dubious concoctions like Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven,” or David Shire’s “Night on Disco Mountain” (both of which have left lingering effects on my psyche, for better or worse) but this blend is a bit more…refined. Richter, a German composer of the post-minimalist school, deconstructed one of the most well-known orchestral pieces in the world in an attempt to, as he put it, “reclaim…this music for me personally, by getting inside it and rediscovering it for myself – and taking a new path through a well-known landscape.” Something about the way snippets of these so-familiar phrases ebb, flow, and dance over a reharmonized chord base with electronic effects strikes me on a very visceral level, and I feel quite moved by Richter’s revisitation whenever I hear it.

I guess my enjoyment of these pieces tells you a bit about where I’m listening from. Your mileage may vary, but I sincerely hope we’re somewhere on the same road.

One response to “Genre Omnivores, or If We Listen to Everything, What Does it Mean?

  1. Pingback: Genre Omnivores, or If We Listen to Everything, What Does it Mean? | loweeda web·

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