Crossover – Tue 14 April 2020

The Welsh group Calan performing one of their most remarkable feats of crossover,
their song Kân, based on an old method of Psalm singing, and incorporating elements of traditional instrumental playing, rock, rap and even a snatch of poetry.

My Celtic band Chroí (Irish Gaelic for ‘heart’) began in the early 2010s on the tail-end of a period of my career which saw me working, studying and playing a great deal in the vicinity of culturally-expanding Hamilton, Ontario. A then church-home and some wonderful people around me at the time enabled the founding of a group fitting a vision that I had had for some many years – but like so many others the group faced a problem, that pesky system, phenomenon or construction known as genre. All of us were university-trained musicians, sporting a non-conventional instrumentation for a Celic group (with, for example at the time, piano and cello) we were by no means a church-praise or traditional-folk band. Being in our 30s and 40s we all felt drawn to the rhythms of popular traditions that more and more traditionally-founded celtic bands were also increasingly building into their sounds… so what to call ourselves?

The decade I mentioned above that saw me so much in and around Hamilton featured notably my graduate work at McMaster University in the subject of musical genre, a topic that continues to fascinate me. In studying musical genre one quickly notes that genre labels, especially in the last century or so, have often been founded in arbitrary and constructed ways rather than in rigorous, more scientific ways. Consider ‘world music,’ a title given by western academics to describe mostly the folk genres of other societies, neatly placing them in the realm of the exotic (and more pointedly primitive – for this reason, indefensibly, the sophisticated west saw fit to exclude itself from ‘the world!’) Consider also ‘classical music’, the bulwark thrown up by the tortured descendants of the western canon to defend its fractured 20th-century self and rich heritage from the meteoric rise of popular music at home through recording, broadcasting, and especially targeted capitalism. And let’s not forget ‘popular music’ – a genre that isn’t a genre at all, encompassing whatever music the multi-billion dollar media industry chooses to bless with the machinery of marketing, distribution, and the powerful construction of consumer identity.

Well, another such genre/non-genre that had existed for decades before Chroí (with, I should say, a healthy sense of irony and humour) tackled its existential question of genre was ‘Crossover.’ The name reveals nothing more than the presence of two or more musical paradigms that by implication are traditionally separated, as the banks of a river or opposite cliffs of a gorge. I had grown up with an intense love of Bach, including but far from limited to my parents’ recordings of Moe Koffman, Switched on Bach, the Swingle Singers and so on, this paradigm, which was innovative and outrageous in its time, had become quaint and a standard part of the landscape. Indeed it had spread from the conspicuous early fascination with Bach and jazz (a topic for another day) to ever more complex and intriguing crossovers that included heavy metal bands like Metallica with symphony orchestras, jazz/world rhythms and harmonies, celtic idioms and even recorded animal sounds in the church music of Paul Halley, and the incursion of poetic and cultural mosaics into such fine chamber ensembles as Quarteto Gelato, the Kronos Quartet and the Art of Time Ensemble.

Me personally, I think all the barriers that are put up between genres are so easily broken. People just love music that moves them.

Haitian-American pop icon Jason Derulo

Chroí settled on ‘Celtic Crossover’ because it committed to just one thing – not our early inspiration in traditionally-founded groups like Lùnasa, nor our early Christian forms such as the Iona Community, nor our early embrace of the rich diversity of influences and vocal/choral sound of Irish-American band Solas. No, it stated only our raison d’être, the Celtic music that formed at least a part of each player’s ethnic heritage; that had drawn us to play together, and that despite some changes in membership has kept us playing together approaching a decade later.

Now fifteen years past the completion of my M.A. in Music Criticism I confess I still find myself more often a critic of musical genre than a scholar of it. But I remain fond of the label ‘Crossover’ for its ambiguity and its openness. Like many musicians I have been and remain beneficiary to fortress-like musical institutions seemingly more bent on self-glorification and self-preservation than in artistic creation and emotional gifting to audiences, congregations and societies. For much of my career those institutions have seemed to be in perpetual turmoil and occasional collapse, but through the spirit of Crossover many have taken their place as part of the ever-richer mosaic of musical life. Crossover is no longer news – it is normal – and for me at least the Kronos Quartet has in no way cheapened the classical string quartet, nor Paul Halley the latin mass or motet, nor Welsh super group Calan undermined the range of influences to be found in its work.

Musical Genre can speak much better about who you are than what you do.