Dear followers of ideasaboutmusic.ca … as the seasons have changed I have (as some of you might have guessed) taken a break from posting while attending to other projects, and perhaps a little good old-fashioned vacation time. My last post was a couple of weeks ago on June 2nd, and so as the 20’s lined up in today’s date, and summer beckons from tomorrow, it seemed time to make this decision and update you.
I will confess that as the COVID-19 pandemic has, unpredictably, temporarily and resoundingly turned me into more of a digital media professional than a musician the fount of musical experiences and ideas has been running a little dry – so it feels like a natural moment to press pause.
I am of course involved regularly with music through the lens of online content, as an audio/video recordist and publisher, and in fact am meeting regularly with a few colleagues from Rosedale Presbyterian Church in Toronto to make music for summer services – so I am stimulated, inspired and active.
You’ll see me back in a few weeks, as the summer unfolds, and as the musical world gradually emerges, blinking as it adjusts to the sunlight, out of its home lock-downs – in whatever shape it will.
Blessings and beautiful warm wishes to match both the weather and the music still running through our heads and imaginations,
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.
Things became pretty quiet at IAM at the conclusion of my service to the Organ Century year of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto, whose employ I left in July 2015 after an exciting and deeply satisfying two year opportunity with its excellent staff and congregation, contributing to a milestone in the life of both the instrument and institution.
The big news for Easter 2016 was the 10-year anniversary of “Genre Implosion,” the radio show on Hamilton’s CFMU FM 94.4 that formed a part of my 2004-2006 M.A. degree in Music Criticism at McMaster University. At that time I published the entire 19-episode archive (there were in fact 21 episodes, but regrettably two of them were lost). You can still access the entire series on the “Listen IAM” link of ideasaboutmusic.ca, and I will now begin posting the episodes over the coming weeks.
Enjoy Genre Implosion for now – I am still proud of much of it, although it’s always hard to look more than a few years back at one’s creative work without thinking of high school yearbooks, haircuts and other artifacts.
Musical Genre is a fascinating system, phenomenon or construction, but I still say, as I do at the start of every episode – they’re your ears – BELIEVE them.