There is No Them
I’m thrilled to see that there continues to be so many articulate and persuasive responses to my plea to “burst the bubble” last week, but one important observation might have gotten lost in that stew of ideas. While it is extremely convenient to simplify ideas through binaries and compartmentalization, art—and indeed human nature—is rarely so clear cut.
Despite clamoring on about being excluded from “their” list, or not being understood by “them,” this amorphous other is something of a hobgoblin. While it’s easiest to rally a united front by establishing an enemy (we all know this from the current political arena), who exactly is this enemy? We’re not being controlled by aliens who are telling us what to think, or more germane to the discussions here, what to listen to. Nor are we the overlords wielding such power. Once upon a time, colonial paradigms guided ethnomusicological enquiries. People from “our” universities went out and collected field recordings of “their” music. Thankfully, that particular model finally morphed around a generation ago when the watershed realization occurred that “there is no them.”
Part of what makes so much music so interesting, at least for me, is how it defies easy categorization into a specific genre. It exists beyond such mundane containers as classical or jazz or popular or world, which is perhaps the most ridiculous genre name of them all. After all, isn’t any music created on this planet world music?
When I first started collecting recordings I found sorting them by style not only segregational, and therefore ultimately distasteful, but also impossible. Where to put Harry Partch? David Borden and the Mother Mallard Band? Joni Mitchell’s record featuring Charles Mingus? The collaborations between Terry Riley and John Cale or Herbie Hancock and Foday Musa Suso? Sonic Youth’s SYR 4, a.k.a. Goodbye 20th Century? I like to brag that in my record collection at least, there’s an attempt at a level playing field, as much by design as by an acknowledgement of musical reality. The operas of Puccini get filed in between Public Image Ltd. and Tito Puente. Amy Beach is next to The Beach Boys, Earle Brown is pretty close to James Brown, etc. I’ve found that the arbitrary taxonomy of alphabetical order is simultaneously an extremely effective wall-breaker and a very efficient organizational tool.
Of course, it too comes with a bias. People whose last names begin with the letter A are shelved pretty high and require some effort to reach, and the Zs are starting to hurt my back.