Perfect Sound Forever

Between a Rock and an Experimental Place

Kyle Gann, photo by Susan San Giovanni

The convergence of rock and avant music since the 1990's
interviews by Jason Gross

IDENTITY- Is there any importance of maintaining an identity for each these different
styles of music separate from the other styles/genres?

Chris Cutler (drummer/writer/author/teacher)

Only in so far as the genres extend themselves. Heavy Metal is a genre. It has a public and rules. So long as they identify themselves, it will be possible to identify the genre. Where genres vanish, there will be historians who will remember and maybe reproduce them (ancient music on ancient instruments). Taxonomy is important, so there will be thrash metal and speed metal and all the rest, and they will be meaningful distinctions. Classical music is already a museum term, and Jazz is close behind it. Both are hardly living cultures. Since early 2003 is not a time when history has caught up with itself, we will have to wait to see what new genres emerge. After Kafka, all manner of earlier work suddenly became Kafkaesque…Plunderphonia waited for John Oswald to name it, but the work was already there…It’s the same now, I’m sure.

Kyle Gann (writer/author/composer)

Many artists today are very much against defining styles and genres, on what seem to me to be superficial and self-defeating grounds. Audiences need labels and genres; you can't expect the average lay listener to go out and listen to 100,000 CDs of every kind to come up with his own map of the vast and complex music world - that's the music critic's job. People gravitate to a genre, and try out new things based on association with what they've heard before. Short-circuit that simple, common process by denying that you belong to any style or genre, and you cut yourself out (and them) of the process of discovery by lay listeners. Of course there will be the occasional rock-driven, Inuit-throat-singing-influenced string quartet hybrid, and hopefully new categories will grow up in-between and from thoughtful fusions. I generally feel that the most interesting and creative musicians, though, are those working in some tradition or another, even if it's very specifically defined; and that those who consider themselves beyond genre frequently have very vague messages as a result.

Malcolm Humes (writer)

My take on genres is that they exist more in the minds of record stores and marketing men. It's helpful for consumers to see things fit into a lump, and this makes it easier to explore from the known into the unknown. Genres are all about safe choices, marketing styles and moods and few experimental artists fit easily into any definable niche. Look at the body of work of Fred Frith, John Zorn or Frank Zappa and you can't lump it all into a tidy genre. Santana went full circle from what was pop-rock in the 60's to free jazz in the 70's and back to the pop charts in the 90's and since. Was Shaman a sell-out or a buy in for Santana? It was an impressive marketing ploy but probably still driven by Santana's passion for expression and not just a desire to make a quick buck. But I'm sure he had bills to pay and a desire to maintain a presence as a marketable commodity. And some new fans will probably work back though his older work to find Love, Devotion and Surrender and then branch from that to the music by John Coltrane that influenced it.

Steve Joerg (Aum Fidelity Records)

For some artists the aesthetic identity is so strong that it will always be maintained. I think it is important that the meaning/purpose of making the music be maintained - ie in my own experience the musicians I work with at AUM make music for the purpose of something greater than just entertainment. Not to belittle entertainment, but it works at additional levels.

Josh Madell (Other Music Records owner)

It is definitely important for music to maintain its pureness and history, and to resist bastardization and homogenization. However, music is often the sum of its influences, and I see it as only a good thing for musicians to be expanding the horizons from which they draw. Luckily, we can have it both ways, as there are no real limits on how much music we can create.

Howard Mandel (writer/author)

There is virtually no importance in maintaining distinct identities for different styles of music, except for ease of finding records in big record stores (which seem to be on their way to the elephant graveyard anyway) or the pride of musicians in recognizing and acknowledging their pasts. It may be important for jazz musicians to identify what's "real jazz" by reference to the values of the music, it's unique and specific techniques and strategies apart from the "content" of notes, instrumental choices, ambitions to be something other than swing dance soundtracks. Rockers may want to emphasize that they are in the youth movement, and on the edge of society (but is that so, when the Grammy-attending tuxedo and designer-dress crowd stands to give Springsteen, Costello and the others a fists-in-the-air ovation for "London Calling"?). Classicists may want to protect themselves in their college/university gigs by not being too obviously identified with the presumably under-educated rockers and jazzers. But other than such narrow self-interests, do we care what the best music's called? As long as we understand what contexts the musics really operate in, what values and standards they adhere to or promote, their functions, strengths and joys -- the musics will endure and we'll all be happy!

Bart Plantenga (author/DJ)

Well, then you begin the entire chicken-egg argument of purity. Even clear / pure genres like jazz and rock have come from so many places and sources that it would be like raking water or something if you started the game of identifying the pure. When writing my book on yodeling I came across that age-old discussion of folk music types: What is the genuine article or what's pop and what's folk? Once you start down this groove you're more than likely going to scratch out a very strange profile of your chosen genre. Being a generalist, I pretty much hate categories and love to see the cross-pollination and hybridizations flourish. Being somebody with a strong opinion I also know when the effort sucks or succeeds.

What killed punk at an early age was its insistence on banning any kind of miscegination. Every genre has its jealous and loyal guardians of the faith. Miles Davis was a traitor to jazz to many when he went toward Bitches brew. Dylan was a traitor to folkies when he picked up an electric guitar. And Blondie/Ian Dury were traitors to punk and new wave when they started producing dance music. On the other hand, what kills some genres is its ability to keep mutating and hybridizing to the point where it has no verifiable identity or distinctiveness. This may be something of the fate of post-rock music, music that rocks but doesn't roll, also called alternative rock, indie rock... I can see here that more than a few bands were absorbed and eaten alive by their own cynicism and distance from anything genuine. all honesty and integrity is suspect. This is probably some post-mod disease that killed your Butthole Surfers, flippers, and the like. They had a kind of dead end faith in eternal faithlessness, and they along with many other bands died an ironic, existential kind of death. They had consumed so much bile and junk food in their ruthless analysis of straight culture that they had nowhere to turn to regenerate themselves...

the mystery is again how artists fuse and recycle sounds and styles for their own ends. lesser ears/minds don't like it when some sonic carpetbagger takes "genuine" say "country" music and attaches it to rock or whatever. And yet, Nashville, for instance, is all about tapping in to whatever pop formula works. and so the conundrum remains: how do distinction and veracity still manage to survive to create a country / jazz / rock / house sound despite their ability to trade and borrow at will? the argument over what remains valid/art/

Steve Reich (composer)

All that really matters is individuals, to me. You get a great DJ or a great musician or a great composer and they do something great and then (laughs), you find out what it is. And all the generalities and all the rules go out the window. I think in general, there's an idea that distinctions are vanishing and that everything is everything. I think that's foolishness. I think what is happening is when I was going to music school back in the late 1950's and early 1960's, there was a kind of a wall between the street, if you will, and the conservatory, the academy. I, with the background that I told you about, always felt extremely uncomfortable with that. I've been a jazz drummer. So I always thought that was absurb. But I would say that because of myself and other people in my generation who you know, that wall has collapsed. There is now, that kind of normal back and forth between the Bowie's, the Eno's and the Wilco's of the world who are now on Nonesuch and I know who are aware of what I'm doing. We're possibly talking about doing a benefit together where they'll play and I'll play.

I think that there's basically a very healthy situation. It doesn't mean that I'm like Wilco. It doesn't mean that David Bowie's like me. It means that we're talking to each other, we're aware of what we're doing, we're learning from each other and that's the way it's ALWAYS been. I mean, Bach's Sarenbandes were modelled on dances of an earlier period. Kurt Weill was a great songwriter, a great composer- well, he was both. Same thing with George Gershwin. And on and on and on. There's all kinds of examples. You could say in a sense that my generation was responsible for bringing 'serious composer' back into the normal relationship with the popular music of the time.

Brian Turner (WFMU-FM, music director)

I say the more the lines are blurred the better. Something like CMJ's charts are already so restrictive: "world", "jazz", "RPM" etc. Give me Rufus Harley, Carnival In Coal. I love Jim O'Rourke's black-metal make-up on the Takayanagi tribute record he did a couple years ago, we need more of that! I think when people stop feeling the need to define the parameters of music, then some real genre-fuck will start happening (not that it isn't now.) I think that camps often become so defined that artists feel like they have to be totally schooled in a certain mode of music to indulge in it. They should be able to just take certain elements they like about certain genres and apply it to themselves. I was really excited to see bands like the Ex, Dog Faced Hermans, and God Is My Co-Pilot, who liberally pasted in things like gypsy, Ethiopian, Eastern European music to a big splattery mess of punk aesthetic and making it work in a big way. I see the adaptation of avant-jazz and classical elements into music as a new hole being dug to investigate avenues that haven't been trodden as often as say, the Beatles, Kinks, and Velvets influence. But all bands should be open to everything I think.

Other interview subjects:
Rock/avant convergences in 1990's
Pros/cons of convergence
the future of rock/avant convergences

Also see the original Between Rock and an Experimental Place essay
and a partial listing of rock/avant collaborations since the 1990's.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER