Music challenges artists to manipulate genre


Illustration by Maeve Plunkett

Al Solecki, columnist

“Music is it’s own language,” my dad used to say, “and fluency means knowing the translations.” It makes sense; we can all relate to the idea that some things are just better said through music. However, after seeing both New York Voices Jazz Singers and Regina Spektor (a Russian pop artist), I considered extending the metaphor to musical genres as well, like dialects that render the listener a musical translator.

A few weeks ago, I started writing this column about how jazz was the genre of music that allows the musician the most creative freedom, but soon came to realize that the genre couldn’t have less to do with it. After the two concerts, I came to the realization that it’s not the type of music that engenders the freedom you have to be creative, but the opposite– the creativity of the artist to manipulate the medium in relaying whatever message they see fit.

Improvisation, scatting, unique chord structure, accidentals, beautiful mistakes. To me, jazz always embodied what it meant to have freedom in expression: experimentation. My piano teacher would explain how the highest level she could take us in our lessons would end in theory of improvisational jazz, because from there on, we’ve learned the tools of technique and are technically to be set free, like… little musical butterflies or something. Wee!

So naturally, seeing the New York Voices – an acapella vocal jazz group — solidified this “butterfly of the soul” deal I had going. They were electric. Conversational. Starting a dialogue, dialogue that changed, that was unpredictable — a dialogue in which they included the audience members, having us sing with them. It was music, and at the same time not. Rather, it was speaking the language of every person in that room, and fluently so.

I was so certain that this was the key, and that there was something special about jazz music that made communication easier than through other genres. But my whole perception changed after seeing Regina Spektor, a Russian pop artist whose music breaks every norm and genre-related preconception of pop.

Listening to her sing was a guttural experience; she was weird. She did odd things with her voice, risked unusual ways of saying simple things, drawing her listeners into her world by letting herself be porous and tangible. She was so extremely real, and yet did incredibly surreal things with her musical choices.

The important thing I came to realize here is that pop, a musical genre which I’d believed to be stagnant, and – my apologies – often boring and monotonous, had extraordinary conversational potential. I came to understand that I misjudged the artist as being helpless under the constraints of the genre, when really, it’s in the hands of the artist to navigate the genre. It’s in their hands to learn the language and speak.

I would urge you all to try finding something you love in the midst of something you think you don’t. I passed a judgement on an entire genre of music simply because I hadn’t yet considered there might be more out there than I know of. It’s like I had decided I didn’t like what I was hearing before I’d even begun really listening. Communication goes both ways, so never turn down a conversation you haven’t had before.