The blurred Line of 21st Century Song

Again an article by our english language correspondent Jake Bellissimo – the links are very worth checking out!

The Blurred Line of 21st Century Song


While studying composition at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, I saw a very special “senior recital” towards the end of Spring semester 2015. The recital was given by tenor Sam Grosby, and the concert was pretty standard for an Eastman recital—it contained some Beethoven, some Rachmaninoff, etc., the essential repertoire for any operatic vocalist wishing to graduate with a degree.

Still, there was a rift in the common repertoire that occurred after intermission. As his choice of a modern song, Grosby chose to sing three songs from The Dirty Projectors album The Getty Address.

As the lights dimmed it became clear this would be an irregular operation. I already knew the songs, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised when I saw 10+ people crowd the stage with a mixture of instruments and found objects. There was no denying that this was an atypical performance, though, especially in the context of the “classical concert hall”. They proceeded to go through the songs (starting with “I Sit on the Ridge at Dusk”) with raucous applause at the end, and everybody agreed that it was an exceptional performance of truly beautiful music.

So, what’s the problem with this? Well, the type of music David Longstreth (the mind behind The Dirty Projectors) writes certainly isn’t representative of typical “art song”. Despite The Getty Address involving the help of many classical musicians (even sporting arrangements by David Lang), Longstreth was an English major at Yale when he penned the cycle and therefore not an “official” composer of song. Because of his lack of technical qualification, his music is described more often as pop music than it is art song.

However, this isn’t representative of the music itself.

The difference between “classical art song” and various other types of song (folksong, etc.) has always had to do with tradition and teaching. If you were to get to the core of the issue, you’d find the main differences are technique, place of performance, performers, and compositional methods. These practices were also tied to class, accessibility, instrumentation, and distribution, which is why something like “The Circus Band”—despite being straightforward pop music—is still circled in classical scenes and concert halls before songwriting circles and bars.

By the mid-twentieth century, this had all changed. Plenty of traditionally trained composers were incorporating elements of pop, jazz, and folk music into their compositions, and today it’s common for composers to have songs living in both classical and pop worlds.

So why hasn’t the same freedom been applied to people who come from a non-conservatory background? Why is there still a divide at all? Thanks to things like the internet and niche record shops, the information behind practice and nuance is now public knowledge. We are living in a society where people are moving freely between different traditions, and the line between art song and folksong is becoming blurred to the point of just a harmonious “song”.

For example, take the album The Orlando Sentinel by Emperor X (Chad Matheny). Matheny is one of many songwriters who write music that cannot be precisely defined as art song or folksong. Something like The Orlando Sentinel is clearly a song cycle: its various “RING” segments split the album into movements, and various songs (like “Daytrader Stadium” and “RING 3B: Todos Somos Caribeños”) play with timbre in a unique manner not derivative of a specific tradition. Songs are presented with focal points that constantly change from material to lyrics to timbre, and as a result the songs occupy a folk headspace just as much as a Reichian minimalism. Instrumental bits serve as interludes, with the album containing influence from across the board.

Coming off of this example, could Xiu Xiu’s “Walnut House” fit into our current definition of art song? The instrumentation is there, the abstract form is there, and this can just as easily fit within the voice of a classically-trained tenor as it does a folk singer.

Through integrating different genres, we’ve cornered ourselves—terms that previously denoted different practices now represent performance spaces (concert halls vs. other venues). Ever since the spread of information and influence of the internet in the 20th century, our interaction with song has changed and now has become a melting pot for whatever we want to throw in it. The reason why I’ve included so many examples in this post is to illustrate how complicated this field of definition has become.

Merriam-Webster defines the notion of song as “a short piece of music with words that are sung”. Perhaps it’s time to simplify our definition as well.

Jake Bellissimo