Many things are unnecessary in this world of ours: QR credits, middle names, and Droids are just a few that come to mind. Above all these silly things, what I find the most silly, the most asinine, the most fatuous is small-mindedness — especially when it comes to music. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine admitted that she thought that “classical music was boring”. Not only is that simply a silly thing to say (because classical music is the shit), but it is also committing musical racism. If I were to meet a British person and come to the conclusion that he or she was boring, that does not give me license to claim that all British people are boring. That would be racist of me (and foolish, since all British people are the shit). Heretofore, casting off a good five hundred years of music as “boring” is small-minded and musically racist. If you listened to Mozart and thought he kind of sucked, that gives you no reason to infer that Debussy or Copland will suck too. Of course, everyone has different tastes — the problem with identifying a taste is that it often leads us to rejecting others.
So what is the root of musical racism? Genres. By collecting together musical trends, movements and styles, the genre has destroyed the tastes of both the music listener and the music maker for sonic adventure. Genres lead to questions such as this: “I don’t like jazz, so what’s the point in listening to Herbie Hancock?” Ah, the foolishness!
As a hater of anything that approaches musical racism, it is refreshing to find musicians who don’t subscribe to this fallacy. I’m not talking about “fusion” types, but rather those music makers and music lovers who see past genre boundaries. One of those “freedom fighters” is Owen Pallett. You may know Pallett as the string player for Arcade Fire, but he also performs solo under the pseudonym “Final Fantasy.” Over the course of his three studio albums, “Has a Good Home” (2005), “He Poos Clouds” (2006) and “Heartland” (released a year ago this month), he has explored the rich possibility of taking sound as it comes. Each album features a full orchestra as well as more “pop” instruments such as synthesizers and drum kits. However, he doesn’t just throw away the enormous timbral potential that a collection of modern and classical instruments can have. Instead, the sounds of the orchestra, electric guitar, solo violin (or whatever instrument it may be) are stretched and explored. Take my favourite song from He Poos Clouds, “Arctic Circle”: the vocal, harpsichord, strings and synthesizers all play a equal role in creating a unique and enthralling sound world. But, most importantly, the song is structured around the regular verse-chorus-bridge structure that we cherish so much. This is music that can appeal to almost anyone.
Another freedom fighte’ is Joanna Newsom. Now, Newsom is tricky, since her music can’t really be described as “accessible”. Her own brand of indie-folk is certainly unique — all her studio albums focus heavily on her harp playing while also occasionally incorporating a full orchestra. Her singing voice, which has been called “child-like”, is definitely controversial. However, Newsom, just like Pallett, creates a sound like no other. She embraces polyrhythms, electric instruments, and the folk music of the Appalachia, generating a musical fabric that is extraordinarily rich and distinct. If you feel like diving into music that is at once simple and deceptively complex, then I would urge you to given her album Ys (2006) a stab.
Unfortunately, the two artists about which I have just waxed lyrical are often dismissed as “alternative.” Their work is completely different from anything else out there today, and yet they are lumped together in a category full of musical misfits. By attempting to transcend the musical boundaries that arise from musical racism, they are marginalised by labels.
So please remember these two things: 1. Be careful not to be a musical racist — Mozart and Wagner are just as different as Britney and Lady Gaga are. 2. The next time you pick up a CD (I guess that’s not going to happen anytime soon in this digital age) and it is labeled “alternative”, think twice. It might not sound like anything you’ve heard before.