Friday, June 12, 2009

Genre Trouble

Once again, I'm thoroughly enjoying myself with a new China Miéville novel, The City & the City, which is a kind of late 19th century mystery story set in a wierd fictional/sci fi/fantasy universe in which the two cities in the title share the same geographical space but are otherwise essentially distinct from one another.  Miéville is a writer who clearly loves his genres, and generally respects their conventions, but not their borders (I hear echos of Kafka and Dickens here as well)  and his respect is never at the expense of getting the language right, and his language is beautifully right.  Similar in my experience to only Pynchon (and, with respect to non-"literary" genres, like legal briefs, Gaddis, or technical and commercial writing, Wallace), Miéville understands how to love a genre just enough to make it better.  If I were a 19h century romantic, I might even use the word "transcend." 

I have to wade carefully now when it comes to the subject of genre.  A post in the past which mentioned comic books casually was rightly torn in shreds by readers with a much less casual relationship to that jenre.  To be honest, with the exception of juvenile flights in sci fi and the hard boiled detective novel and the occasional but neccesary escapes into airplane novels, my reading has been mostly "literary", writing that has the conceit of being outside or even above established commercial genres.  My musical tastes, of course, are probably even more conceited.  I probably know less of or about more popular music genres — whether rock or jazz or polka or jaipongan or whatever — than most of you, and yet I am more or less convinced that the new music has a capacity — if often imperial in ambition — to both contain, critique and go beyond any other genres.  At the same time, I will note the complementary capacity of popular genres to swallow innovations whole if only to spit them out when they are done (anyone else here remember Joseph Byrd's brilliant The United of America or Stanley Silverman's Elephant Steps?  I wonder to what degree such efforts, from the late 1960's, might be considered as tales of caution for my colleagues, now, in the late years of the first decade of the 2000's, who are entering into similar cross-over projects?) (More interesting to me are the cases of composers who have parallel careers in genre musics, like Wallingford Riegger, who wrote band and choir music under a number of pseudonyms, or Jerry Hunt, who made his living largely by scoring industrial films and videos).

In his introduction to McSweeney's Mamoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, editor Michael Chabon (a writer who also knows his genres)  offers a though experiment: "Imagine that, sometime about 1950, it had been decided, collectively, informally, a little at a time, but with finality, to proscribe everyother kind of novel from the canon of the future but the nurse romance. ... I do believe that from this bizarre decision, in this theoretical America, a dozen or more authentic materpieces would have emerged.  Thomas Pynchon's Blitz Nurse, for example, and Cynthia Ozick's Ruth Puttermesser, R.N. ..."   May I suggest that any composers interested in joining our little melodica anthology project think of it in similar terms: Imagine that, sometime in the 1950s, it had been decided that the optimal vehicle for avant-garde music were the virtuoso solo melodica piece, that the melodica had had its David Tudor and Severino Gazzelloni and the Arditti and Kronos had been melodica quartets and that its repertoire had included its own Berio Sequenza, and a Cage star-chart-based etude, and an hour of Stockhausen's Klang, as well as the Steve Reich phasing piece or a Christian Wolff exercise.  (Oh wait, we have those last two. Oh well.) 

1 comment:

Dave Seidel said...

The Miéville book sounds great, thanks; I will have to queue it up. Currently re-reading Neal Stephenson's wonderful Baroque Cycle (which you might enjoy, if you haven't already read), and will likely follow that up with John Crowley's Aegypt series (freshly inspired after meeting him at a reading two nights ago -- his "Little, Big" has become an intergenerational favorite in my family).