Genres as Controversies: Analysing Art Music using Digital Methods

Faculty of Music
University of Oxford

Genre theory and analysis is typically seen as a methodology better suited to the study of popular, rather than art, musics. In part this is due to the influence of what Eric Drott has called the `decline of genre' thesis, which holds that, during modernity, the task of classification and generalisation of art music met with the opposing forces of accelerating individuation and differentiation at the level of individual composers and their works, with the latter winning out. In this view, popular music, embodying what Adorno called `standardised form', simply submits to the higher level approximations of genre more readily than the endlessly variegated forms of western art music, where each work represents both token and type (this, at least, is the ideal). But even if this were true, the decline of genre thesis rests on the faith that genre assemblages are constituted by the aesthetic and structural properties of music alone, as opposed to e.g. a social network (`the Mego sound'), instrumentarium Clive coding'), geographical region (`Japanese noise'), race (`Black music'), or some other abstract categorisation. Whatever grouping we choose, a name is always necessarily less than the varied entities - persons, record labels, instruments and so on - that it enrols into its ranks. Art or popular, there can never be a simple and straightforward identity between token and type. To attribute genre to a text must, then, entail a translation, a `making equivalent of the uniquivalent' (Callon 1981), and its process that opens onto to the politics of genre: the possibility of contestation and controversy over genre names and their designation. This presentation will be based on some early research into the use of digital methods as applied to genre, and is related to the `analysis' theme of EMS. These tools were developed in the field of science and technology studies, and are principally intended to trace networks of association that constellate around particular controversies as they play out in civil society, a prominent example being climate change. Each `crawl' reveals a social network comprised of human and non-human actors, each of whom is connected by linking, and being linked to, online. By applying these methods to art musics, the idea is to see genres as themselves representing controversies, or `issues', in musical culture, which can be visualised, compared, and analysed. For instance, what is the difference between `lowercase' and `microsound'? Or between `IDM' and `Electronica'? Writers such as Joanna Demers and Paul Hegarty have tried to navigate these thorny, contested fields by means of aesthetic theory, disentangling them from one another by identifying their abiding sonic, conceptual, and ideological concerns. Using digital methods is an infinitely cruder approach than this, prone as any data mining technique is to spurious, and always partial, results. However, I will argue in this paper that it produces insights that cannot be arrived at by more conventional means, and so represents an important new approach for musicologists. Viewed as controversies, and used in tandem with more tried and true methodologies, digital methods can enrich our understanding of the messy assemblages of genre.

adrian 2015-06-03