by Vanessa Ague
Reprinted from Spoleto Festival USA 2022 program book

Imagine walking into a Barnes & Noble or Charleston’s own Monster Music & Movies. You scan the aisles, searching for the umbrella category that fits your musical appetite best—perhaps classical, jazz, or pop. You think back to Jon Batiste’s performance at the College of Charleston Cistern Yard during Spoleto’s 2018 season and head for the jazz section. But wait, you think: Wasn’t he nominated for a classical music Grammy Award this year? Don’t forget to look in the R&B corner as well as the American Roots sections while you’re at it—Batiste’s 11 nominations weren’t pegged to one genre, sparking joy, outcry, and everything in between.

The issue of genre is multifaceted: At its best, placing music into categories has the potential to help us discover similar music we like and other fans of it. At its worst, genre siphons artists into categories that might not fit the sound or meaning of their work. Those boxes—perpetuated by record labels to market and sell music—are often assumed based on nonmusical factors like race, which can erase an artist’s intent. The question is: Do these categories explain what the music sounds like or why an artist chose to make it?

Batiste is just one example of artists who are choosing to break boundaries, eschewing the limitations of genre to create something new. Yet conversations about the
pros and cons of musical genre have buzzed for decades. Mid-20th-century artists like Philip Glass and Julius Eastman were among the first composers to blend genres: Glass’s music often infuses Indian classical with western composition, while Eastman mixed disco and free improvisation in his pieces. At Spoleto, an open-minded look at genre has been part of programming since its inception. In 2000, Spoleto’s current Resident Conductor and Director of Orchestral Activities John Kennedy, wrote an essay about post-classical music, examining the Festival’s practice of bringing together music from many different schools of thought. More than 20 years later, the idea of genre blending at the Festival has continued to progress.

This season, sounds, disciplines, and influences collide across the program. Rhiannon Giddens, a two-time Grammy Award winning singer, songwriter, composer, and banjoist—who is also the artistic director of Silkroad Ensemble—will perform. Together with Francesco Turrisi, Giddens plays selections from their albums They’re Calling Me Home and there is no Other—songs that illuminate the universality of music and, as NPR describes, “blend Arabic, European, and African American influences, showing the ease with which the boundaries of genre and nationality can be broken through music.” Giddens’s work will also enliven Spoleto’s
mainstage opera. Omar, the world premiere by Giddens and Michael Abels, bridges her studies of Black vernacular music and opera to narrate the life of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim scholar enslaved in the Carolinas. This piece, however, doesn’t tell a story through expected operatic instrumentation. Instead, it aims to expand the
form by bridging techniques from different musical traditions, proving that opera’s boundaries can be shifted.

On June 6, MacArthur Fellow Tyshawn Sorey leads the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra for a performance of his Autoschediasms, a spontaneous composition created in real-time using gesture and improvisation. Yet Sorey’s orchestral concert comes two nights after he, Aaron Diehl, and Matt Brewer take the Cistern Yard stage to perform as a new jazz collective. Another composer, Nico Muhly, has found success creating music for film, ballets, and major opera, while the US premiere of his work, The Street, during Spoleto on June 7, illuminates text with delicate, reflective phrases that draw from sacred music. Both Sorey and Muhly’s compositions are presented as part of the Music in Time series—Kennedy’s curated programs designed to showcase new sounds in music that know no bounds.

For composer-cellist Paul Wiancko, whose string quintet Tiny Doors to Big Worlds will be performed during the Bank of America Chamber Music series, genre isn’t on his mind as he writes. Instead, his compositions often stem from improvisations and ideas that come to him without specific references: “You create whatever is speaking to whatever isin your heart,” he says. He’s drawn to the more metaphorical ideas behind the music that influences him—the way the artists create musical phrases or the way they write lyrics.  Genre isn’t a strict set of rules. “I feel that these boundaries  of genre are fun to have so that people can push against them and expand them and make them moot,” he says. “There’s some satisfaction to be had in purposefully breaking those things and making something even more beautiful
out of it.”

Instruments themselves have also fallen prey to categorization. Take, for instance, the pipe organ, an instrument often built into the architecture of a church. During jazz singer Cécile McLorin Savant’s performance at the Festival, one can hear the pipe organ’s vast, colorful palette that extends beyond sacred music: Looping rhythms, vibrant harmonies, and fast-paced syncopations accompany her. Each moment of the music leans into the instrument’s characteristic resonance while also exploring new territories.

Bassoonist Joy Guidry is interested in garnering every sound the bassoon can make and, in the process, shedding its classical associations. “This is just an instrument, but through white supremacy and white washing…we are taking a group of instruments—flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon—and have made it to where they can only exist in this realm of orchestra. Really though, the bassoon is so versatile,” Guidry says.

Improvisation has been a way for Guidry to explore music outside of the western classical mold associated with their instrument. By improvising, they’re able to explore the bassoon’s broad sonic possibilities. Venturing from frenetic improvisation to drifting electronics, their new work, Radical Acceptance, which centers the bassoon, pushes instrumental conventions through explosive noise and haunted sound. On May 29, four movements of the piece will be performed by Guidry and composer-percussionist Jessie Cox, whose own work, Alongside a Chorus of Voices (heard on that same program), uses a double meaning of a bell as both an oppressive and emancipating sound.

As we embark on a season once again filled with new and exciting works unencumbered by categorization, it’s crucial for us to listen and reconsider the ways we’ve come to understand genre. Instead of attempting to fit artists into our preconceptions fueled by arbitrary words, let’s consider what artists want to convey and want us to hear. Let’s strive to think about the deeper meaning behind their sounds and reflect on how it makes us feel. If we can change the imperfect molds that divide musical systems, perhaps we can then begin to find new moments of connection and understanding.

Vanessa Ague is a violinist and writer who runs the experimental music blog, The Road to Sound, and writes for Bandcamp Daily, The Wire, Pitchfork, and the Quietus, among others. She is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.