Musicians do different things – end of story

by Mark Isaacs

This article is also published in Resonate magazine

I have what are, on the face of it, some odd experiences regarding genre labels. A few recent examples: I have never argued with the proposition that my CD Resurgence is a jazz recording. Yet I accepted an award at the Classical Music Awards for ‘Instrumental Work of the Year’ for the CD’s opening track Walk a Golden Mile.

A couple of days ago I did a 25-minute free improvisation at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Jazz:Now Festival. Enjoying a new Steinway concert grand, I made a whole bunch of contrasting sounds, damping strings etc. All very abstract and sounding like modernist concert piano music. Yet it seemed readily accepted under the jazz umbrella.

Perhaps one of the keys is process rather than resulting soundworld. Walk a Golden Mile is carefully scored, in much the same way as I would write a concert work. There are no improvised ‘solos’, though accompanying parts are improvised. I constructed a canon between the sax and guitar. It’s a piece generated by a written text throughout, much more so than in a head/solos jazz chart.

And unlike modernist, classical, notated piano music, the solo Opera House performance was, after all, improvised. So, in a way, it’s possible for what sounds like one genre to have more in common with the other one in its generation.

But in the end it seems to me that it is an incidental choice to focus on the differences between genres as being intrinsic rather than of passing interest to note. Of course playing jazz is very different from playing classical repertoire. But playing Bach is very different from playing John Cage. And Dixieland jazz is very different from free jazz. There are as many differences within each genre as between them. Musicians do different things. End of story.

I work with the skill set I have, and with my musical interests. It seems natural to me to want to write ‘classical’ concert works, play jazz, play classical repertoire, try to write some pop tunes and retain an interest in music for film/tv/theatre/musical theatre. As a Western musician growing up in this time, it seems obvious to aspire to do that much at least, yet it’s often regarded as exceptionally diverse. Others choose to master non-Western traditions or play multiple instruments. I’m not as versatile or exceptional as that.

In terms of career development, I’m sure my apparent diversity tends to slow things down. In the classical world, I am thought of as a jazz musician. In the jazz world, as a classical musician. I feel I get a bit of the outsider’s cold-shouldering in both camps. There still seems to be a wall between the two, and people are surprised that I can pass back and forth through it again and again as I show up with the perhaps faintly offensive odour of what lies on the other side. I’m not aware of a wall at all. I’m still the 5-year old who heard it as all music, the differences being interesting and necessary to the process of creating it but not at all the main game. In what I would call the “main game” there are no differences. Sound is affective or it is not. The musician is either inspired or not. In trying to interrogate what lies behind those possible outcomes the lessons I learn are identical and precisely applicable regardless of the genre. As an audience member, it’s no different at the other end. Genres are cosmetic. A cut of suit, hairstyle or a bit of a lip-gloss; it all helps with the presentation and stamps in some individuality. But let’s meet the person.