Right to left: Bruce Adolphe, Zach Brock, Jordan Pasquin, Laniece Schleicher, Cory Clarke, Cody Marsden, Rapasa, Bianca Mikahn, Alia Goldfarb

On July 18th, 2018, Off the Hook Arts and the Music District co-hosted the event Beyond Genre: An Improv Experiment and Discussion. 

What does the term “genre” mean? Is it obsolete? What does it do for us as musicians, industry folks, and supporters of music? What are the challenges surrounding the term? What about this topic makes it compelling to begin with? Nine musicians from diverse backgrounds tackled these complex questions. In typical Music District fashion, we took the task past mere theoretical conversation and brought it to the real world via an improv experiment. As a truly improvisational experience, including some “whoops” and “uh-oh,” these strangers came together to meld their talents and fill the Living Room with musical wonder.

The Stars of the night:

  • Bianca Mikahn: Denver-based Hip Hop artist and poet, a Partner at Artist Youth on Record, and musician with The Maybe So’s, Westword Music Showcase Nominee for best experimental band 2018.
  • The Piano Puzzler and Off the Hook Arts Artistic Director Bruce Adolphe
  • Grammy-winning Triptych jazz violinist Zach Brock
  • Laniece Schleicher, vocalist for Mama Lenny and the Remedy and several other Northern Colorado bands
  • Cory Clarke and Cody Marsden of Kind Dub, a hip-hop duo based in Fort Collins
  • Jordan Pasquin, percussionist, session drummer, and instructor returning to Fort Collins after completing his studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.
  • Surprise Guest: Rapasa Nyatrapasa, singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and contemporary dancer hailing from Kenya attended this event playing his traditional Kenyan Nyatiti. Rapasa was a 2017 OneBeat Fellow (learn more about their stay at the Music District last fall).

Moderator: Alia Goldfarb, a Music District staff member hailing from Switzerland, vocalist, and vocal instructor

Sonic Outcomes:

Our philosophical deep-dive brought us to some interesting findings, and for the sake of the reader’s precious time, I will keep it down to just three points:

1) Applying clever and to-the-point genres to describe your sound can definitely help new listeners and industry professionals find you among the thousands of other musicians putting out music every day;

2) most of our panelists agreed that how you use genres to market your sound directly correlates with how your shows may get booked (or not) and how much you may get paid;

3) In reality, you can make up what your “genre” is called and get pretty close to a clever description of your sound. However, without actually hearing your music, people still won’t really know what you sound like. Indeed, many of the panelists felt the future of our labeling system lies in the world beyond the traditional boxes and in the world of fusion or blending and crossing style: “Beyond Genre.”

Given that our guests hailed from such diverse background, their opinions did differ at times, allowing for productive insights to arise. Bianca Mikahn spoke to her experience as someone who produces work that most often lies squarely between or across genres. Rapasa briefly touched on the fact that genre and genre systems feel and are understood differently in different cultures, citing his upbringing in Kenya. Kind Dub spoke to the significance of celebrating your roots regardless of how your work changes over time. Conclusively, it must also be noted that our work is influenced by cultural heritage, race, class, and gender. Music and self-expression do not emerge in a vacuum.  Ultimately, the core of their music is an individual expression.

Musicians play in a semi-circleWe put these ideas into practice. The musicians from the panel as well as a few audience members took the stage for the improv experiment lead by Bruce Adolph. It was the vast skillset of the musicians that allowed them to utilize a shared language and create music together despite them never having worked together.  It was particularly remarkable to see Rapasa, who plays the Kenyan Nyatiti, finding a place within this soundscape. The experiment demonstrated how skilled musicians with an open mind and heart can easily blend with rap flows, jazz riffs on keys, shredding licks on the guitar, the picking on the Nyatiti, and DJ’s scratching (among other tunes). And yes, despite all their active listening skills and collaborative spirit, there were occasional flawed moments, humanizing the event further. It is a raw way to work and any “oops” moments were quickly forgiven or even woven into the experience.

So, what do you think? How can we move beyond genres and should we? At its core, can we connect through music as a – dare I say it – “universal language?”