In Defense of “Crossover”

After posting that last blog post about 5 really cool jazz-classical hybrid albums, there was a little twitter dustup about the use of the term “crossover.” Upon seeing the post, composer and co-founder of New Amersterdam Records Judd Greenstein asked whether jazz people were ok with the term “crossover,” adding that he only uses the term in basketball. Guitarist Joel Harrison (he of the Paul Motian compositions with strings album) seemed to chafe at that characterization as well, adding his own quip about crossing the street without getting hit by a “speeding style.” The dustup seemed to die pretty quickly though, and I didn’t feel the need to open up a bigger conversation about the term.

However, after sitting in on a talk with composer and other co-founder of New Amsterdam Records Sarah Kirkland Snider, the debate about the term resurfaced in my mind. In her insightful presentation, Snider talked about her development as a composer and how one learns to bring all of one’s disparate musical influences to bare. It was fascinating to see how her own music gradually expanded its stylistic reach, culminating in her stunning song cycle “Penelope,” (an album that sits at the top of my iTunes most played list. Also, Ted Poor is a monster). She characterized the New Amsterdam label as a community where composers are free to present music with a full range of influences, but without a sense of “crossover.”

And the bells started going off in my head.

It seems that for Snider, Greenstein, and a lot of the composers and performers in their circles, “crossover” has become a loaded term, similar to how “jazz” has become a loaded term to “BAM” proponents like trumpeter Nicholas Payton. String player/vocalist/composer Caleb Burhans lends some insight into why many contemporary classical artists are uncomfortable with the term “crossover,” saying that, “About ten years ago, we’d probably be called ‘crossover,’ but that means that we’re actually crossing over from something, and I feel that most composers that I’m working with aren’t actually crossing anywhere–they’re just staying true to what they do.” From this, we can gather that reason number 1 that “crossover” is a disliked term because it suggests a musical process that is self-conscious and therefore in some way dishonest, rather than the intense sincerity that Snider, Greenstein, and others prize.

I feel another reason why the term can seem so loaded to many musicians is what kind of music is famously characterized as crossover. You hear “crossover” thrown around with relatively silly acts like the violinist Nigel Kennedy or the Spice-Girls-cum-String-Quartet “Bond,” or even less silly projects like Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Since the music of New Amsterdam’s community of composers and performers sounds nothing like these groups and because many groups of this stereotypical “crossover” ilk don’t have a reputation for seriousness, it is logical that they would try to dissociate themselves from the word.

Despite these perfectly acceptable arguments for keeping the term at arms-length, I find that “crossover” can still be a useful descriptor when used in context (making it clear that it’s not just a shorthand for Nigel Kennedy’s music) and that the quest to discourage its usage is problematic.

First, let’s begin with how crossover can be a useful term. Every musician belongs to many different communities. Let’s use guitarist Bryce Dessner for the purposes of this thought experiment. Dessner is part of the Brooklyn Indie Rock community through his band The National and collaborations with singers like Antony Hegarty. He’s also part of the Bang on a Can and New Amsterdam communities, stemming from the communities he was a part of while a student at the Yale School of Music. While all of his musical ideas come from a singular mind, these ideas find their expression in different ways. Some of these expressions work well on a big stage in front of a large, loud crowd. Some work well in a small concert hall with a quiet audience. Some expressions work well in both contexts – they cross over the spacial and social divides associated with different kinds of music. The way that many pieces by Greenstein, Snider, and their peers work in different contexts can be described as crossover.

This inability to be confined by a single performance context is the kind of crossover I was talking about in my previous piece. What made the five groups good examples of jazz/classical crossover projects is how they can work equally well in a more casual club setting (I’ve seen the Kneebody and Joel Harrison projects in this way) or in a more formal concert setting. They’re all examples of music that can stand on its own as a solitary listening experience, or interact with its environment in real time. To be clear, it’s the music that’s crossing over contextual divides, rather than the musicians crossing over arbitrary genre boundaries. I think this is an important distinction that helps divorce “crossover” from its negative associations.

But even if crossover is still an imperfect descriptor, attempting to squash it out can backfire. At its best, the quest to rid contemporary classical music writing of “crossover” is a way for musicians to take control of how their music is described, better mediating the interaction with new listeners. At its worst, it comes off as terribly smug, suggesting that the user of the word doesn’t really know what he or she is listening to. For a group of musicians that has pushed back against the modernist view of musician/listener relations, the New Amsterdam-ites ironically sound like latter day Babbitts – because you call it “crossover” you must not be able to understand the music. I feel that pieces like Greenstein’s “Change” and Snider’s “Penelope” are modern classics, and inspirations for my own writing. Calling it “crossover” or “alt/indie-classical” isn’t going to sap the pieces of their intrinsic strength and beauty.

Describing music is a terribly imperfect science and in a sense, all genre names are bad because they focus on homogenous rather than unique aspects of a piece of music. The only really effective means of classifying one’s own music is to come up with a smart, terse, descriptive phrase – Darcy James Argue’s “steampunk big band” is a prime example. These names, whether artist-sanctioned or not, are just convenient, shorthand ways of telling someone about a piece of music you liked. If someone uses “crossover” or “jazzy” or any other potentially loaded word in the name of sharing good music, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

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