Beyond Categories
Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The legendary Duke Ellington, a favorite composer of mine, coined this phrase “beyond categories” to describe his music.  This is an idea that I believe all musicians should consider each and every time we pick up our instruments.  Without the “attractive gloss,” as Duke describes it, of labels on our music, we are free to hear it without any preconceptions distracting us from what’s really there.

As performers, composers, improvisers, or teachers, it is important for us to always think artistically.  We must not get caught in the traps and pigeonholes too frequently offered by the music industry.  Ellington writes in his book Music is My Mistress, “Categories are sometimes used as a crutch for a weak artistic ability to lean on.”  If jazz always sounded like jazz, how would it ever evolve?  If a violinist always performs a certain concerto flawlessly but without any personality, why should we listen to that particular violinist?

Categories can inhibit creative thinking and squelch the imagination.  As Ellington writes, “a categorist must be loyal to his category.”  It is not the role of the musician to label his music.  A true artist has a clear viewpoint and will not allow the boundaries of categories diminish the message of his art.

The satisfaction and enjoyment one can get from listening to a piece of music without trying to label it I believe is akin to the excitement a child feels when pretending in his back yard.  Around every corner there are new unexplored adventures waiting to be discovered.  To quote Duke once more, “There are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.”



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