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8 October 2015

The Cosmopolitan Composer

Genre synthesis as normative strategy

Michael Knopf Image: Michael Knopf  

Composer-guitarist Michael Knopf's interest in cross-genre creativity has its roots in his own, varied musical life experiences. Rock, blues and folk music of his early adolescent years made way for pursuing mainstream jazz, classical guitar repertoire and contemporary art music at university. Subsequently, he has developed an interest in playing flamenco. Much of his own work draws on cross-genre and cross-cultural experiments, and his compositions range from jazz pieces to solo and chamber music works, sacred choral music, and large choral and orchestral works. His current projects include a new piece for the Queensland Youth Orchestra, a duo work for flute and piano, and an album of spontaneous improvisations on guitar. Michael Knopf wrote his doctoral thesis, in 2011, on style and genre synthesis in music composition - in this essay, he reflects on the related concept of 'the cosmopolitan composer'.

…it is my belief that our generation will be concerned quite as much with synthesis as with discovery… and perhaps even more so. (Boulez 1986 p. 177)

The use of music borrowings from other cultures, and from the past, has been a common occurrence in Western music. In the 21st century, this seems more the case. The influence of global media, the ease of travel and the availability of a colossal amount of information on the internet ensure that musical expressions and compositional strategy need no longer be strictly confined to any particular regional society or specific musical tradition. The use of historical music and cross-cultural and cross-genre borrowing is now more easily researched and executed, pointing to a developing cosmopolitan approach to composing new music. This essay discusses the use of music genre and convention as an acceptable and normal operational strategy in contemporary compositional practice.

The synthesis of historical genre and culturally based musical elements in a new composition can be a path of discovery, the aims of which can be seen as fitting into two broad categories. Firstly, the specific use of genre elements in a composition can result in a familiar resonance - a recognisable cultural reference achieved through the use of those elements specific to, or in association with, a type of historical or cultural music practice. Depending on the listener, genre and style elements possess defining signals that can convey meaning for the recognition of the familiar, and represent the area where 'tradition bestows …a partial form of identification' (Bhabha, 1994, p. 5).

Zagros by Michael Knopf, performed here by the composer,
uses an array of styles from Persian modes to Flamenco. (YouTube)

Musical genre and style conventions hold 'nothing less than the premises of an age' (McClary, 2000, p. 6), and though these genre signifiers occur as definitive within their original context, they also exist as extractable ideas and musical elements. A contemporary composer may use these in other contexts that offer complimentary or conflicting uses of genre-based music ideas. This approach may be seen as using disparate musical entities for psychological or social purposes of partial genre evocation. But the concern of the contemporary art-music composer is not necessarily to communicate a genre message as this assumes the audience is genre-ready for what it expects from the new composition.

Secondly, existing musical conventions, elements, or even entire traditions, can act as catalysts for idea and sources of new experimental material. When conventions of the familiar or the exotic are adopted and adapted, the realm of idea is expanded, providing the means to broaden musical expression (Schnittke 1971/2002, p. 90). A composer may wish to search genre and historical and cultural music for ideas inherent within the music: unique stylisms, processes or instrumental or vocal techniques, each of which broadens the palette of sound available to the composer. Thus the composer is not usually intending to write music authentic to any other culture or historical period, but uses style and genre derivatives, combined with new ideas and personal practice, to transform the old into something original.

Whatever the case, the composer and listener both receive an initiation into a new aesthetic reality, either as an extension of an existing genre, or as a poly-genre synthesis and/or within a new individual artwork so unique as to be a genre on its own. This latter is, of course, not a new concept and was indeed a goal for many modernist composers of the 20th century who sought a path of personal discovery rather than confirming tradition or even attempting synthesis of established forms. McClary (2000 p. 2-7) thought that this pursuit demonstrated a tendency to cultivate an aversion to musical convention in the search for a subjective and personal musical identity that 'transcends signification.' In this view, conventions are seen as being 'ossified' and as 'betraying a lack of imagination' (ibid.).

Often, the modernist composer sought invention and discovery by creating musical analogues of systems from science, mathematics and nature, or by pursuing concepts of musical ideas that were seen as purely musical. However, the idea of something being purely musical, unaffected by history or social constraint, is naive when one considers the presence of the artist within the artwork. Any musician, almost anywhere, is influenced in some manner by varied musical cultures with their forms, ideas and expressions.

The use of conventions from historical or cultural provenance in composition does not preclude seeking an original voice, though there does exist a tension between convention and invention in any composer's creativity. Synthesis of characteristic genre and style elements in composing, then, is not rehearsing the old. Rather, it points to a prominent path of discovery in the awareness of an immense choice of what is often exotic material. The use of convention, McClary tells us (2000 p. 141), does not have to signal a 'return to the safety of time-honored clichés', as 'many composers use elements recognisable to a substantial community of listeners… in a public arena where interpretation is actively invoked'.

Using genre conventions allows composers to engage audiences (and their own creative workings) with a variety of material that may resonate well with listeners yet provoke very different responses from the original element. A composer appropriates and transforms (Demers 2006, p. 8) genre or cultural-based musical material so that the content is altered from its original signification or musical function - its previous resonance may now be perceived differently due to its new context. The convention is used unconventionally. In such an instance, the foreground of varied genre signs and the background of formal structure are fused and a new musical identity is achieved.

The composer who embraces synthesis does not wish to reproduce a model from the past, but to realise the enormous and wonderful implications and the musical possibilities that the contemporary artist inherits from global artistic heritage. The decision to experiment with historical genre and cross-cultural conventions is not evidence of any presumed incapacity to create the new, but is a vertical (historical) and horizontal (cultural) path of exploration to discover new meaning through synthesis, the result being a productive path where the disparate parent elements (Khartomi 1981, p. 229) are no longer the primary concern.

Kwame A. Appiah's book on cosmopolitanism (2006) offers a valuable discussion on how cross-cultural interchange occurs. One of the concepts he presents that can be transferrable to the arts is his use of the term 'contaminators' (Appiah 2006, p.111-112) applied to those who borrow from other cultures in cultural or artistic activity. Cosmopolitanism is a process, he argues, that 'was invented by contaminators whose migrations were solitary' (ibid). This points to the important fact that individual actions, especially in culture and the arts, are responsible for generative syncretism. Though this refers specifically to broader changes in the clash or merging of societies, it works equally well as a productive attitude in music-making.

The contemporary composer, whose modus operandi includes genre synthesis across cultural and historical frontiers, can thus be said to be cosmopolitan. Appiah cites the ancient North-African dramatist Publius Terence Afer as saying 'I am human: nothing human is alien to me' (ibid). The composer, as contaminator, creates music that reveals unique distillations of appropriated musical material of varied provenance, all transformed by the composer's inner workings and the new context of the composition.

To use convention as if we lived in the past is obviously not living in the present. This is anachronistic, and so its use is limited. But using conventions to find new consequences or implications from experimental combinations and contexts represents a living-in-the-now. Boulez saw that synthesis would be an important mode of re-interpreting and reshaping our artistic aesthetics and artistic techniques as part of a '…dialectical relationship between history and the individual…' with the 'individual in his turn refashioning history, which will never be the same…' (1986, p. 39). In embracing the musical diversity of the world as a significant part of the aesthetics of creative practice, the cosmopolitan composer's quotidian practice may become one of 'mongrelisation', as author Salman Rushdie explains, which is 'perfectly consistent with picking and choosing among the options you find in your search', where 'melange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and a bit of that' are the mechanisms into how 'newness enters the world', (Rushdie 1991, p. 394).

A cosmopolitan composer will make use of convention and tradition, but will transform and re-invent it as part of what and who he or she is in the wider context of global human heritage, and so become an aesthetic and poietic nexus where the past (the established) and the future (the discovery of the unknown) meet the culturally near and far.


Appiah, KA 2006, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, W.W. Norton, New York.

Babbha, HK 1994, The Location of Culture, Routledge, London

Boulez, P 1986, Orientations, Faber & Faber Ltd. and the President and Fellows of Harvard College (Trans.),Great Britain.

Demers, J 2006, Steal this music, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia

Khartomi, M J 1981, The process and results of musical culture contact: A discussion of terminology and concepts, Ethnomusicology. 25 (2). 227-249. Retrieved March 17, 2007, from JSTOR database.

McClary, S 2000, Conventional Wisdom University of California Press, Berkley.

Rushdie, S 1991, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981-1991, Granta Books, London.

Schnittke, A, Ivashkin, A (ed), Goodliffe, J (trans), 2002, A Schnittke Reader, Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

AMC resources

Michael Knopf - AMC profile


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