Some of my successful works have been inspired by artists such as System of a Down, Gabriel Kahane, and various progressive rock bands. I mention this because these figures tend to exemplify drastic changes in tone and mood, in addition to stylistic fusion. System of a Down juxtaposes quiet, melancholy, clean-tone song passages with violent, dark, extremely rhythmic, and chaotic scenes. Gabriel Kahane blends singer-songwriter, classical composer, jazz artist, and other titles to become a-stylistic–i.e. nearly impossible to “nail down” as to his style and role in music. Progressive rock is known for fusing rainbow-like colors of tone, mood, style, and breaks in flow mid-song.
Stylistic pluralism involves the juxtaposition, transition, blending, and collaboration with multiple styles, moods, genres, formal elements, tempos, and other unexpected shifts within a single composition. It is a strong technique because it provides listeners with refreshing and engaging shifts of perspective.
Cultural pluralism in itself is the idea that multiple, smaller groups of people, societies, and worldviews (whether they be beliefs, cultures, socioeconomic statuses, political ideals, etc.) coexist, contribute to, and constitute the larger global culture. I am defining stylistic pluralism in an artistic context–that like the disparate constituents of society function as a broader global “swath” in typical pluralism, stylistic pluralism treats different artistic perspectives as constituents of the global art collective, each integrated into the global culture and feeding off each other’s strengths.
How does stylistic pluralism work within a composition?
There are several ways that stylistic pluralism can work within a composition:
- Contrast to the context in which a work is expected to participate
The placing of two or more styles back-to-back, often with jarring contrasts and little transitional material (if any) is an effective way of using stylistic pluralism to create listener engagement, the breakup of monotony, and the escaping of genre. For example, take a listen to “Symptom of the Universe” by Black Sabbath. It is a rocking, dark, and heavy metal tune, with atypical harmonies between the guitar and Ozzy Osbourne’s singing, leading to a rapid-fire guitar solo. However, it quickly transitions to a quasi-modal-flamenco-jazz section at 4:23 that finishes out the piece. This adds great contrast to the work, and contextualizes the dark first two-thirds of the song to mean “something” other than just a dark, headbanging tune that scares the listener on at least one level.
The question of “what exactly is this?” can be the result of a polystylistic listening experience. When one has a really hard time pinning down the style, genre, or other big compartmentalization that we as humans create in order to make sense of the world, one knows that the polystylism is successful.
A great example of this is the final track to Kendrick Lamar’s album “To Pimp a Butterfly”. The track, entitled “Mortal Man”, follows the tradition of R&B and rap, and yes, we know that Lamar is an amazing rap artist and musician all-around (his Pulitzer is very well-deserved), but what exactly is this track?
Is the first section, blending atmospheric voices, jazz figurations, rap, narrative fading out around the five-minute mark, rap? Is it R&B? Is it soundscape? Is it narrative?
Is the section that follows a conversation? A story? A speech? A rap? A call to action? A religious proclamation of sorts? A cry for revolution?
I just do not know. And that is one of the many beautiful aspects of the track, and of the album as a whole.
It is so easy to point to Charles Ives when discussing this, so I will stay away from his work. At the risk of angering those who love this band, I urge the reader to hear me out: I will use as the example for this section the band Greta Van Fleet’s tune “Black Smoke Rising”. Yes, they imitate Led Zeppelin, but I don’t think it is as cheap an imitation as the word typically implies. Typical imitation implies that someone is attempting to do something someone else did, sometimes poorly or sarcastically. Greta Van Fleet does not imitate Led Zeppelin, but instead the band creates their own sound reminiscent of blues-band-era Led Zeppelin and early Rush. (My personal opinion is that they may be riding one of the endless waves of nostalgia that comes along, but for now their music is pleasing to listen to.)
Contrast to the context in which a work is expected to participate
There are a lot of cheap ways to give shock value to music and generate ticket sales and press attention. For example, electric guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen performs with a symphony orchestra. It is cool at first, but is ultimately a bit of a stunt.
But, contrast to an expected/typical context is a technique that really can work. Some of the great advances in music have been drawing new music into existing contexts–just not the contexts in which they would normally be received. For better examples than Malmsteen, I love to look at Osvaldo Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos. Fusing Latin American and African musical styles, the work presents a passion as an homage to J.S. Bach in the concert hall. The homage to a European classical music giant, in a European Catholic tradition, in the traditional European context of a concert hall, but done in the style of Latin and African culture mixed with a bit of minimalism, upends the traditions typically upheld in Western art music. By putting new, fresh work into the stodgy context one typically assumes of classical music (an unfortunate assumption, of course), this work’s polystylism is effective and is on my list of repeats on Spotify, accompanying my Nick Johnston, Dream Theater, and Shostakovich. Take a listen:
Stylistic Pluralism – Where next?
In the end, pluralism is the supporting of a more global culture. In this way, it is good to have honed, perfected ideals of genre and style, but in the end they must support and fuse to the whole at some level. This nature of the disparate fulfilling one musical purpose is one of the main reasons I adore stylistically plural music, and why I attempt to write it. With the ubiquity of ubiquity (i.e. the age of the internet), stylistic plurality is emerging as more and more viable–and more and more essential–in our artistic community. In this era of change and unrest, it is becoming even more evident that not only is stylistic plurality a musical phenomenon: it is a political statement. Consider the political nature of your music when writing it, whether you are stylistically plural or not. Whether you realize it or not, every note contributes to the pluralistic musical community in which we live.