What I Learned from Chilly Gonzales

The other week I met, played for and hugged Chilly Gonzales, a man whom 24 hours previously I did not know existed but of whom I am now an avid fan. Attending his gig with the Kaiser Quartet and their masterclass the following day has changed the way I think about music. Here is how.

1. I learned that maybe genre doesn’t exist. 

I turned up to this gig not knowing what to expect. The stage set gave me no help. Gonzo sat at the piano in a bathrobe and slippers. The string quartet sat in a row next to the piano in dress suits. And behind the string quartet was a drum kit. Now of what genre is this concert?! The answer – simultaneously all and none.

Gonzo’s latest CD, Chambers, on which this gig was mainly based, echoes artists as disparate as Faure, Philip Glass, Juicy J, Bach, Haydn, Daft Punk, Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Clean Bandit, John Adams, and Moby, at least to my ears. Even Gonzo’s body language covers different genres. His performance of “White Keys” initially evoked Einaudi, and then with the move to the lower register came significant head banging, evoking rock music. He did a similar thing in another piece, this time accompanied by jumping up and down in his seat.

The juxtaposition of different genres on one album, on one stage, in one gig turns one’s preconceptions about genre on their head. Do we say that Gonzo’s music spans many different genres? Or that his music is genreless? Or maybe, as he encourages us to think, neither – because genre doesn’t exist.

‘Genre is overrated,’ he says. Rather than subscribe to the ‘genre ideology’, he believes in ‘musical humanism’: just as humans are more alike than we are different, so too is music, since all music comments on music that already exists. Therefore, genre does not have ‘musical meaning’. However, it does have ‘social meaning’. Hence why one finds it slightly disconcerting to hear the cellist from the Kaiser Quartet play an extract from a Brahms symphony before Gonzo and the quartet perform the heavily pop-influenced “The Grudge”. And why one is taken aback when Gonzo compares Wagner to Kanye West. But hey, why can’t two genres, or rather two ‘social meanings’, be placed side by side in one song, in one sentence?

Since genre is the ‘social meaning of music’, Gonzo believes that the next musical movement will not be determined musically, but socially. He believes that ‘we always get the music we deserve’. Hence why we currently have rap music. ‘Rap is the most important music of our time’; it is the ‘distorted mirror we need to look at ourselves and not our heads’. Gonzo made a point about how he strives to ‘embody his time’, including all the nasty elements: public selfishness, over-sharing, fame-seeking. ‘You’re laughing but this is our culture!’ (As a fan of political songs, I was a bit miffed as to why he doesn’t strive to change the nasty elements of his time…but anyway.)

And I proved Gonzo right. When Gonzo asked at the masterclass, ‘Is anyone here a composer?’, one woman put her hand up; she was a singer-songwriter. Why hadn’t I as a fellow singer-songwriter put my hand up? Because my brain had not recognised that a ‘singer-songwriter’ is a ‘composer’. Because we are made to think that a ‘composer’ writes classical music and a ‘singer-songwriter’ writes popular music, and of course those are two very different genres so no one can be both. But that’s not so. The distinction between the two is a mere social construct. See how genre is the ‘social meaning of music’?

2. Don’t dis music because it appears repetitive or unoriginal. 

‘A hit song wouldn’t be a hit song if it was actually monotonous.’ So don’t be afraid to like repetitive or seemingly “unoriginal” music. Don’t have ‘guilty pleasures’, because they should not be guilty. ‘Never apologise for liking something.’ If a song gives you an emotional result, then you like that song. Don’t apologise for liking it. ‘Taste is its own validator.’

3. Gonzo even taught the audience some music theory, music history and musicology 

He pointed out an Eb minor chord. He discussed the difference between major (‘false optimism’, ‘the key of kings and queens’, ‘tells us that the kingdom is happy’) and minor (‘to express melancholy; ‘expresses the darkness of my soul’). He discussed the history of the string quartet, describing this chamber group as ‘the world’s most expensive sampler’ and highlighting the fact that it has been used as a rhythm section from the 1700s (as in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik) right up until the 21st century (as in Clean Bandit), being pushed to its rhythmic limits in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. And talking of the Rite of Spring, he said, do you notice how there is a chorus built into the Sacrificial Dance? See how classical music and pop music are one and the same?!

Gonzo even touched on the controversial composer-performer-listener hierarchy, albeit surreptitiously, by involving the audience in the performance and thus distorting the hierarchy. He taught us a riff to hum to one of his songs. He invited us to rap along in our heads to his performance of “Sample This”, which he describes as an ‘open invitation’ to rappers to sample his track. (Come back to this blog in 10 years and see if I haven’t sampled it!) He encouraged us to clap and whoop more (‘We’re giving it 100%, so you’re not allowed to give it just 65%!’). And it was us who demanded an encore (“Take Me To Broadway”).


Conclusion: Chilly Gonzales is a phenomenal musician. 5 stars. Now to buy and learn his Solo Piano books.

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