Tag: music criticism

Out of the Box: In Defense of Analog Criticism

Geeta Dayal

[Ed. note: This is our third installment of “Out of the Box.” For this series, which follows New Music USA’s tenth anniversary this past November and marks the start of our second decade, we are asking a group of deep musical thinkers to ponder what the landscape for new music will be ten years from now. We aim for this series to spark important discussions in our community as well as to raise important journalistic voices from all around the country. The previous installments of this series featured essays by University of Florida-based musicologist and bassoonist Dr. Imani Mosley and Brooklyn-based violinist and arts journalist Vanessa Ague. For our third, we asked San Francisco Bay Area-based music, art, technology and culture journalist/critic Geeta Dayal to ponder possible futures for music journalism.-FJO]

What will music journalism look like ten years from now? Will the role of the music critic be obsolete? The signs are not encouraging. Many of the best writers I know have left the field behind, embarking on more lucrative careers as lawyers, businesspeople, or professors. Many magazines and alternative weeklies across the United States have folded. Other publications have cut their staff, trying in vain to create the same publication with a fraction of the workforce, overworking the editors and writers that remain. Arts sections in newspapers are becoming thinner; freelance budgets are being slashed. For the past twenty years, I’ve continued to push forward as an arts critic and journalist despite the obstacles, because I believe that I can contribute new and useful ideas to the wider culture.

The prevailing narrative is that social media and digital streaming services have taken over the space that critics once inhabited. But I would like to present a more optimistic concept of the future, which we could build by reframing music criticism’s cultural value.

Consider that the analog revival is in full swing. In 2020, vinyl record sales surged 29% to $626 million, and that number continues to rise. Vinyl record pressing plants are overloaded, with wait times of several months to manufacture an album. Vintage analog synthesizers currently fetch eye-watering prices on auction sites like eBay. In other categories besides music, “bespoke” has become a popular buzzword, along with custom-made, tailored, and personalized. In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.

With this renewed interest in the charms of analog technology, I propose that we also renew our interest in another time-honored innovation: music writing. In this essay, I introduce the term “analog criticism.” Criticism is an art form, created by humans, not by AI. Analog criticism refers to long, perceptive essays and reviews, thoughtfully crafted by writers who have immersed themselves deeply in the field.

Spotify and other digital streaming services supply a quick fix. Users want to listen to a song, and they want it now. “If you like this, you might also like this,” these services suggest. This, in itself, is a form of criticism — automated, digital criticism, that tells you what to listen to next. This technology has made a very small number of people very rich. While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience. Earlier this year, Spotify came under fire by prominent rock bands such as My Bloody Valentine for listing wildly incorrect lyrics alongside certain songs. Most listeners probably didn’t notice, because very little context is provided to the listener, if there is any at all. The perfunctory descriptions next to the albums are basically ad copy, not serious writing. Album credits are often missing or incomplete, and entire hidden histories of music are lost in the process.

Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can’t do that; only people can. Analog criticism means presenting an articulate, persuasive argument. Analog criticism means drawing unlikely connections and doing real research. And smart, deeply felt writing builds a true connection with the reader. A lot of major publications like the Village Voice, where I got my start, were crucial forums where critics presented vibrant, intelligent arguments on a weekly basis. You felt like you knew these writers, even if you had never met them.

Mainstream magazines and newspapers have to step up, too. These days, most publications are too influenced by ad revenue, market research and page views. Their content is based around what they think people want, rather than setting a bold new agenda. It’s reactive — a defensive stance rather than an offensive one. The great magazines of the past took clear positions. They weren’t afraid of having a distinctive voice. That energy and vitality needs to come back.

Will arts sections in magazines and newspapers still exist in ten years? While there been a lot of talk about building new models for journalism, we must also put forth a strong argument for the value of arts writing, which is often given short shrift in the journalism world. In ten years, will critics still be able to find homes for serious articles on subjects outside the mainstream—and get paid enough to make a living? Crowdfunding sites are vital for sustaining writers through these uncertain times. For me, the ongoing support from readers through Patreon helps me to continue. I predict that more of these types of platforms will proliferate, giving journalists and critics new ways to fund their work.

Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music. Instead of ceding ground to streaming services and social media corporations, we should regroup and reconsider the value we bring as critics and writers. Analog criticism gives us a deeper, richer experience. The world of music, and civilization at large, deserves it.

  • In a landscape that feels increasingly automated, consumers are quite understandably in search of things that feel special.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • While streaming services might be convenient on the go, they can also lead to a diminished musical experience.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • Analog criticism means articulately explaining why you think something is worthwhile or why you don’t like something. Algorithms can't do that; only people can.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal
  • Criticism, at its best, is the highest form of respect we can pay to art or to music.

    Geeta Dayal
    Geeta Dayal

Unbound by “Programming”: A Counter-Hegemonic Reimagining of Contemporary Performance

I had meant, at least at first, to produce here an essay criticizing programs of “Music by [Insert Marginalized Community Here] Composers.” While I’m sure there are some who in their own heart of hearts find such marked categorization validating, I personally find it uncomfortable to have my utterances branded publicly as “female music” or “queer music,” the implication being that an unbranded program constitutes “real music”: music that needs no qualifier. However, this point has been articulated before better than I ever will, and perhaps more importantly, simply shaming the one practice that seems intended to help those of us whose work does not enjoy the privilege of de facto universality in our culture seemed unlikely to provoke any meaningful alternative. Moreover, in envisioning a culture of egalitarian programming–even in watching one come to fruition–I came to realize that a solution I would really like would have to be more profoundly transformative. A hegemony of Deserving Artists with a tiny handful at the top, but who equally likely happen to be women, if anything, feels like more of an exclusion than a culture of programming all men: at least, if women were never programmed, we could blame sexism entirely for our frustration, rather than be faced with the implication that we are inadequate standard-bearers for our gender.

To put it more generally, the assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to, or moreover in which there is an unequal distribution of opportunities within those who are actively working artists. We are simply in competition with each other whether presenting organizations intend this or not; scarce funding exacerbates this, but throwing money at the problem does not annihilate this fact, and I feel a degree of it would persist even if all artists were guaranteed a stable income. Rather, some disruption of the basic creative transaction is necessary: an option which does not require a composer to start her own ensemble and thereby insert herself into the decider-position.

“The assumption that opportunities come to those who deserve them is inherent in any structure in which there are fewer artists who can work than who want to.”

Can we foment a culture in which composers’ utterances are deemed valuable solely on the basis of having been uttered, regardless of hegemonic notions of musical quality? Certainly explicit competitions are out. (As a side note, when a competition specifically asks for submissions from “underrepresented groups,” this language rings severely hollow. Forcing us to compete for the privilege of being tokenized–in the event that any such applicants are selected at all–is in fact doubly insulting, and it might be worth someone’s time to conduct a thorough survey of how results actually change when such language is imposed.) I have often daydreamed about the possibility of a course evaluating applications by random lottery. But how, then, can music reach the audience-facing stage without this notion of deserving-quality backing it up?

The best course I have foreseen is a change in dismantling our listening hierarchies: really dismantling them, rather than moving the locus of deservingness from the art’s own nature to the artist’s character. What, for example, would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears? What opportunities could be created, then, for every composer and every performer and every listener to form their own aesthetic values? I don’t mean to pitch a particular type of project as much as to posit a thought experiment and offer a gentle nudge in a new direction. What I envision, were the technical and economic barriers to such a situation eliminated, is a type of free association, in which creative communities would form without deference to a Discerning Other, and in which the bounds that force us to appease pseudoaristocratic notions of taste would cease to alienate us from our own inner creative wellsprings.

“What would it look like if every work that existed were recorded equally well and given an equal chance at reaching audience’s ears?”

As for what I think you, dear reader, “should” do right now (who am I to say “should?”): remember as you evaluate that you are never without biases, and perhaps this is most especially prevalent when you attempt to abolish your biases. While it would be wonderful if we could fully sacrifice our creative urges to some sense of collective good, maintaining the illusion of such a sacrifice (and you do sacrifice your creative urge if you choose to defer to me, even willingly, even if you were to consider me particularly deserving) constitutes a dishonesty harmful both to yourself and to those you have chosen to “support.” Ultimately, at the root of all this, I say: imagine listening differently, as if you have never taken a recommendation from someone, as if you have never suffered through a “Music Appreciation” course, as if you have never read a review in any publication: as if, instead, you are simply searching for the particular combination of factors that stirs you most deeply, in this life and in this moment.

From Avid Fan to Media Fellow

A man sitting on a bench reading a newspaper

In the music world, being a fan isn’t a bad gig. Unlike musicians, you can book yourself, so to speak, at any venue you want. You don’t have to go on the road unless you want to. You can avoid promoting yourself, finding a record label, and coming up with music to play. Of course you’ll never be applauded by an audience, yet you’ll almost always be thanked for “coming out tonight” by the musicians you go to see.

  • You’ll never be applauded, yet you’ll almost always be thanked for “coming out.”

    Stan Tymorek
  • Most of my friends are music fans but have never even heard of the new music composers I’ve raved about.

    Stan Tymorek
  • John Schaefer objected to the use of “gorgeous” to describe a piece of music.

    Stan Tymorek
  • All writers could benefit from spending time in a musician's rehearsal room.

    Stan Tymorek

I’ve been enjoying these benefits of fandom for more than 50 years now. So why would I want to take on the more arduous role of writing about hard-to-describe new music, especially since I’m enjoying retirement from a career writing about other topics? It has to do with the great variety of music I’ve discovered as a fan and a basic desire to spread the word.

It was my good fortune to start listening to music seriously during the sixties, when rock and roll was developing by leaps and bounds. The shapeshifting Beatles alone showed me the surprising possibilities beyond pop, as their intentions went from holding our hands, to taking us down, to taking us away, to turning us on—all set to such precipitously changing music that in “Revolution #9” they urged us to “hold that line.”  Much has been written about expanding minds in the sixties, but the Beatles were surely expanding our ears long before the term “big ears” came to signify openness to new kinds of music.

Closer to home, in the late ‘70s my neighbor in Evanston, Illinois, was the multi-instrumentalist and composer Howard Levy. Howard is a virtuoso harmonica player and one of the original members of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as well as a student and performer of music from other cultures. With some neighbors, you have to ask them to turn down their music; with Howard, you asked about what he was playing and got an enlightening tutorial.

Inside my own home, my son Sam started playing viola and composing music at age six, and later went on to get a master’s degree in electronic music composition. Sam not only introduced me to new music composers such as Steve Reich and Harry Partch, but he was my partner at adventurous performances where friends feared to tread.

If fans can be evaluated quantitatively by measures like how many performances they attend and how far they travel to do so, then, like every child in Lake Wobegon, I’m above average.  But I’ve also worked on the quality of how I listen to music. I’ve aspired to what Ben Ratliff has called listening “with purpose.” In his book Every Song Ever, Ratliff describes this as paying “just enough attention to it (music) so that it could change our lives,” and posits that “listening is a creative act, and at a certain point it, too, can be virtuosic—if you develop a heightened sensitivity to current and past standards of excellence.”

As a professional writer, I’ve always tried to learn from other writers whose work I’ve admired. In music, I have looked to Ratliff and The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross to school me. You could say I’m a fan of both men. But in addition to their writing chops, I’ve also envied how much more these two pros get out of the music than I do. Could trying to articulate just what excited me about a piece help make me a better listener?

What’s more, I’m motivated to write about music for a more generous reason. Most of my friends are music fans but have never even heard of the new music composers I’ve raved about, like Phil Kline, Adams (both John and John Luther), and Terry Riley. I started to resent all the media attention that just a small percentage of music makers have garnered, and wanted to correct this imbalance.

Then there’s the undeniable fact that new music is much more interesting to me than the products like mattress pads, clothing, and nametags that I had to write about as a catalog and internet copywriter. Earlier this year, my transition to music writer got a big boost from a coincidence that John Cage, the great consulter of the I-Ching, would have appreciated. For the first time, Bang on a Can—the original and most thrilling new music organization I’d discovered—was offering a media workshop for writers during their annual summer festival at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. In past years, I had made the trek from my home in Wisconsin to the MASS MoCA event several times. Now I would spend a week hanging out with the composers who founded Bang on a Can, the six-member Bang on a Can All-Stars who played such great music, and dozens of young music and composition “Fellows” from around the world learning and performing every day. It was a fan’s dream come true!

Yet the pinch-me quality of my time with Bang on a Can was tempered by the real demands of the workshop. Since there were only four of us Media Fellows, our writing received close attention from our instructors—John Schaefer, the host and producer of WNYC’s radio popular series New Sounds, and William Robin, a musicologist who teaches at the University of Maryland and is a contributor to The New York Times and The New Yorker.

John and Will critiqued our daily pieces about music performed at the festival and made suggestions for revisions con brio.  John in particular objected to the use of “gorgeous” to describe a piece of music, saying it’s overused and too vague. (I’ll never be able to see this word in print without thinking of his disdain for it.) Both instructors stressed that even the short articles (400-600 words) we were writing should tell an involving story. One memorable example was their reaction to a profile I wrote about one of the composition fellows in which I noted the fellow’s earlier volunteer work translating for victims of torture just in passing. Even though this experience didn’t involve music, fleshing it out would have revealed more about his personality and could be interesting to the reader. At the same time, “Tighten up the structure of the piece” was a refrain I heard throughout the week. New music composers experimented with all manner of nonlinear forms, but their music was best described by well-organized prose.

Although my fellow Fellows in the media seminar were considerably younger, I came to accept that I could learn from their writing. After all, seasoned composers don’t turn a deaf ear to a Mozart masterpiece just because he wrote it at an age when they were in grad school. On example was this clear, informative excerpt from piece by Maggie Molloy, editor at Second Inversion radio station in Seattle, on composer Eve Beglarian’s Play Like A Girl: “The unusual collection of timbres made for a modern take on the distinctively close harmonies of Bulgarian folk music, with a restless stream of piano and glockenspiel melodies circling above a growling synth drone. While the driving rhythms propelled the piece closer to the world of minimalism, the more subtle modal ornaments embodied the emotive folk traditions of Eastern Europe.”

I also learned that all writers could benefit from spending time in a musician’s rehearsal room like the one where I revised my articles at MASS MoCA. “OK, let’s try it again,” an ensemble leader said for the fifth time in about as many minutes.  Then once more I heard the frantic jangle of strings, a piano, other percussion instruments, and a soprano singing staccato syllables. I realized that writers aren’t the only ones who have to do their work over and over to get it just right, and was very impressed by how quickly musicians do their kind of revising.

So now when I begin writing a third or fourth draft of an article on new music, I’ll say to myself, “OK, let’s take it from the top—just like the musicians who are even cooler than music writers.”

In Defense of Jazz

Jazz, once revered as America’s classical music, has come in for a beating lately at the hands of popular culture. A music with its origins in the poorest enclaves of American society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz rose to become a symbol first for a kind of celebration in the face of oppression, then a renegade cool, and—increasingly—an intellectual richness and artistry. How did it go from that august status to one where it exists in the imagination of American popular culture simply to be mocked?

How did jazz go from its august status to one where it exists in the imagination of American popular culture simply to be mocked?

The trend may have begun with The Simpsons, whose creator is a musician himself, and whose portrait of jazz is, if often critical, nonetheless loving. One of the main characters, second-grader Lisa, is a baritone saxophone player and jazz aficionado. One episode features a scene at a record store, complete with detailed renderings of jazz album covers in the background from Coltrane, Dolphy, and even Carla Bley. Yet in that same episode (wherein Lisa’s mother has to pay one of Lisa’s friends to go listen to jazz with her), and throughout that series’ long life, there have been many barbs directed at jazz, from comments like Bart’s grumbling “no one actually likes jazz that much—even the guy playing it had to take drugs” to the motto of the local jazz station: “154 Americans Can’t Be Wrong.”

A somewhat harsher reproof came on September 20, 2006, with Stephen Colbert’s parody of John Zorn. Zorn had just won the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” and Colbert played a clip of one of Zorn’s more abstract flights on saxophone, followed by himself trying to make some sounds on the horn. Finding (as one would) the results not dissimilar, Colbert defiantly holds out his hand and, looking squarely at the camera, says “Genius Grant, Please!”

Some years later there came the out-of-nowhere broadside on an episode of the TV series The Office, in which one of the characters is sitting on a park bench with another, a woman who is upset and feeling stupid. Her sympathetic co-worker, trying to assuage her, ventures a non sequitur: “You’re not stupid…jazz is stupid.” To which she responds, “I know. Jazz IS stupid!” Sobbing, she continues, “Just…play the right notes!”

Even the comic genius Jack Black, married into jazz royalty as the son-in-law of storied jazz bassist Charlie Haden, got in on the act, devoting an entire album—an entire album, released on Columbia records no less!—to a humorous takedown of jazz. The two 20-minute tracks feature Black’s guitar noodling over an up-tempo rhythm section while he sort of sprechstimmes an absurdist rant about jazz, along the way mocking the emptiness of aimless improvisation and the genre’s inherent unpopularity.

In the blogosphere things have not been much better. A wickedly sarcastic blog appeared not long ago called jazzistheworst, intending to expose the current state of the music as one in which supposedly deep but actually intellectually arid musicians with an overly inflated opinion of their cultural worth are awarded grants of great financial magnitude, so that they might play for a vanishingly tiny audience of mostly music students. The blog is not as far from the jazz mainstream as one might think/hope—it is avidly followed by such important figures of today’s jazz world as Christian McBride, who seem sympathetic to its ideas.

Things really came to a head with the 2014 New Yorker piece entitled “Sonny Rollins: In his Own Words,” wherein Sonny Rollins, supposedly speaking for himself, regrets his wasted life, saying that he hates jazz music and that Miles Davis felt the same, among other things. “Jazz is the stupidest thing anyone ever came up with” is among the lines.

This strange, not-very-successful satire really got the juices flowing among jazz lovers. Much to the surprise of the writer (a part of what one might call Generation Onion, who take for granted a subgenre of spoof written from the perspective of a public figure imagined to be saying things they would never actually say), there were many jazz fans who simply didn’t get the joke.

So The New Yorker later published a disclaimer stating that the article was a work of satire (indeed, the piece being not that funny didn’t help the confusion).  Various pundits weighed in, some supporting the article and saying that jazz had lost its sense of humor, some saying that a Great American Art Form had been gratuitously slandered.

These may seem like isolated incidents, but they are not the only examples in an alarming pattern of offhand derision and dismissal of jazz in popular culture. Why are these media denizens suddenly picking on jazz? What does it mean?


Jazz-man by Enrique Domínguez (a porcelain figurine of a tuxedoed musician playing a double bass) www.flickr.com/photos/darkdruid/

“Jazz-man” by Enrique Domínguez

1. What’s Wrong with Jazz?

Jazz has been an art form in perpetual evolution, since its most embryonic appearances in the late 19th century. However, things changed significantly in the genre in the late 1960s, for three principal reasons: first was jazz’s growing awareness of itself as a capital-A Art form and the concomitant rise of an avant-garde wing of the music; second was the beginnings of jazz education, from play-along tapes to university programs, which marked the entrance of jazz, formerly a music taught through a kind of apprenticeship system, into the academy; and third and not least was Beatle-mania and the ascendance of rock ‘n’ roll, which precipitated jazz’s traumatic loss of cultural dominance.  The rise of jazz fusion, an attempt for jazz to regain its footing in the popular imagination, which, despite generating some interesting music, was overall not a wholly successful enterprise.

Avant-garde jazz, whose formation was nourished by the political changes and general freedom zeitgeist of the ‘60s, did not, by and large, share the intellectual substrate of much avant-garde classical music, where freedom was nonetheless constrained and wholly governed by invisible and inaudible—but no less real—compositional techniques. An effort to find freedom through emphasis on improvisation and tonally exotic playing was created and then sustained by some immensely strong musical personalities—first mavericks like Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, then more centrist, galvanizing figures like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. With Coltrane’s death and Miles’s departure into fusion, and then from the scene generally, there was a vacuum at the top that was too often filled by epigones who profited from their associations with these masters to purvey what often amounted to a brand of musical snake oil.

With Coltrane’s death and Miles’s departure into fusion, and then from the scene generally, there was a vacuum at the top…

Meanwhile, jazz fusion and its commercial descendant smooth jazz, occasionally rising to the levels of popularity that were unknown since the days of Armstrong and Ellington, met with derision and scorn from the jazz establishment itself. This backlash was itself not sufficiently interrogated, as Columbia jazz scholar Chris Washburne has noted. After all, Miles Davis himself never went back to acoustic music after his initial experiments with jazz-rock in the late 1960s. But it’s difficult to argue that most smooth jazz has the musical sophistication and nobility of spirit of the greatest jazz that came before it.

As the ’70s rolled on into the ‘80s, a neo-traditionalism also emerged as a reaction to both electronic and avant-garde jazz, wherein musicians like Scott Hamilton and Harry Connick, Jr. would unabashedly attempt to re-create the jazz of an earlier time. This contributed to the perception in some quarters that jazz was a thing of the past, strictly nostalgic. And while this style of jazz continues to produce artists who are able to have strong careers (Gregory Porter and Melody Gardot would be examples), it often struggles to capture the “je ne sais quoi” of the great masters of the past that it strives to emulate and, whatever the case, it doesn’t really contribute to a sense that jazz is a vital art form, relevant to contemporary society.

A more “modern” but still ultimately traditional group of musicians worked in the aesthetic space opened up by Miles and ‘Trane in their acoustic, mid-‘60s avatars—the Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams on the one hand, and the Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. These musicians worked at codifying and building on the intellectual facets of their visionary progenitors’ work, and it was this strain that was taken up so wholeheartedly by the academy. But in the absence of the volcanic presence of its creators, the music began to feel less like a unified whole, thus more easily broken down into technical features that, in isolation, did become mockable—the way-too-long solos, the formal and harmonic obfuscation in the name of freedom, and the cascades of theory-inspired, virtuosic, but ultimately self-involved and uninteresting improvised lines that began to just sound, indeed, like a bunch of wrong notes.

The music began to feel less like a unified whole, thus more easily broken down into technical features that, in isolation, did become mockable.

As a musician coming up in jazz music in the 1990s, I was extremely sensitive to jazz’s genre-wide issues and had many more qualms than most of my peers regarding the music. Long before these pop-culture parodies emerged, it was vividly clear that jazz was not moving in a direction that would lead to broader cultural relevance. And indeed, the genre continues to thrive in largest part thanks to its increased presence in the academic context, a radical increase in foundation support, and the benefits accorded to specialist forms by the web and narrowcasting.

There are numerous reasons for this decline, socioeconomic factors perhaps foremost among them. But the jazz community does tend to treat its artists with a lack of critical distance. The great legends can do no wrong. There’s an odd defensiveness behind jazz lovers’ insistent idolization of their favorite players, as if they need protection from something. I’m convinced that this lack of critical distance has played a part in jazz’s decline. If we aren’t willing to see things as they truly are—if we aren’t willing to treat our greatest jazz musicians as human—how can the art form move forward?


Porcelain statue resembling Louis Armstrong playing a trumpet and wearing a cap that says "jazz"; image by jbarreiros https://www.flickr.com/photos/tintedglasssky/

“Jazz” by jbarreiros

2. But What’s Even More Wrong with Pop Culture Itself?

Okay, so we can all agree that jazz has problems. But does this justify the attacks to which it’s been subjected in the popular culture?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly has made me so uncomfortable with these critiques. It feels to me that in order to be critical of something you have to have something better to offer.

In order to be critical of something you have to have something better to offer.

I looked up the definition of “profound.” What makes something profound? Dictionary.com gives as its first definition “penetrating or entering deeply into subjects of thought or knowledge.” I doubt if the well-paid writers of commercial comedy shows such as those mentioned earlier, for all their talent, consider such thorough explorations of their subjects to be a goal.

This is manifest in the critiques’ lumping of jazz’s various and diverse strands under one umbrella. They necessarily gloss over the fact that there are so many varieties of jazz, each with its different strengths and foibles. Underpinning this is the idea that it’s okay to mock something one doesn’t understand. That encourages a complacency that’s completely at odds with any kind of spiritual or intellectual growth.

What all the snarky attacks on jazz have in common is a cleverer-than-thou nonsensicality. When the goal is to be nonsensical, any thought or idea is defensible. Down that path lies nihilism. Disconnected from any higher goal, unwilling to assert positive belief, much of today’s pop culture surrenders any claim to a deeper significance.

Jazz even at its worst is aiming for higher goals.

At least jazz—indeed, even at its worst!—is aiming for higher goals. Jazz music springs from a rich tradition, it is rooted in the best work of the past, and is tasked with somehow encompassing and expanding on that enormous intellectual and spiritual tradition, in a way that resonates with a culture of ever diminishing attention spans, of ever diminishing ideals.


Jazz by Lynn Allen (www.flickr.com/photos/lynnallen/)

“Jazz” by Lynn Allen

3. What’s RIGHT About Jazz?

If even the worst of jazz seeks depth and meaning in a way that quirky pop culture is at pains to avoid, the best of today’s jazz can be transcendent.

I’ve had the pleasure to work with some really wonderful artists from the jazz world, and the most successful among them—people like Luciana Souza, Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, the great drummer Jeff Ballard, Ethan Iverson of the Bad Plus—all evince an acute day-to-day concern over the pitfalls of jazz. These are not, by the way, the musicians that come in for a mocking at the hands of blogs like jazzistheworst. They take it for granted that engagement with an audience is paramount. But they also are daily trying to better themselves musically, to make the best artistic statements they can muster.

These musicians subscribe to the idea that the best art is born from a true humility, a constant opening of the senses, a constant attention to the reports of everyday experience, a constant striving for excellence, an obsession with not only craft but with wit, pathos, humor, charm, and ultimately with the highest artistic goals.

Let’s pay attention to what’s outside ourselves, and not just play for vanity.

So let’s heed the call of these pop-cultural armchair jazz critics. Let’s play shorter solos, and yes, let’s play the right notes! Let’s pay attention to what’s outside ourselves, and not just play for vanity. Let’s take a stand for what really matters, what’s really most important, let’s give only the very best of ourselves to our art. But in doing so, let’s know that we’re aiming to go way beyond those who are content to take others down by a kind of weak cynicism and a cowardly hiding behind absurdity. All of us, jazz artists and critics alike, can do better than that.

Unbroken Art

A still from the generative video engine that Bill Seaman designed for the s_traits record release concert with Wet Ink Ensemble at Pioneer Works in October 2014.

A still from the generative video engine that Bill Seaman designed for the s_traits record release concert with Wet Ink Ensemble at Pioneer Works in October 2014.

John Supko, composer:  Yes, but…how were the traces of these collaborators—the seams, as it were—obscured and for so long?

Jeffrey Edelstein, critic:  Was it because the result had one name?  Shakespeare, when there were actors and other writers; the King James Bible, when there were committees and individual scholars; Homer, when there was an oral tradition.  But Shakespeare is cooperation led by a forceful and inspired individual; the King James Bible seems a true collaboration.  The idea of collaboration has become trendy, popular and encouraged, and confused with cooperation. Composers struggle to work with other artists—making work that captivates with novel juxtapositions rather than art unbroken between two people. Do you think your creative process on s_traits was collaboration, a summation of two minds, or would you honestly describe it more as cooperation?

Supko:  Collaboration is such a personal process, this business of adding and subtracting parts of oneself in response to those of another.   I don’t see any way to talk about it that doesn’t draw from my own experience.

Edelstein:  I understand. The nature of collaboration is elusive. I was touched by the experience of seeing Einstein on the Beach and I have tried to think about how it was created.  But who did what in crafting that remarkably unified work?  The contributions of Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs seem unmistakable, and yet no element of the production stands entirely on its own.

Supko:  Exchanging ideas with a collaborator sometimes causes me to conceal my individuality.  I modulate my voice, I say things differently, I say different things.  I’m in dialog, but I’m also speaking in tandem.

Edelstein: Yes, but…surely artistic collaboration is not a simple matter of artists working together toward a singular aim.  Merce Cunningham and John Cage demonstrated that it might be something more mysterious—as I said earlier, an art unbroken between two people.

Supko:  I only know what I do when I collaborate.  When I was working with Bill Seaman on s_traits, I actively used his ideas to propel my own into uncharted waters.  The disparity in our approaches helped me to discover new ways of working. But I don’t just think of my collaborators as instruments; I compose in a way that leaves space for them to work.  I try to anticipate—even if I know I may be wrong—how a collaborator’s material will engage mine, and write in a way that invites completion.

Edelstein:  For me the result of s_traits—two composers writing one piece of music—feels tessellated and cohesive; a mosaic created by two craftsmen cognizant of the overall pattern as much as of their own expressive needs.  Is this the result of, as you say, leaving space for your collaborator?

Supko:  Yes, but…it’s not simply a question of leaving space.  There’s also the extent to which Bill and I intentionally adopted each other’s working methods and stylistic tendencies.  This mutual emulation was intentional and explicit.  We learned new ways of working from each other.

Edelstein:  Does it matter if you and Bill work together early or late in the process?

Supko:  I prefer to begin as early in the composition process as possible.  The more I can get to know, say, Bill’s way of doing things in the preliminary stages of a project, the more able I feel to respond and adapt to it.  I’m searching for complementarity:  I recognize deficiencies in my own work and collaboration is one way I try to address them.

Edelstein:  How does collaboration work in practical terms?

Supko:  Bill and I like to begin with a conversation.  We compare our thoughts and goals for the project; then we go away and work individually for a period of time.  Before too long we share our respective parts and consider how they might fit together to make a whole.  This process of blending each other’s work can be long and difficult.  It can also take many forms, from the deconstruction of musical material in order to rebuild it as a hybrid, to the decision of a final track order, as was the case with s_traits.

Edelstein: But haven’t you also involved the computer in your collaboration—in effect a third collaborator?   Is there something about the reduction of your sense of self that’s essential to the process?  Or is the anxiety of completion—of knowing if a work is finished—somehow diminished?

Supko:  I do think of myself as collaborating with the computer, with the software I designed to suggest ideas that would never occur to me otherwise.  I suppose my feelings about collaborating with the computer are similar to my feelings about collaborating with another human artist.

Edelstein: Are you saying that collaboration is a kind of liberation from the self?

Supko:  Yes, but…

Musings on the Media

Selfie w Canon

Photo by Daniel Dionne, via Flickr

I began to contemplate the relationship between composers and the media in the days and weeks after the New York Youth Symphony’s decision to pull one of their own commissioned works by New England Conservatory graduate student Jonas Tarm because of its use of the “Horst Wessel” anthem. The brouhaha that followed the decision demonstrated the specific nature of the controversy. Similar in tone, if not in scope, to the coverage of the protests against the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, the confluence of red-button topics—cultural sensitivity vs. censorship—ensured that the story would be noticed beyond the traditional contemporary concert music coverage and land Tarm and the NYYS on a broader stage that ultimately included Fox News, National Review, NPR, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. While events like these—and the more recent dustup around John Adams’s comments from the stage about Rush Limbaugh at the premiere of his new work for violin and orchestra—briefly garner attention on a large scale due to their contentious subject matter, they are outliers at best when it comes to coverage of new music, the composers who create it, and the performers who bring it to life.

Outliers aside, I was and am very interested in the perceptions and interactions between those who create and those who work to inform about, advocate for, and disseminate new work. Composers and performers today look to the media (whatever they think that might be) as a conduit between their art and the general public. As digital media and social networks continue to evolve, both the proximity and the fixed boundaries between creators and the media have been affected. Those who prepare composers and performers for their careers are continually faced with questions about how much attention should be given to such topics within the higher education curriculum. To these points, I asked a number of questions to several critics, composers, performers, and other professionals in order to “take the temperature,” so to speak, of the understanding and place of the media within the new music community.

ROLES AND EXPECTATIONS

My first question was asked in two different ways. To critics, I asked, “When you write about living composers, new works, or performance by ensembles who focus on new music, what role do you see yourself embracing?” To composers and performers, I asked, “When you read about living composers, new works, or performance by ensembles who focus on new music, what role do you hope to see the media take in their presentation?” You will notice that both questions were geared toward written media. While there are radio programs and podcasts about new music and its creators and performers, those are few in number and even fewer venture beyond basic presentation of the music.

Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette reflected the basic thread of her colleagues, stating,  “In general, I think my job as a critic is to tell people what happened, what was newsworthy about it, and help them think that they should care, with a larger goal of fostering discussion about the field and keeping the field visible to the general public, to some degree, by having it mentioned in a newspaper to begin with.” Besides educating readers, Chicago Reader‘s Peter Margasak doesn’t “set out to function as a consumer guide, but as a thinker who might provide some inroads into new or unfamiliar work—making connections, explaining, and setting aesthetic ideas within an accessible framework.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Tim Page remembered being timid toward new works when he first heard them, providing a description and cursory judgment with such statements as “on a first hearing, it seemed…”—a technique he still teaches to his own journalism students at the University of Southern California. “Sometimes, something that you don’t respond to the first time, you may respond to differently” on future hearings, Page said. Allan Kozinn, critic for the Wall Street Journal and former critic for the New York Times, added that his descriptions “should give the reader a sense of what the piece sounds like, to the degree that language can capture that. At the very least, the reader should come away knowing what the instrumentation was, and how it was used, where the composer fits in the stylistic continuum, how long a piece it is, and what the major ‘events’ in the piece are.”

These initial statements coincide with the expectations of a number of composers and performers who, as Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon says, “hope the media will give me all the information that I need to know…the more in-depth, the better.” The desire for in-depth reporting on the performance of a new piece is a strong one, although not always feasible within the amount of space allotted to the critic. Depending on the context of the concert, I have seen examples of critics asking for scores from the composers ahead of time and incorporating interviews recorded before a premiere, but much too often such examples are seen as luxuries due to time and space. Composer Chris Cerrone hopes that this concept goes even further into the realm of “showing us the music. Technology has moved so quickly that it is not hard at all to get a document of a new work online just a few days after a performance. More than anything else, I think the media has the opportunity to give audiences direct access to the actual work and let us judge for ourselves.”

One aspect of music journalism that some composers don’t want to see is too little attention on the work. Composer Derek Bermel, for example, prefers it “when a journalist focuses on the work of art itself, rather than on the personality (or persona) of the artist,” while composer Greg Wanamaker asks that journalists “address the quality of composers’ works and ensembles’ performances over popularity and edgy concepts devoid of substance.”

That being said, quality criticism is seen as important for the status and sustainability of the music, as well as the career momentum of the creators and the performers. “I always hope that the media will play a role in broadening the conversation about new music,” pianist Michael Mizrahi says, “and of course media recognition still directly translates to further performances.” Composer and Naxos Vice President Sean Hickey brings up the topic of interviews in regard to recordings, saying they are “an important element if only for sharing via Vevo, and ultimately, YouTube in the case of video, and via any digital service provider for audio. That is to say, an interview can potentially find a larger audience outside print and diversifies the experience for those wishing to encounter one’s music for the first time.”

Beyond the descriptive and illustrative aspects of criticism, the topic of advocacy came up many times. When Midgette writes about new music, she does “feel I’m advocating in a certain sense, because most of my readers tend to be more familiar with Beethoven than, say, Missy Mazzoli. That doesn’t mean I feel I need to go easier on the performances—quite the contrary; I think overpraising performances is the opposite of real advocacy—but it does mean I’m aware of a certain need to contextualize, and also a certain eagerness on my part to get people enthusiastic about this area.”

Kozinn’s passion for new music is visceral. He explains that “when it comes to new music and new music groups, we’re in an area that means a lot to me. Critics, to the contrary of what is often said, do not have to be dispassionate, and any critic who claims to be is lying. We write about music because we love it, and like anyone, we have tastes and preferences, things we like best and things we like least or don’t like at all. For an actual, thinking human being, it simply cannot be otherwise, and there’s no use pretending it can be simply to pursue a claim of ‘critical objectivity’ that actually cannot and should not exist…when we’re writing about music, or performers, or composing styles—or anything—that we particularly like, we almost inevitably become advocates for it, even if that’s not how we perceive the job. I mean, think about it: if I love a composer’s work, to a certain degree, the basic subtext of any review or feature I write about it will be: ‘I think this is fantastic stuff, so if you haven’t heard it you should, and if you’re not sure what to make of it, perhaps I can guide you through the most compelling bits.’”

newspaper reading

Photo courtesy of Miguel Pires da Rosa on Flickr.

INTERACTIONS AND SOCIAL MEDIA

One notable comment that came from several composers and performers had to do with what I meant when I asked them about “media”—which media was I asking about?  As composer Ken Ueno posited, “In many areas, newspapers have gone out of business or no longer have a music critic. And when there is a review, it is nowadays likely to be a play-by-play of the surface form of pieces, or a cut-and-paste job from the composer’s own program notes.” This reduction in traditional media, however, has occurred alongside the influx of blogs, digital magazines (such as NewMusicBox and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN), and the granular interactions that occur constantly on Facebook and Twitter, which led me to my next path of inquiry.

The next two questions I posed were: “Have you noticed a shift in the past 5-10 years as far as the relationship that composers and performers have with members of the media?” and “How has social media changed the way composers, performers, and music journalists interact/work together?”. Unsurprisingly, many ended up unintentionally answering the second question within their answer to the first question—a fact that demonstrates how ingrained social media is within our own professional interactions today.

Historically, there were more professionals in the media whose job it was to keep tabs on the concert music scene, but along with those greater numbers there was an attendant bottleneck/gatekeeper mentality. Allan Kozinn, after reading reviews from 30 and 40 years ago, says, “I think there was an almost adversarial relationship that doesn’t exist in quite the same way today. That may be because of a generational shift of focus that began in the 1960s, and which bore fruit in the later 1980s, when the critics—and composers—shaped by the 1960s entered the professional world on either side of the (critical/compositional) divide.” Tim Page adds “Composers like Virgil Thomson and Morton Feldman made it very difficult to work with them while they were living, but their music has grown in prominence after their deaths. Some composers always had a better relationship with the media; they just had a certain charisma or made it easy to interview or made a good story…I stopped reviewing Philip Glass, for example, because I had formed a friendship with him and I found myself being too harsh in my reviews as a result.”

In addition to critics, publicity professionals have seen major changes in the way social media has shifted relationships with the media over the last decade. Steven Swartz, founder of DOTDOTDOTMUSIC, has seen the ability to gain media attention improve greatly, but that ease has brought with it challenges as well. “It’s certainly democratized things.” Swartz says, “At the same time, it’s led to a lot more ‘noise,’ as innumerable artists clamor for attention.” Anne Midgette is a bit more blunt: “…it’s a very individual thing; there’s no template for how people use social media, and different people have different comfort levels when it comes to interacting with artists/critics/’the other side.’ Social media makes it feel chummier in a way, for better or worse, and of course it isn’t. This illusion of chumminess has also meant some artists have managed to royally piss me off.”

Most performers and composers who I contacted seemed to have a mature concept of their interactions with those in the media. Most, such as violinist Miranda Cuckson, see the rich opportunities for interaction and collaboration: “It helps people support their colleagues or show their enthusiasm in a public way,” Cuckson says, “and it gives journalists quick access to info about events or things in the works. In some ways, having discussions among artists and press in a public way makes people demonstrate their integrity and both their conviction and their ability to adjust their viewpoints, in a healthy way.” Others see the increase of advocacy through social networks as a good thing, such as conductor and composer Brad Wells: “Reviews, listings, previews, etc. for new music are more commonly spilling over the gates of the ‘classical’ or ’new classical’ sites into more popular or less genre-defined arenas. So the audience broadens. I also experience many music journalists as advocates for performers and composers—as well as audiences.”

Such experiences can both promote a more realistic and natural perception of one’s place in the community and easily lead to interactions away from the printed or digital page. Composer Daniel Felsenfeld enjoys the fact that we can observe each other as we interact: “The composer-performer thing has, at least for me, been aided tremendously by social media—I can trace pretty much all that is happening for me professionally to Facebook or Twitter at this point, for better or for worse (almost always for better).” Composer Judah Adashi, no stranger to social media, finds that the “communal sensibility doesn’t eliminate the fear of a bad review, but it’s a healthy reminder that we are largely in this together. It’s a culture that fosters opportunities for collaboration: we’ve hosted Alex Ross twice on the Evolution Contemporary Music Series, and I just invited Will Robin to Skype with students in my contemporary music course at the Peabody Conservatory.”

Ultimately, each creative artist has to find what works for them and form their own concept of how they choose to interact with their colleagues, the media, and their audiences in this rapidly changing world, a fact driven home by composer Eve Beglarian: “Basically, all artists have to figure out their own way to market their work and their worldview. I can come up with my own ways to get my work out there that do not compromise my artistic standards, but are themselves an extension of my creative work. Promotion done right is then about generosity, curiosity, openness, curation, and collegiality, and not just about flogging one’s own ‘brand.'”

PREPARATIONS

So far, we haven’t run into too many conflicting voices, but when terms such as “brand,” “marketing,” and “entrepreneurship” come up in conversations about composers and performers, there tend to be a number of varying opinions. As an educator who works with young composers, I couldn’t help but add a fourth question: “There are some composers and performers who work very fluently with the media; is this a concept that should be discussed in the classroom before these artists begin their post-collegiate careers?” I came at this question with a fairly open mind; I myself make sure my students are aware of what’s out there and critically think about how professionals interact online, but I am well aware that they have bigger fish to fry career-wise than solidifying their online persona and therefore do not push them to venture too far into the digital landscape.

Derek Bermel, for one, is dubious about incorporating entrepreneurship into the classroom: “For my money, it’s most important to educate students to 1) think for themselves, 2) organize and process information, and 3) write and express themselves articulately. This means offering them a broad educational background, which—besides music—includes creative and analytical writing, mathematics, philosophy, and languages, as well as vocational and mechanical skills. These are the tools to succeed. The rest is noise, to quote one member of the media.”

“I’m not sure what that would look like!” says composer Alexandra Gardner. “At that stage in a composer’s development I think a slight reframing of the discussion would be better – to teach students the standard procedure for doing press for a performance or album release. As in, ‘One month before, send a press release, two weeks before do X, Y and Z…’ They could be taught how to write a good press release, etc. Regardless of social media, one still has to have the basic press-doing chops. THAT is important!”

Having recently discussed such things with Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner, I was glad to receive some thoughts from her on this topic. Stressing balance, she says, “I think it is important to be comfortable with the media and to know how to make it work for you.  In this regard, yes, a certain facility with the media should be discussed in the classroom – with one proviso:  it is relatively easy to come across as brilliant, amazing, and vastly successful on, say, Facebook—even if you are not particularly good at the actual composing! Sure, go ahead and talk about social media in the classroom—just make sure students spend at least as much time at their craft as they do looking brilliant, amazing and vastly successful online!”

Others are even more supportive of such curricular implementations. Composer and ASCAP Board of Directors member Alex Shapiro unabashedly states: “Abso-friggin’-lutely. Most artists have no idea just how much power they have to control the interpretation, reporting, and narrative of their own work. It’s vital for younger creators to understand how they can use their web presence—the publishing of their souls—to their advantage.” Jennifer Higdon demonstrates that such concepts are already in place at the Curtis Institute where she teaches: “This is a part of Curtis’ training with all of the artists. We have seminars and master classes on this very thing…for radio interviews, print interviews, and even in talking with audiences.” Allan Kozinn has been teaching similar classes for years at NYU: “Mostly, what I have them do is criticism of various kinds, so that they can see what’s required and how it’s done (and, for most of them, how it isn’t quite as easy as they think). But there is also a big component of the course devoted to explaining how the press works, what kinds of things interest us, how review schedules are planned, and how to reach us or get our attention.”

Composer Lisa Renée Coons believes that “we need to teach young artists sustainable career practices. Schools granting arts degrees should teach at least some professional development along side the other tools of technique, discipline, critical thinking, etc. The professional development tools are necessary to continue to make their unique work. We should empower them to facilitate their own work, build communities, and disseminate their art. Without these tools they may cease to participate at all in the artistic dialogue.” Composer Jennifer Jolley agrees: “Yes. Absolutely. I think we should all learn how to talk about our music, give presentations on our pieces, write copy, write press releases etc. Informing members of the media what your organization is about and what your concert or concept or piece is about will help them do their research and educate (and quite possibly excite) your audience. Anything that helps with communicating with an audience will also help communicate with the media.”

Finally, British-based composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad provides some perspective from the other side of the Atlantic: “I am glad that I wasn’t made aware of any of this stuff to be honest. I am glad that I left Uni with a relative degree of ignorance—if I had been fully made aware of just how difficult it was to make a career as a composer, I may have been discouraged! On the other hand, I think there are tried and tested ways of successful interaction on social media now, so, a few hints and tips would probably go a long way…Most opportunities I get seem to come from word of mouth recommendation, or relationships built up over a long period of time—I think social media can create a buzz around all the events/commissions/performances that result, but I’m not sure how much it can advance one’s career by itself. Although perhaps that’s because I’m not using it cleverly enough!”

tv cameras

Photo by Dan Marsh, via Flickr

FINAL THOUGHTS

As I mentioned at the beginning, the intersection of composers, performers, and the media is something that has interested me for years, and it has done so for two reasons. The first is pretty obvious—I have feet planted on both sides of that divide, and my own perceptions have been irrevocably changed because of that fact. I hope that my experiences as a composer help to bring insight to my writing and my work as a writer helps me to both be aware of the world around me and to critically understand the various connections that exist amongst us.

The second is because of my background—I knew absolutely nothing about the concert world growing up and had nary a dream that I would be able to not only be cognizant of the various artists and critics that I’ve quoted here, let alone have been able to foster a collegial relationship if not a close friendship with them. The world has absolutely changed for us in the new music community and the aforementioned musings may help to illustrate where we’re at today as a community.

These experiences have provided me the confidence to express concerns when it seemed appropriate—several of my past NewMusicBox columns bear that out. I would be remiss, therefore, if I did not use this opportunity to point out a couple of issues that have long since festered in my mind that pertain to the new music community and the media.

Here in America, we seem to have always had an environment whereby a select few writers and mavens had a disproportionate impact on the success (or failure) of living composers and their works. Those that were deemed worthy or provided a good story, controversial or otherwise, on a consistent basis became part of the “conversation.” The irony is that as technology has evolved over the past 20 years so that the ability to reach the general public has increased through decentralization, the number of professionals who choose to contribute criticism, discussion, and advocacy has steadily declined. From what I have found, those who write and produce within these organizations do not consider themselves “kingmakers,” but much more weight is placed on their efforts due to the dearth of thoughtful discussion and advocacy elsewhere.

The bottleneck effect that exists with a handful of conduits of quality criticism and informed exposure inevitably will have artistic ramifications far beyond the borders of any one city. A mention in any one major newspaper is cause for celebration for the individuals involved, but that mention usually won’t have any discernable impact on the career of a creator or the direction of an art form. What will have an impact is the sustained and consistent exposure of a work, a composer, a performer, an ensemble, or a musical concept so that those names or ideas become ensconced within the conversation-at-large. Just as actors seem to become famous overnight when they’ve really been surreptitiously ingraining themselves in the public eye through bit parts over several years, the same can be said for musicians as well.

But, one might argue, the basis by which composers become well known really should be about the strength and quality of their work, not about how prominently they are discussed in the media. I would agree, except for the fact that the concept of “strength and quality” is not only extremely subjective, but is one of a multitude of reasons why works manage to garner any amount of attention or exposure. At least one reason, as Allan Kozinn mentioned earlier, has to do with the taste and interests of the critics who are in the position of reaching a broad audience. It can and should be up to them as to where their focus is placed—that is their prerogative as critics.

Is it the fault of the critics, then, for the lack of coverage outside of their cities? Of course not. But we as a community can be proactive, encouraging musicologists and writers in locations outside of the traditional markets and specialists in genres that don’t get as much coverage to lend their talents to reviewing concerts, interviewing composers and performers, and educating the general public about the thriving culture that exists in their own neighborhoods and throughout the world. There are plenty of arguments why such a call-to-action would not be effective—trust me, I’ve heard them many times—but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just ask Thomas Deneuville with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN or David MacDonald with SoundNotion or Dennis Bathory-Kitsz with Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar or radio hosts like John Nasukaluk Clare or Marvin Rosen or Daniel Gilliam…or even the folks here at NewMusicBox.

A related and oh-so-delicate subject is the increase of composers and performers who cross the divide to work as part of the media, a tradition that hearkens back to Berlioz’s reviews for Parisian newspapers and Robert Schumann’s founding of Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.  A performer who asked to remain anonymous brought up a perception that I’ve heard numerous times over the past few years: “I don’t know if this has always been the case but there seem to be quite a few performers and composers who have (or had) PR day jobs or other jobs in arts media (radio/blogs) these days. These folks seem to have an easier time getting reviews and media attention. They also get positive attention from other composers/performers who seek promotion. Those with PR/Media clout seem to hold a lot of power in the new music world.” In the same way that contests are rarely immune from criticism if the winner happens to study with one of the judges, the fact that such perceptions exist demonstrates the murky environment that exists when the delineations between composer/performer and journalist/publicist/presenter become less and less well defined…as a composer/educator/columnist/presenter, this is a situation I know all too well. There are no clear-cut solutions for such things—like-minded people will ultimately aggregate and support one another as best they can, but I for one hope that those who are in decision-making positions, whatever they may be, keep an open mind and as balanced an approach as possible.

In closing, I would like to present two statements that, together, seem to set the dichotomous aspects of the composer/performer/media relationship today:

Anne Midgette:

Not everyone is good with the media. Social media has fostered this illusion that people can do their own press, and that they can do it over Facebook and/or Twitter, and this is usually the biggest way that artists have managed to piss me off on social media—by viewing it as a way to reach me so you can make a pitch. Publicity is a brave new world these days, because traditional outlets are drying up, yet I think that’s all the more reason artists should think seriously about working with a professional. Artists and journalists are both way too quick to be glib about “media flaks,” and yet way too few artists appreciate what a professional can bring to the table in terms of strategizing a long-term approach that goes beyond scattershot mentions in whatever publications or websites one can engineer. I’ve known some big-name artists in the pre-internet age whose careers would have gone on a lot longer and more elegantly had they sprung for a publicist in their primes, and there are plenty of examples today of artists who would have benefited greatly from some professional advice—think of how many totally avoidable brouhahas we’ve seen in the last couple of years.

Alex Shapiro:

The entire concept of “The Media” has drastically shifted over the past fifteen years. It used to be something external that passively effected artists and their careers, and now it’s something that artists themselves can actively manipulate, thanks to the 24/7 global reach of the web and how any of us might choose to exploit this amazing tool. “The Media” used to be sheer luck: print journalists and radio broadcasters writing about or featuring our work, or television appearances, and even cameos in movies, for those of us also performing the work. Now, traditional media has been marginalized to a notable degree, as the free-for-all of the internet has allowed composers and performers to participate in and control the very media that used to dictate our fate. It’s the buzz on the blogs, e-zines and social media that have the most power to determine our success; we write about, discuss, and showcase our own work and our colleagues’ work, and we spread opinions through praise and snark through a highly effective and exponential filtering system of peer review. Thanks to YouTube, we get as much if not more exposure from a homemade video that goes viral than we might ever have had in sheer numbers with an appearance on a late night TV show. And a successful composer can go their entire career, earning a good living, without ever having had a review in The New York Times. The Media is not what The Media used to be. WE are The Media! Whatever the public chooses to pay attention to is The Media.

The Know-Nothings of Jazz

photo of woman covering eyes, ears and mouth

Photo by Rob Gallop (via Flickr)

Before there was hipster culture, there was hip culture. Dedicated to creative thinking and an insolent attitude towards the Establishment—The Man—hip culture came out of jazz and the music’s fans, especially once bebop hit the scene and pushed jazz fully into the aesthetics of art music.

Hip culture used to matter to The Establishment. Literate people used to have at least a few contemporary jazz LPs in their collection. It’s no fantasy that Don Draper is constantly chasing hip young ideas on Mad Men: Steve Allen used to host a TV show on NBC, Thelonious Monk appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, Miles Davis was a paragon of intellectual and sartorial fashion, and Whitney Balliett started writing about jazz for The New Yorker in 1954.

Now we have hipster culture, where money is the aesthetic and coolness is signified by what one buys and sells, and collecting objects has been aestheticized as curating. The Man has commodified and co-opted hipness, and in the 21st century there has been little more than a handful of critical pieces on jazz published in The New Yorker. But they do have regular articles on shopping!

The most recent bit of writing on jazz in the magazine (other than limited, unsurprising listings in the “Goings on About Town” section), was this smug, infantile boorishness on Sonny Rollins, from Django Gold.

It was harmless in and of itself; too many fans and critics allowed it to hurt their feelings. Like raised voices in a bar, their remonstrations brought forth the loud and meaningless opinions of Justin Moyer in The Washington Post. While Gold was trying to be funny (it needed explanation, never a good thing in comedy), Moyer, apparently sober, was full of explanations for what is wrong with jazz. It came off like backseat driving from a blind man.

Moyer’s piece is so breathtakingly wrong that many readers thought it was some kind of hoax. Amazingly, John Halle, who should know better, came to Moyer’s defense and added his own condemnation of jazz in Jacobin magazine.

How is it that ignorant, incompetent drivel like this gets published? Contrary to Halle’s sniffing, jazz is indeed an enduring counter-cultural art form, because it’s so deep underground that editors somehow imagine that these writers have something interesting and worthwhile to say about the music. They do not.

Editors in the cultural pages of general interest publications (or even specialty ones), are the gatekeepers, letting in what they feel is valuable and sharing it with the public. These editors are sharing nothing but their obtuseness.

The New Yorker is particularly puzzling, even shameful. With Alex Ross and Sasha Frere-Jones at the back of the book, they regularly seek what’s relevant in classical and pop music. Nothing for jazz. Yet the jazz scene is full of musicians working with the entire context of contemporary music and pushing jazz into new territory. This is vital in terms of contemporary classical music, the post-minimal fascination with groove-based forms and structures, but there’s no one at the magazine who is qualified to point out that those elements date back to jazz from the late 1960s.

At The New York Review of Books, there has been one blog post by Seth Colter Walls that comes anywhere near to the state of the music in the 21st century. (Its subject was the Sun Ra Arkestra’s debut at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2013.) There are occasional pieces, written by Christopher Carroll, retrospectives on Charles Mingus, Clifford Brown, and Rollins, that are symptoms of the disease.

Jazz fans are hip; editors and writers at these publications are revanchist, in love with a non-existent, prelapsarian golden age that is different for each. Moyer seems to think jazz stopped “evolving” in 1959, with Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come; Halle is tendentiously ego-centric, pegging the decline of jazz to when it stopped reflecting his political preferences, which, strangely, is when Joe Henderson released a series of albums in the late-’60s/early-’70s; for Carroll, jazz seemed to have stopped with hardbop; and at The New Yorker, it was when Balliett died in 2001.

Of course, jazz has continued to evolve from each of those arbitrary dates (and was never pure to begin with). There is archeological evidence for this, physical artifacts that satisfy every element of proof, things that we aficionados refer to, in our hip argot, as “recordings,” “video,” “ticket stubs.” This century alone has produced path-breaking jazz from Henry Threadgill, Steve Lehman, Darcy James Argue, Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and so many more.

But few, if any, of these musicians teach and play recitals at colleges and universities, or appear at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Moyer and Halle are specifically revealing of how they think that is where all jazz is happening, which is a sad testament to how each of them has been co-opted by their own institutions, The Washington Post and Bard College respectively. Each is The Man, and each can only see what The Man does. Armchair guides to the jazz world haven’t even made it into the main tourist attractions themselves, much less the indigenous byways.

And The Man is unhip, and has always been. Hipsters blind to what’s hip, they, incredibly, believe that institutional and grant money has made jazz musicians fat and happy, insulated from the creative possibilities of failure—I don’t imagine they would be able to survive on what a jazz musician makes from playing their music.

Instead, it is The Man who preserves failed ideas—like Marxism, and “you kids get off my lawn” editorializing—in his institutions, his publications, colleges, and universities. Institutionalized jazz is safe, museum-piece jazz, but the music still happens in basements and lofts and living room performance spaces. These are the alternative venues and institutions for a music that, by definition, is outsider music, counter-culture music. In the current hegemonic commodification of culture, anything that doesn’t sell is outsider. And music that walks the fine and exceedingly difficult line between pop and art, as jazz has since before the bebop era, is counter-cultural.

This is epistemic closure as most commonly seen in politics, the absolute rightness of one’s views, impervious to facts and thinking. It takes a heroic level of ignorance to be a jazz fan unaware of Woody Shaw, Miles Davis from 1965 onward, Weather Report, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Joe Maneri, and The Tony Williams Lifetime. It takes an astounding level of patronizing self-regard to lecture the music for its political failings, as Halle does, while being so deaf to the music as it’s actually being made. His article is the perfect affirmation to Miles Davis’s explanation to why he didn’t talk about jazz anymore: “It’s a white folks’ word.”

One not need love the music, but the music exists regardless of how much, or little, one loves it or even knows it. The profound meaning of its continued existence comes with the closing of this circle: Rollins, at 84, is still playing and released the third volume of his live Road Shows records this year. His playing is as grand, charming, and witty as always. But jazz has moved on even from him, and there are a dozen or more other new records this year that, by pushing the music into the future, are more important.

*

Grella
George Grella Jr. is a composer, critic, and independent scholar. He is music editor at The Brooklyn Rail, publishes the Big City blog, and writes for the New York Classical Review, Jazziz, The American Record Guide, and Sequenza21.

Profiling the Jazz Police

Jazz Police badge

From Old Skool Hooligans’ Jazz Police t-shirt; image used with permission.

The scene: Sweet Basil, New York City, 1994. The occasion: a swanky CD-release party for a young lion that burst on the scene a few years before. The remark: a Brooklyn-by-way-of-the-Midwest jazz singer introduces me to her friend. “Hey, I’d like you to meet Eugene Holley, Jr. He writes for Down Beat and JazzTimes,” she says. But after I shake her hand and turn away momentarily toward my table, I hear my vocalist friend say to her friend in a hushed voice, “Yeah, he’s one of the jazz police, but he’s cool.”

That’s when I first heard the term “jazz police.” At first, I paid it no mind. I thought it was one of the many linguistic inventions and dimensions spawned by musicians – one of many verbal turns of fancy that have weaved in and out of the jazz lingua franca from New Orleans to Manhattan.

But as the years moved on, I started hearing that phrase “jazz police” in more ominous terms. It usually refers to a belief among musicians that there is a cabal of jazz writers, reporters, and critics who influence, undermine, and control jazz musicians. They stifle the true expressions of the music by deciding who gets five-star reviews and who doesn’t, who gets the big recording contract and who’s forced to stay at the indie label, who wins the Grammy award and who gets the big non-profit grant, and who ends up playing their hearts out in the subway for next to nothing.

Really?

As someone who has had the tremendous privilege of working as a jazz writer, reporter, radio station music/program director, documentarian, and essayist for 25 years, I can honestly say that no such cabal of jazz police exists.
After all, policemen have salaries, vacations, and unions.

But, notwithstanding that admittedly feeble attempt at humor, the belief in a jazz police has become very toxic these days. So I’d like to offer the perspective of one who has been lumped in with that sordid circle. I want to add some harmony to the discord that exists between musicians and writers. I strongly feel that we need to deal with this myth of the jazz police; otherwise the future of our music will continue to dwindle in the coming years.

Now, just because I say that there is no jazz police doesn’t mean that writers haven’t exercised power to make or break careers. Of course that’s true. Jazz history is replete with writers whose whims, tastes, likes, and dislikes—for good or ill—have determined who is a star and who is not—as evidenced by the critic Martin Williams’s dismissal of the great Ahmad Jamal as a “cocktail pianist,” which other critics echoed for a very long time.

But I have some good news for musicians. While yes, a critic with an influential newspaper or magazine column might have been able to sway the public to like or dislike a jazz musician of his or her choosing back in the day, today no writer or critic has that kind of power. In the 21st century, the explosion of social media, blogs, and online listening services have irrevocably reduced the once-powerful pronouncements of writers and critics to, at best, well-informed observations and opinions.

A critic could write that a musician’s new CD is not his or her best work, but a few clicks and you can hear for yourself whether you agree with the writer’s opinion. A consumer can also share his or her opinions about any musician with other like-minded listeners in an instant. This type of democratized discourse did not exist thirty years ago, and I suspect it’s here to stay. And while sites like Facebook and Soundcloud feature fan reviews and accessible sound files, respectively, the democratic accessibility of that data does not guarantee that opinions offered by fans are any less biased than the professional critics. We are still in the Wild West stages of this phenomenon. And while writers and record companies have been taken down a notch, their digital demotion may be a pyrrhic victory, because it still rings with the spirit of “us” versus “them.”

And nobody wins that contest these days.

This digital age has also changed the power relationships between the jazz musician and the record industry to a large degree. If musicians have access to the internet, they can become their own record company. Artists can create their own websites, complete with gig updates, biographical information, audio samples, tour dates, and videos.

But for all of the aforementioned advances available to jazz in this era, there are still a significant number of musicians who speak of a jazz police.

As someone who knows and is in awe of the power and artistry of jazz musicians, I understand the frustrations, outrage, and disappointment they must feel when they have put their hearts and souls into a gig, a record, the road, and a career, only to see their careers marginalized by shrinking media coverage, unless they die and/or are featured in a PBS documentary. I particularly marvel at the young people, who become jazz musicians knowing what may befall them.

But let me get a little personal here. While I don’t claim to have met every major jazz writer in the years I’ve been on the scene, I have had the profound privilege of knowing quite a few of them: Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour, John Murph, Willard Jenkins, Kelvin Williams, Jackie Modeste, Guthrie Ramsey, Robert G. O’Meally, Greg Thomas, A.B. Spellman, and two giants who left us recently—Albert Murray and Amiri Baraka. I have never seen them huddle to block anyone’s career. Musicians may not have liked everything they wrote, but I will go on record to insist that, at least with the people I mentioned, I saw no evidence of the jazz police some musicians talk about.

Yes, it is true that negative reviews—however crude, ill-informed, and distasteful they may be—do sell magazines and, in many cases, help establish the writer’s voice. Terry Teachout’s acerbic and condescending biography of Duke Ellington is one recent example. However, the notion of a jazz police that profits off of the misfortunes of musicians is downright unsupportable. I know a few known and unknown bards who are the antithesis of a jazz police; individuals who, without notoriety or fanfare, made great sacrifices for this music.

William A. “Bill” Brower of Washington, D.C., is a writer, concert producer, and former stage manager for the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival and Classic Jazz at Lincoln Center.

The late Bobby Jackson was the former program director of WCLK-FM in Atlanta and jazz programmer of Cleveland’s WCPN-FM.

Skip Norris is an intrepid Detroit entrepreneur who produces swinging gigs in the Motor City.

Zoe Anglesey and Tom Terrell, who both left us far too soon, and Arnold J. Smith are three Brooklyn-based, all-around guardian angels whose writings and work in the record industry have illuminated the scene.

If musicians want to search for a jazz police, they need look no further than themselves. The same digital revolution that has diminished the power of music critics and heavy-handed record producers has also exposed how some jazz musicians undermine and sabotage each other. Without naming names, writers have heard horror stories over the years: A musician sends someone to the wrong gig for an audition for a major jazz group. A group of sidemen on a recording session don’t like one person they’re playing with, and they purposely play badly to ruin the session. And most recently, a jazz pianist won a MacArthur grant and some musicians actually posted on his Facebook page the reasons why they didn’t feel he deserved the award.

My purpose is relating these examples, is not to hurt or embarrass musicians. But, as corny as it sounds, it’s to encourage musicians to treat each other better; and to emphasize that today, in an age where all jazz artists in America are underrated, musicians should know that, in my opinion, the overwhelming majority of jazz scribes and other individuals in the jazz infrastructure are there to help them, and, more importantly, the music.
We’re all trying to swing.

 

***

EugeneHolley
Eugene Holley, Jr. contributes to: Publisher’s Weekly, Purejazz magazine, Philadelphia Weekly and NPR: A Blog Supreme.

Partyin’ Like It’s 1999

You’re not delirious; it really has been 15 years since NewMusicBox published its first “issue”! So much has changed about the internet since then, but our dedication to the music of our time and those who bring it to life has remained as strong as ever. Please join us in celebrating 15 years of NewMusicBox by making a gift today.

At the time of NewMusicBox’s launch (on May 1, 1999), we were faced with a somewhat daunting task. We were the only national publication focused specifically on new music created by Americans; we created NMBx because there was nothing else. Back in November 1998, I was hired with the express goal of making this thing happen by Richard Kessler who was then the executive director at an organization called the American Music Center. (AMC merged with Meet The Composer to form New Music USA in November 2011.) It took six months, but—with the help of then-associate editor Nathan Michel and our first web designer Stacie Johnston of SomePig.com (which is still around)—we actually did it!

3 Photos of first NewMusicBox public demo on May 3, 1999

Two days after the launch, yours truly (with significantly shorter hair) gave the first public demo of NewMusicBox at the American Music Center’s 1999 Annual Meeting and Awards Ceremony (Monday, May 3, 1999) at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse. Karen Chester is in the photo on the left; Kitty Brazelton and Tom Talbert are in the photo on the right.

While we didn’t have to worry about stuff like galleys and distribution arrangements (since we were, after all, a web-based publication), we were still madly scrambling to get all the articles and photographs in place literally minutes before we went live, and then we immediately had to start over again to work on the next issue. “Issue?”  Yeah, back in 1999 our primary models were still print-based publications and so our plan was to publish once a month, every month, on the first of the month. Though, of course, the internet was pretty much 24/7 from its inception, it wasn’t yet an always-present part of most of our lives at that point. In fact, most folks in our scene (and anywhere else for that matter) weren’t completely sure what the potential of the internet could be and many weren’t even online. Plus those who were had dial-up connections. But we didn’t know any better, so we plunged ahead. Less than eight months after launching, we received the first ASCAP Deems Taylor Internet Award on December 8, 1999.

Plaque of Deems Taylor Internet Award

The plaque for that award still hangs in our office.

From the very beginning we recorded our in-depth conversations with folks on video. (What we now call “Cover” we called “In The First Person” back then, but it’s still pretty much the same idea.) But bandwidth was extremely slow and the quality of the video we initially recorded also wasn’t very high, so we actually didn’t start posting video content on the site until the following year.  Yet despite not really having models to emulate other than print publications, we initially conceived articles to be multi-tiered narratives that readers could explore in non-linear ways. Ironically, fifteen years later in a world where practically everyone eats, sleeps, and dreams online, most folks still read articles—the ones they finish anyway—from the beginning to the end rather than playing the kinds of hopscotch games that seemed more appropriate to the medium at the time.
But one thing that hasn’t changed in all these years has been our goal to always be inclusive of the broadest range of music that could be considered “new” American music whether it was notated and reinterpreted by other musicians, improvised in a club, assembled in a studio, or found sound. Another one of our models from the very beginning, because of its voracious inclusivity, was the Bang on a Can Festival. So our very first published conversation was with the three composers who created it and still run it to this day—Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang. In that talk, there were reference made to music by everyone from Milton Babbitt and Steve Reich to Stevie Wonder and Sonic Youth.

FJO and Nathan Michel

The original NewMusicBox team–FJO (left) and Nathan Michel (right)–in the “box” at the American Music Center office on 30 West 26th Street in NYC. (Photo by Richard Kessler.)

While we’ve never really actively pursued the folks who wind up on the Top 40 (and admittedly back in 1999 I thought that such a category of music would cease to exist 15 years into the future), we have never had a litmus test for style or pedigree and welcome any music that gets people listening and thinking in new ways. Back then I liked to call this stuff “dotorg” music, but I’d nevertheless be thrilled if any music we featured wound up on the Top 40, and–ever an optimist–I still believe that it can. (A side note: early on we actually tried to get to Prince to talk with us for NewMusicBox—one of the few folks we’ve wanted to feature on the site whom we failed to successfully track down. I’m still open to the idea; what better way to celebrate 1999 than with the guy who wrote the song!)

NewMusicBox @ 15 logo
Despite how much our world has changed, it’s surprising how many of the conversations we were having back in 1999 are still going on today, though sadly not everyone involved with those conversations is still with us today. I remember the late Bill Duckworth’s prediction that “the boundaries currently separating composer, performer, and listener will become increasingly blurred.” We’re not quite there yet, but I still hear folks making the same prediction. And, to this day, whenever I hear entrepreneurial composers describe why they do what they do, in the back of my head I hear the words that the recently deceased Fred Ho said to Ken Smith in the very first article ever published on NewMusicBox:  “If there was an ensemble playing the music I heard, I would never have created my own.” That article was a massive compendium offering detailed background on a total of 24 composer-led new music ensembles and collectives (12 of which are still going strong to this day). We followed it up with a similar compendium of 19 recording labels by Steve Smith (no relation). Despite the claims of pundits who were opining that the record industry was dead even before we launched NewMusicBox, more than half of those labels are still around and issuing vital new music in 2014.
What are your musical memories of 1999? Were your reading NewMusicBox yet back then? We’d love to hear from you.

Lapsed Composer and Curmudgeonly Critic Reveals All About the Reviewing Racket!

boxes filled with CDs
I’m a lapsed composer hovering at the fringes of new music. I don’t compose much, but I review and critique CDs of new music. It’s easier to find time for critical listening than for pencil pushing. It is slightly vicarious, but I get to keep an ear on what’s going on, even though commercial releases are different than the concert hall scene.

By day I earn my living working in high tech for a global technology company. New music listening is squeezed in at every opportunity. My co-workers think my stacks of discs are quaint and wonder why I don’t invest in an mp3 player, but they don’t realize that each week I devour fresh content. It’s not worth the time to create lossless CD conversions.

Everything the mailbag brings is spun at least twice. However, I can’t and therefore don’t review everything. I sort and prioritize. If it makes a good first impression or it aligns with my interests, it will likely be covered. Something poorly executed or recorded will fall to the bottom of the pile. I try not to be subjective on the initial pass. I crave new discoveries, and very often something set aside one day becomes compelling a few weeks later.

While I have no formal tutelage in “How to review new music CDs,” there are a few guiding principles I follow. Someone wiser than me shared them back when I began to spend more time in Word than Finale:
1)      Always be factually accurate
2)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to educate an unfamiliar reader
3)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to inform the composer/performer
Having the luxury of being a principal at my own shop, lafolia.com, I don’t work under deadlines and can babble about any topic that interests me, not just new releases but old recordings, obscure composers, stuff heard on the radio, or pictures from a recent trip. I’ve built up solid relationships with a diverse group of labels, publicists, performers, and ensembles over the years. I like to think this quirkiness is what sustains our readers.

There will always be some new music I will never cover and sometimes I feel conflicted about this. I always wish I could cover more releases, but there is only so much time. And even if I were able to produce words for everything that passes my way, there would then be a fair amount of neutral or negative criticism, which I think would do a disservice. I believe I’m not alone in working like this—in fact, I see it as a duty to be predominantly positive, especially when covering the obscure.

It’s not uncommon for reviewers to be handed assignments. Staffers might cover a genre or composer they know nothing about. Here’s where you might notice a reviewer sticking to rule #1, offering irrelevant trivia about the restaurant across the street from where the recording was made or regurgitating program notes. You want your post-downtown minimalist piano suite critiqued by someone who’s heard of La Monte Young, not a medieval chorister. Of course there are wonderful write-ups from reviewers who have stepped outside of their comfort zones and made discoveries, but such instances are becoming rarer in the everything-is-on-YouTube era.
Let me share some examples of what might fall to the bottom of my personal well:

  • Orchestral pieces which were clearly written on a synthesizer and scored using a paint-by-numbers technique
  • Noisy or dimly recorded live performances (unless they have historical merit)
  • Pieces where the composer doesn’t recognize the limits of their material (perhaps doesn’t develop it enough, or conversely doesn’t know when to let it alone)

I don’t sort the mail by likes and dislikes. I don’t have categories I detest or composers I hate. (Would I admit it, if I did?) I am actually more inclined to listen to someone’s second release especially if I didn’t click with their first. Of course my tastes can probably be inferred by reading what I’ve written (especially now that I’ve divulged the prioritizing aspect). A release titled Lachenmann pours Sciarrino coffee while Xenakis and Ferrari look on will probably migrate towards the top of the pile.
Because I don’t cover everything and I subjectively prioritize what I do, someone might suggest I should get out of the way. There’s a tacit understanding that I ought to say something about everything which I’m handed. Whether I inquire after a release or receive it unsolicited, there is always the assumption that it is for “consideration.” It’s not come up explicitly that the press release bandwagon would evaporate if I were overtly sour, but I have had some sources dry up when I wasn’t timely, whether or not I was eventually enthusiastic.

Nowadays, I don’t think speedy verdicts are necessary, except to create buzz for an initial launch. On the internet, things stick. Anyone doing a web search can find critical information, whether it coincided with the street date or was penned months, even years later. Widely spaced mentions in the press are often good indicators of music’s endurance.

New music, as diverse and percolating as it is, maintains a thin niche. Every day we’re told classical music, our close cousin, is on the wane, or that it died just last week. We want to attract new ears, be appealing to new audiences, and not alienate potential fans. Publicity hounds prefer positive and timely tweets. We’re drowning under an avalanche of good press. We’re a supportive and encouraging community.

But is too much positivism bad? I remember a professor at college who could be relied upon for the same peppy post-concert verdict. He loved everything, to the point that his consistent post-performance adulation became disingenuous, and some of us reused his catchphrase as a snide greeting. It was clear his opinion had minimal value. We don’t want empty voices in our community, yet we walk a fine line between supporting one another and ensuring that we’re raising the bar.

I would like to write more negative reviews (and employ rules #2 and #3 above). There’s the myth that they are fun to write, but I am simply not that clever. In my experience, a pan takes as much effort as gushing words, but the writing isn’t as satisfying. I could take pains to be fair, to draw upon experience, and wherever possible, educate. But I really don’t want to spend time on something which simply isn’t worth the trouble. It’s rewarding to write about good and interesting things. It wastes effort to be neutral or negative.

If I were to craft a scathing review, would it have any effect? I don’t think I have that power. I would honestly feel bad if I hurt someone’s chances for funding or derailed future opportunities. But then again, the true creators among us always pick themselves up and start again. Do negative reviews matter as much given how easy it is to set up one’s own soapbox? Do we expect a more critical stance from established journalism? Do you expect the Gray Lady to err on the side of meanness?
If you start to think about it, there really ought to be more negative press out there. We have all attended poorly prepared performances and have heard completely forgettable pieces. To compensate for the major labels’ disinterest in new music, countless vanity projects have sprung up. There are fewer barriers to self-publication and so it follows that the standard of quality would slip. Proportionally we ought to see more negativity, but in the interest of time and sanity, I think the critical legion is trying just to keep up with the good stuff.

Now and again, I have let neutral or negative reviews leave the house. I’m sure there’s a reader out there who thinks everything I’ve posted is evasive or dismissive, just as I worry that I’ve offended everyone at least once. Subjectivity is always a consideration, but if I think a piece or release is miscued, and the composer or performer is established enough to withstand some needle marks, then I’m more inclined to express negativity.

I frequently forage through Fanfare and American Record Guide and might find a non-stellar review of a contemporary release. I can often tell whether I might actually enjoy a disc because someone else disliked it. I have sought out and covered at least one Xenakis release because of this. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to restore the balance of the universe, but mostly it’s about countering a review where it’s evident that the critic has no clue about the composer and his music, very likely the result of an ill-fitting assignment.

Admittedly, no one actually bestowed upon me the ability to be a new music critic. Such is the greatness of the internet: anyone can hang out a shingle. I believe I am putting my experience to good and objective use. I’ve put forth some of the thoughts I think all critics wrestle with but don’t openly discuss, and invite your comments. For now, I need to get back to my listening. I really do want to review more CDs.

***

photo of Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell is the Managing Editor for LaFolia.com and tweets at @lafoliaed. He works in the Boston area for a global technology company that made hardware which Xenakis and Babbitt both used. Covell is also a composer of electroacoustic and instrumental music that has been performed in the U.S. and abroad; some of his electronic works have been commercially released on the Canadian Electroacoustic Community’s Presence III, The Door Project from the International Computer Music Association, and a 2012 disc also featuring music by Kazumi Umeda.