Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jumping into the Sandbox

I remember last fall when I was out with a friend at a bar and was flirting with a woman, who proceeded to ask what I did. I told her I was an archivist and a music critic, to which she responded “you must be an asshole.” You can probably see where that went, but it did beg the question whether being a critic is an assholish pursuit in most people’s minds. The way I approach it might not be how most people criticize – which is to say that I feel it requires one to put as much work into writing as the musician ideally puts into his or her work. Generally, I try to avoid writing negative, snarky things about a record or a musician – if I can’t write positively about a piece of music, then I would hope that there is someone out there who can and will, and who might understand or appreciate the music better. Reporting (though it's not my favorite word, it'll have to do) what’s occurring with an ear to where the work fits with contemporary related music, as well as a sense of history, is an ideal to strive for. Also, I’ve found it difficult to avoid comparisons but it seems like that would the highest form of description, when one can completely skirt referring to a musician or a band as sounding like something else. That’s probably easier to do with improvised music than with rock music, but either way it’s a challenge.

It was rather prescient to come across this article on the Pillow Fights and Boxing Tuesday blog, which is a response to another article on Collapse Board. In reading about pop music (and sometimes this happens with jazz/experimental music, though less often), it’s striking how much of the writing is generally about the critic and not about the music. A review can have very little to do with what’s on a disc or in a performance, or what the music “means” (which can be a very interesting proposition if one chooses not to write about songs and specific references). I have to patently disagree with Pillow Fights on this point, however, that “I have read a lot of complaint and criticism about reviews that compare a band or record to other bands or records, and I've never really understood why that's so wrong. First of all, forgive me, but since virtually everything had been done a hundred times before, nothing being created today is so amazingly unique as to allude to any comparisons.” It’s certainly something I struggle with, because how many ways are there to play the tenor saxophone, or to write a two-chord two-minute rock song? The answer on both points is, of course, many, but that doesn’t make it easy to write about those myriad specificities. Reviewing the umpteenth Peter Br√∂tzmann Chicago Tentet record this week, I challenged myself to write about it in a way that discussed very little of what points I’d already made in past reviews, instead focusing on some aspects that I hadn’t thought about too saliently before, but that being said I’m pretty sure it still isn’t the ideal review.

Part of the point of this blog has been as a sandbox where I could play around with my writing, to the point that I would hope it got better. After all, criticism to me is a sustainable activity, though it can be exhausting, especially with a day job and a number of disparate life goals that I’d like to accomplish. The number of truly interesting outlets for writing about music – any kind of music – is shrinking, despite the existence of hundreds of music and review blogs out there (to which I’d add that I’m honored that this little spot gets some traffic). Two of the publications that I had regularly contributed to have recently shut down while certain others are becoming harder to deal with in terms of content and user-friendliness, which makes it difficult to place writings, both short and long-form (the latter is something I’ve been delinquent on and hopefully that’ll change soon). Therefore, Ni Kantu has stepped into the void and now has its own set of deadlines and so forth.

Anyway, part of that sandbox aspect is to work through ideas about how to write about music, and to a degree the critic must come through in the review or in the piece. Of course, by choosing what to review, the taste and personality of the writer automatically comes to the surface, but if the writer cares about the music and the process of dealing with music, working through that engagement should be an option to interested readers. Call me crazy, but I assume that most people who listen to and read about music want to feel a connection being made, and that the challenges a writer faces in coming to terms with the work are a way to say that ‘we’re all in this together’ – the musicians, the listeners, and the writers. I would hope that this goes for all genres of music but my familiarity with those who write about improvised music makes me think that the most literate potential is there. That being said, I wouldn’t mind reading a powerful and cogent piece on Low or John Darnielle, either.

I’m pretty sure that most music critics aren’t assholes, and that music criticism is a valid pursuit, and hopefully through the proliferation of some interesting sites with writers who are encouraged to work hard, live a little, and care about what they’re doing. There’s a line in the film Almost Famous, where the protagonist (music writer and director Cameron Crowe) is told by a caricature of Lester Bangs to not make friends with the band. Of course, part of the problem with music writers is that they don’t try to develop relationships with musicians and with music, so dedication and care has no way to be actualized. Whether or not one chooses to be pals with musicians, one should at least be able to call music a good friend – though I’ll also say that writing about music, in that sense, soon becomes like writing a best-man speech for a wedding.

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