Wednesday, September 26, 2012

On Trust in Contemporary Music

I’m giving a spin right now to the new Talibam! record, Puff Up The Volume, just released on the British label Critical Heights. It’s the fruit of several years of work and a trajectory that has run from noisy improvised music to electro-influenced absurdist rap. Go figure. Readers of Ni Kantu might be surprised that I’m giving something like this its tenth (or so) spin, considering that sounds of such a persuasion aren’t really the purview of jazz/creative improvisation-driven critical discourse. But because I’ve followed Talibam’s work for several years and had a number of interesting conversations with drummer/vocalist Kevin Shea and keyboardist/vocalist Matt Mottel, it’s gotten to the point where I trust their intentions, and I can always learn something from those whose aesthetics and ethics I appreciate. On a personal level they are good people, inquisitive, hardworking and creative. And they’ve taken those qualities and recorded a fun and memorable “party record.”

Being able to trust participants to have certain intent and conviction behind their work is one of the main things I look for in music. It sometimes dovetails with a level of acquaintance with the artists, too, and that can make criticism fuzzy (I think I’ve waxed on this before, so do forgive me. I think about it a lot). Because it’s impossible not to develop some sort of friendly relationship with those whose work one supports*, it’s easy to come off looking like one is merely shilling for friends or that one is playing social politics with the music. I hope I would be honest if I couldn’t write about a colleague’s work if I felt the music wasn’t up to par. But it’s tough because it’s hard to make a judgment call when one generally trusts the artist (given that any such call is subject to the flexibility of time and experience anyway).

What brings this to mind is that I was just reading some disparaging YouTube comments on the video for Talibam’s “It’s a Tough Day, Hard Day.” Of course, they don’t really need any defending – it’s either something one likes or one doesn’t – and while I did not, I felt like responding. Jumping into the fray on some YouTube thread is absurd and a waste of time, but part of me was like “hey – these guys work hard and are pretty remarkable musicians, so give them a break.” Nobody needs to play “den mother” to the creators of weird music. And maybe at the end of the day it’s just a goofy song. 

Related to this is how my interest in an artist’s work tends to increase as a result of interviews and conversations. The more I know about the process, the more intrigued I become about subsequent iterations, and the more connected I feel to the work. Again, that blurs the line between objective reporter and unabashed fan, but in the communities that surround creative and underground music, dedicated support is part of the scene. For example, I always really liked saxophonist Ted Brown’s playing, but it wasn’t until I interviewed him that I frequently found myself gushing about his music. When one gains insight into the person behind the work, it just becomes that much more interesting and fleshed out. Curiously, I’ve interviewed musicians whose work I didn’t know very well and, as a result, become intrigued enough to follow what they do pretty intently. This happened recently with a series of interviews in conjunction with the Thrill Jockey label’s Twentieth Anniversary performances in New York. The result is that I’m looking forward to following what some of these musicians produce in the coming years.

I don’t know that being objective is the right way to approach thinking about contemporary music, ultimately. Knowing or at least communicating with people helps me to think about how they put their music together, and what they mean by doing it – at least to some extent. It’s up to critics and thinkers to put an experiential spin on it, of course, and that’s a very important part of the process. And for the record, the music I find interesting is not made so purely on a social level – a large percentage of what I enjoy (&/or write about) is made by individuals and groups I have no literal connection to, other than liking the work. But being able to understand its humanity and have trust in the artists’ “realness” is one of the keys to ensuring the artform’s longevity. It’s probably one of the reasons why those rare examples of John Coltrane speaking are so treasured. After all, music is a basic form of interpersonal communication, so all of this seems curiously appropriate.


*There is, of course, the valid notion that writers just want to be “one of the cats,” something they’ll never be. There’s no way I can, as a writer, have the same level of conversation about the work with, say, drummer Tomas Fujiwara that any of his bandmates could. And why would I? Being a musician of a certain caliber is a special thing that not everyone can or should be able to do (or want to do). One has to let musicians be musicians, too.

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