A 365-Day Project

"We Are All Mozart"

A project to create
new works and change
the perception of the
music of our time.

Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   June 20, 2006   next

My mother-in-law subscribes to the New Yorker. The slightly wrinkled issues end up as bathroom reading here at home, where it's impossible to keep up with the clot of demure arts listings, the interruption of self-absorbed fashion ads, the cartoons involved with their own cleverness that you hope someday will look up at you and become funny, the pallid writings of humorists too far over the edge of wry, and the strange uncommitted affections of short storyists for the inconclusive.

We act as a family recycling service, reusing words that already seem exhausted by the time they reach our toilet tank cover.

Reading the music articles reminds me that such arts reportage no longer deals in the day-to-day that is this Golden Age of nonpop. Critics hunt for the odd and obscure, such as an effusive article about a handsome gamba player storming the town with his six-stringed acoustic weapon or an architect-turned-composer whose inoffensive works make it possible to form a festival around him and incur sufficient curiosity points to justify a few inky columns.

Perhaps it's an inability to be strongly informed. Perhaps it's just postmoderism.

What's troubling is the unwillingness to hold focus on the creative musical acts in progress, and in that the New Yorker is not alone in its complicity to mask the effects of the nonpop revolution. Supermarket end-cap magazines like Time have given up, but more significantly, online publications including Wired and Salon display an apalling ignorance of the nonpop genres. Rather than a complaint about these failures, it's worth having a look at what is actually intelligent and informed.

Two such publications are Musicworks and Dusted.

Under the unflagging leadership of Gayle Young and with an impressive editorial staff, Musicworks is both a strong document of present musical history and a quirky jumble of thoughts by artists about composers and their music. Graced with a certain Canadian reticence and struggling with a constant state of underfundedness, the publication (appearing three times each year) does not fear murky genre casting, sound art, hard-edged electroacoustics, musical philosophy, over-the-edge scoring or orchestral conservatives. The team has also produced some seventy cassette and CD compilations of the music associated with each issue.

By contrast, Dusted is updated every day, with reviews and commentary about recordings, books, and concerts from a wide variety of writers, many of them also working artists. The website -- refreshingly clean and unencumbered by heavy media geegaws -- is filled with genre-crossing that packs seriously informed commentary and high opinion into compact reviews and features. Although like its kindred web publications it's still slim on the nonpop, there are strong electroacoustic and avant-garde pickings in the reviews by Kevin Macneil Brown.

Dusted and Musicworks represent what critical nonpop journalism could be -- and sadly isn't. (No, we never tried to be serious music journalists on Kalvos & Damian. It was just too much fun.)

By what "could be," I mean a journalism that is vibrant, critical, informed and most of all, respectful of an audience. Journalists and their publications are always ready to tell you that they understand and write for their audiences, but though the latter is true, the former's assumptions is that they cannot build their audiences, out and down. The key is in being sufficiently descriptive, calling on apt metaphor rather than dropping names, focusing on content rather than technique, on presenting substance rather than interpretation.

The average local music reviewer has little more than a sounds-like vocabulary, such as these actual reviews of my compositions: "A fascinating and earthy work. Its quiet drive and gentle rhythm seduced the listener into an almost primal state" or "a dark and powerful homage -- a strident brass shell driven from within by quieter, more complex and precise sounds" or "it builds quietly and achieves a quiet but powerful drama with ne'er a loud note." But it's not just local reviewers, as John Rockwell attests: "The best works were the biggest and the smallest... [The composer] sat far out in a field playing a recorder, accompanied by a tinny cassette machine. The effect was like a Chinese Pan." A Chinese Pan? This is simply badly informed, lazy journalism. Why didn't he simply talk to me rather than splatter meaningless words on the page? Composers and new nonpop in general suffer for this close-enough-for-horseshoes prose, whose very ineptitude reflects on the quality of the musical artform.

Critics need to talk to the composers and spend time with the music. Deadlines are inconsequential if either the critical listening is poor or inexperienced and the resulting paragraphs are empty or made up of wilting metaphors and inept/inapt analogies. Other fields, perhaps obituaries, beckon such writers. A sometimes better example is Kyle Gann, who wrote, "glistening tones ring in the air, bits of deconstructed voices float by, a dark bass pulse starts up that's more felt than heard, in large-scale periodic cycles ... it's enjoyable how the exquisite rings continually modulate even when nothing seems to be happening." With only three sentences available to review an hour's worth of music that took the better part of a month to create, he captures the facts ('glistening tones' and 'dark bass pulse') and contextualizes them with action ('float by' and 'continually modulate') while even providing shards of biography.

Readers are capable of understanding form and line and harmony and sound object and spatialization and color, as well as genre and appropriate references to other artists. They don't need the journalistic equivalent of public radio's CD-booklet-reading deejays, and they are disrespected by offering this writing as the only at-a-distance entrée into a composition or a composer. When Bernard Holland spent eight paragraphs reviewing the "Rewind" concert, he talked about the physical setup and concert organization, yet failed to mention seven of the eleven composers until the review's very last sentence. What is greater ignorance than this? When does this empty-headed reviewer simply get put out to pasture? The present critical approach, including the willingness to focus on gossip and resurrect old news (as Allan Kozinn did not long ago in "This Is The Golden Age" -- and no thanks to Allan for creditlessly usurping the precise phrase I've been hammering for more than a decade and used in the Arts Journal discussion in which he participated last year) simply must change.

What do critics need? Knowledge, and not just by reading the bios of flavor-of-the-month composers. Knowlege obtained by listening and actual study of the artform, to the point of engaging in actual practice. A willingness to demonstrate knowledge, theirs and their readers -- a good thing, not an embarrassment, even in this era of political know-nothingism. And finally, courage: the courage to critique a composition, but not by ear alone, and not by reference to the vague menu of feelings, but from the standpoint of informed present history and practice.

Composers must call these critics to task for their incompetence. Even the local reviewer who performs primarily a social function needs to be guided in knowledge -- not in opinion, but in knowledge. A degree in aesthetics isn't enough. Perhaps more letters to the editors and a few comments from the stage directed at reviewers might generate controversy enough to turn the spotlight on their foolishness. Good or bad reviews don't matter. Informed reviews do, because the reviewer provides the threads that a listening public grasps for introduction and understanding.

Quick Flashback

A video of my performance of The Moon in Valley Falls is available. It's just a tripodded camera off to the side, but you'll get the idea. You can get it in Quicktime or Windows Media (stream - download).

Rising again -- The Moon in Valley Falls
Reaching the words "rising again" during my performance of The Moon in Valley Falls, New York.

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