|The critic speaks|
For about the last six months I’ve applied myself seriously to writing about music. I left school thinking I was going to be a writer, and discovered by 23-ish that I had nothing to say: I hadn’t written anything apart from university essays and the occasional first page of a soon-to-be-abandoned SF story since my early 20s. When I began this process I was still first and foremost a musician, albeit one that wanted to do a great deal of practice before putting his name to any significant creative output. And now? I will continue to develop my skills as a bassist when I can, but I realise that I am a far, far better writer than I will ever be a musician. Fiction, poetry and music criticism are going to be my main focus for the remainder of my life.
So what have I learned in those six months? I have learned the truth of Martin Mull’s oft (mis)quoted adage, ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ Usually employed to illustrate the absurdity of attempting to paraphrase one art form in the language of another, I’ve come to regard it as holding a more literal truth. You have to do a kind of dance with words, circling the musical object and rushing in to approach it while it’s distracted: you have to constantly adjust the balance between drawing generic comparisons, baldly describing the sound, analysing the musical materials, and addressing the conceptual and social frameworks in which the music has meaning. Every recording or performance requires a different approach, and the more out-there the music, the more out-there the critical response needs to be. My bare opinion, and my professional assessment of technical quality, which are the main tools I thought I had at my disposal to start with, interest me less and less each time I set fingers to keyboard. My usefulness is as an interpreter, firstly helping my readers to judge whether they are likely to enjoy listening to the music I write about, and secondly, to share my understanding of the music in the hope that it may enrich other listenings; and my aim is to be some kind of verbal DJ, sharing the music I love, and promoting the artists to whom I will always be incredibly grateful for enriching my life with their work.
Here’s a story: Apple want to give iTunes customers the right to download unlimited copies of music they’ve paid for. This is not so much interesting in itself, as for what it says about the ongoing erosion of the sense of a recording as a physical, tradeable commodity. Music is an experience, not a thing, and the ongoing upheavals in the music business are all about the gradual collapse of the pretense that it is.
I love new and obscure genres, especially those with silly names (such as ‘misanthropic technical death grind’). I’m currently thinking about what to call New York experimental folk guitar improvisors, since I know of two, which by the standards of pirate metal, is enough for a genre. Here’s an article about ‘djent’.
Which music distribution formats were you glad to see the back of? I know the cassette is enjoying a good deal of retro chic lately, but for me they were fucking heartbreaking, as album after favourite album drifted into electromagnetic incoherence. I don’t agree with much of this, but that’s the fun of it: a list of the 13 worst formats ever.
Where is the major growth in the music business? Silicon Valley, where digital music technology firms are sprouting like mushrooms on cowshit. Seriously, the web is crammed with new band profile/ audio hosting sites, vying to see who can play Brutus to MySpace’s Caesar.
And finally, for completists and bootleg nerds, SideLine reckon the newly unearthed three track demo from Depeche Mode is the genuine article.