On music journalism

The process of writing about music is harder than most people realize. Many of my friends and I make fun of the fact that reviewers have said that bands possess an “angular” guitar sound so many times that it’s now a completely meaningless term, but what we often forget is this problem: How the hell do you actually say what it is a guitar sounds like? When a writer sits down to describe an album, how does he do it?

The downfall of writing about rock bands is twofold. Certain descriptions, like “twangy guitars,” have almost lost their meaning because so many bands can be described that way. On the other hand, when discussing experimental music, it’s accurate to say, “microsound, square waves between 20 and 200 Hz,” but that doesn’t mean anything to most readers. Experimental sounds are heard less often than “twangy guitars,” and the connections between the terminology and the visceral feelings that listening elicits are less internalized. Often the writer seems to just give up, resulting in trash like Pitchfork’s infamous review of Autechre’s Draft 7.30; possibly the worst music writing I’ve ever read, the review is a dramatic dialogue in the style of (read: ripping off) Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, offering absolutely no information about the release itself. In either case, there’s obviously a problem.

Retrospective of his long career, Japanese noise artist Merzbow released a 50-CD box set called The Merzbox. Not many people are interested in more than two days of music primarily composed of harsh noise (his album 1930, for example, sounds a lot like amplified wiping of sweaty hands on cellophane as some jackhammers tear apart a sidewalk), but the people who are interested are, as a rule, very interested. So, even though reviewing this behemoth is an undertaking, several serialized reviews of the whole box set were published shortly after its release. I recently read them. Many began timidly and with honest effort, but by the set’s last 15 albums, the reviews turned into diaries, rants, and personal stories — no longer about the music. Is this appropriate? Is that really music journalism?

I think that Merzbow was aware of the kind of reviews The Merzbox would receive; he may have made it as it is in order to elicit these kinds of questions. He is quite aware of the critical attention devoted to his music, often enclosing little manifestos in his albums (usually about animal cruelty or bondage techniques, two of his favorite topics), which many reviews devote at least as much attention to as the music itself.

The question is, what is the role of music journalism? When writing about music, what information is important? Currently, a music review can be anything from a pure description of the sound to the author’s analysis of how the release fits into its context or even a diary entry for the reviewer. Unless more writers are able to find some sort of middle ground, the question remains as to whether music journalism is even a meaningful enterprise.

On Keith Jarrett

Over the holiday break, my sister got a CD from our parents as a gift, Keith Jarrett’s Paris Concert. I had heard some Keith Jarrett here and there at home since my dad has a few of his CDs, but I hadn’t paid much attention to him. I knew that he played jazz as well as classical music, and I remembered recently that I had been listening to Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa, on which Jarrett plays piano, for much of last semester. So, I made a mental note to listen to Jarrett’s CD, especially its 38-minute long improvisation.

I heard bits and pieces of this improvisation over the next few days as my sister listened to it now and then, but I didn’t listen to it fully until I was in the car, on my way back from New Hampshire. I borrowed my sister’s iPod, put it on, and promptly fell asleep listening within five minutes. I woke up suddenly; I was in the middle of thundering piano chords. The sustain pedal had been welded down and Jarrett’s left hand was laying the bedrock for the right to carefully play a tender melody over it. I was quite moved. I thought of two things. First, it sounded like rock piano-playing to me. It was almost cheesy how strongly it appealed to my emotions. Second, I wondered — as Jarrett delicately ended the piece with beautiful arpeggios — how he could have possibly ended up here after starting the piece in such a straightforward way.

Listening to the piece over and over reveals how Jarrett gently moves from one style to the next as he plays. He starts the piece in a baroque fashion, following general rules of counterpoint handed down from before Bach’s time. As he begins the improvisation, melodies come and go to him and he chooses which ones to pursue. Some are simply diversions, and at other points you can hear him forcefully repeat a phrase a few times, hesitating before launching off into something new. You can tell that he’s waiting for an idea to arrive.

It’s interesting to see a contemporary pianist who very much enjoys classical improvisation, an art which has seemingly disappeared over the last century. In Milos Forman’s Amadeus film, there are many scenes with Mozart gaily improvising in the way we now think of jazz musicians doing the same. It was a really common skill that many musicians had in that time, and I personally would love to see it regain its lost popularity. Unfortunately, current education on classical instruments emphasizes pure performance from written work. Even cadenzas, small improvised sections of music in classical pieces, have now been written out by professionals. A student now learns a cadenza by reading and memorizing it. As a result, there is no difference between it and the rest of the composed piece.

The reason for this decline in classical improvisation is hard to explain. My only hope is that, with time, this old art can be rediscovered and taught to a new generation of classical musicians who can advance it the same way as Jarrett.

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