Sunday, February 22, 2009

...nor his field.

This small, extremely self-polarizing statement is dedicated to one of the few world class music writers I know, Francis Davis, in congratulations on his recent Grammy for the liner notes to Columbia's Miles Davis-Kind of Blue 50th Anniverasy Edition.  Francis is a writer with an unparalleled gift, and a genuinely good person, which among the vocation knows even fewer parallels still.

I've lost the will to criticize music at age 33.  

The reason is, I think, because on some fundamental level by doing so I find myself trying to anticipate the experience of hearing.  The older I get the less I care about the lives of musicians, the reasons they do what they do.  I don't fuss as much over their mistakes and I don't appreciate the perfection.

Over the weekend I came across a fantastic little essay written by H. L. Mencken for a publication called Smart Set, in 1919, called "The Music Lover".   Mencken especially advised the humanists who seek to teach a love of music to the unformed student heart, as if conveniently in the rote-learned appreciation of Scarlatti might also flower a resistance to commit violent crimes or masturbate immoderately.  

Some people will move to music, others simply won't.  They don't need to learn the notes of the scale, the traditionalist convictions of Brahms or difference between modal and tonal jazz.  No amount of classroom pummeling is going to affect the inner lantern.  

The mark of a music lover then is the urge to create his own music, Mencken went on to say.  But seeing as he wrote the essay well before the advent of ubiquitous music journalism he might suffer a small modification:  There are many of us whose sole function is to bray indulgently, often without conviction on any number of subjects.  On music, our numbers are legion and most highly braying.  It could be that we music writers are the ones most sorely in need of the creative act we observe: the clumsy, arhythmic and often just plain self-conscious who hide our personal music in our bedrooms or in our heads.

Whatever we think of active musicians, those of us who love music find in it something transcendent.  As such the act of creating it isn't so much an artifice, such as seeing a tree in nature and drawing its likeness, as it is a possessed and probably uncontrollable communication of something grander.  It is a natural passage through the body of the musician.  As critics we envy that with a searing redness.  And when we feel the musician has erred in the conveyance we pounce.

So, without impulse, age 33, I have grown mostly comfortable with the notion of listening and listening only--a pronouncement that even now I defy arrogantly.  To be in love with something requires that you do not distract it by anything but the disturbance of love.  Some critics would argue that's exactly what they do.  But often the written word reads different.  There is bitterness and personal neediness with no place in the writing.  The urge to find beauty is supplanted by a thirst to name-stamp new discoveries.  The masculine urge to recharacterize the sound in one's own voice and likeness obliterates the kernel of reverence--I speak from some experience.

I have come to a place where, at 6:15 on Saturday evening, on every Saturday evening--as I am forming habits with age, I pull a record from its sleeve, play it, wishing I had no idea who the people responsible for the sounds were, wishing even the names and pictures were gone.

There is one tendon of resistance to the joyous abyss of hearing it on those anonymous terms:  

I go over to the computer, invariably and with the urgeless propriety of myself, age 17,  and change my Facebook status to read:

Bryan is listening to

It's an irresistible force, not unlike a song.


Brickbat Books said...

I'm breaking my rule and commenting. I think it's important to remember that Mencken wrote his essay in a time when the main form of musical dissemination was sheet music. Victrolas and Grammaphones were still cutting edge technology. So, basically, if you wanted to hear something, it was either the concert hall, or play it yourself. It is now, officially, easier to listen to music, than not listen to music. Any music. Hell, even the shows at my dinky little shop end up on youtube the next morning, and then get an official cd release a few months later, which winds up on a music blog weeks before that. The only way listening can possibly get easier, would be the arrival of usb ports in our skulls.

Bryan said...

I think I acknowledged Mencken's place in time--and all relative technological fixities, dutifully if implicitly. Perhaps not with the richness of historical detail as did you.

And while you make a strong point about the newness of the technology and precipitating musical exposure in 1919 vs the (inescapable) drubbing of music and its technology in our ears today my dilemma is the prickly and very much increasing role of the commentator/ critic.

Granted this all could very easily be the result of ambiguity in my writing--wouldn't be the first time.

Like the ACLU defending a Klansman I often find myself standing on the film-thin kinship of wretchedness when I defend the right--however inconsequentially, for some for this shit to see the light of readership. I'm happy the flood gates are open, sad to smell the water.

So when Mencken writes that it is the mark of the music lover to attempt to make his own music I make it a foregone conclusion that, given the formative moment during which the essay was written, and given that he could not have realistically foreseen our advancements, he would, nevertheless, have conceded their places in his general argument; the critic is making the same clumsy attempts as any unheard of Shreeveport garage band. His competitive urge is no less incriminating than any other musician's, minus--for now, largely, the yield of beauty.

That's my bother.

You're absolutely right, NOT hearing music is not an option anymore. That should be a clarion of good fortune for the folks at the ECM label, with their cultish thing for silence!

They might've unwittingly sewn the seed for the tranquility revolution to come! The antidote to ubiquitous bad melody fed through cranial usb's!!!

Bryan said...

The funny thing is, BB, that I hate this post. It makes no sense. Made for a satisfying release to spill it all out, but in terms of making a defensible position it's kinda garbage. I was writing from an emotional place, I think.

And truthfully, I wish you'd break your rule and its concomitant silence more often. Your insights are as rich as your very fine taste.