Sunday, August 21, 2011

Music Metadata: Does a Critic Need to Play?

NPR's Patrick Jarenwattananon just tweeted out an interesting blog post from Roanna Forman's Boston Jazz Blog. In this post, she asks an age-old question: does a good music critic need to play music? What's cool about this post though is how she assembles answers from many tip-top jazz critics from Nate Chinen of the New York Times to estimable Irish bassist-blogger Ronan Guilfoyle to the ever-acerbic Stanley Crouch (get this man a jazz blog!). There was an array of views on a critic's musical chops, all the way from unnecessary to vital. Yet most of the respondents felt that skill with a musical instrument isn't necessary but can be very helpful. Crouch and Guilfoyle say that it allows the critic to hear more of what's going in real time, while Chinen says that musicians certainly trust critics with a modicum of playing experience more.

I find myself in this middle category as well, with the qualification that being a good musician doesn't mean that one will be a good critic. A good critic of any art form is someone who can make the experience of that art come alive in a tactile way. In the case of a music critic, it's about vividly describing what the music sounds like, chronicling the emotional ups and downs, pulling some semantic meaning out of the experience. A good musician may concentrate so much on the technical aspects of the music that the piece of criticism doesn't really translate any of the actual experience.

I feel this idea of translation is the real crux of a criticism, especially music criticism. Certainly every piece of criticism is going to have a judgment call. But a judgment call alone isn't going to make someone want to go out and hear music or see a play. Instead, it's the promise of a memorable experience. If the only thing the jazz critic could think of was how the sax player did these 4ths-based licks over a tri-tone substitution on the bridge, then it probably wasn't an emotionally powerful experience, which would have shut down the analytical side to his or her brain. An overly-technical piece of criticism is what I would call "Lost in Translation," where the critic certainly an aesthetic experience of a sort, but does not have the command of language to translate that experience to a non-expert.

[Short Digression: You can see this problem at work a lot in interviews with musicians, regardless of genre. Some great players and singers have a limited vocabulary of expressing their musical views semantically and give stock answers that don't really illuminate anything. Van Morrison is an especially good example.]

There are problems with too little musical knowledge as well though. The most noticeable aspects of a piece of music are its overall texture and rhythm. A critic who may write well but doesn't know the ins and outs of the music tends to concentrate exclusively on those aspects. With ears like these, Pat Metheny and Kenny G drift into the same category with Yanni and Vangelis. Even if the writing is clever and articulate, this kind of critic isn't much more than a glorified Pandora app.

In the end, a good critic needs to know both sides of the divide - the musician and the listener - and be able to translate so that the listener can really understand what the musicians are getting at, with all its nuance (not to short shrift the musicians' specificity of intent). One certainly does not need to be as good a musician as those playing to comment authoritatively, but one must know what to listen for and playing experience certainly helps in that department. I feel its more about how music the critic has listened to (and of course you listen a lot when you play). Listening to lots of different music teaches one to appreciate tightness of form, novelty of sound, technical mastery, and deftness of touch. The critic needs to know what makes a piece of music great or memorable, which most of the time does not have to do with the technical aspects. It's about recognizing some of the abstract blissfulness of a particular moment and describing it in a way to elicit that same sense of bliss in the reader.

You do see a lot of good critics with at least some musical experience. Nate Chinen played drums through college (apparently with my future high school band director at least once). Alex Ross was a dutiful piano student and took music theory with Peter Lieberson at Harvard (Lieberson called Ross's final sonatina project "most interesting and slightly peculiar."). Stanley Crouch is also a drummer, Randy Sandke is as much a trumpeter as a critic, and pianist Jeremy Denk even takes some time out from his busy touring schedule to give the internet some fine and funny insights into the music he plays. I don't think that this musical experience has made these critics insightful and successful (correlation doesn't always mean causation, my dear), but it's this experience that has made these people want to become writers/critics. If you're going to spend a great deal of energy writing about something, you really must love that something (which is likely why you seen so many memoirs on bookshelves). In my experience, I have found that my love for music has come from both listening and performing experiences, a love built of visual, audial, and tactile memory. Reading Alex Ross and listening to Felix Contreras may have made me want to write about art and music in a serious way, but I wouldn't have even gotten to that point if I hadn't fallen in love with music in the first place. In order to love something at that magnitude, you have to spend a lot of time with it and its easy to log a lot of hours in the school band or on the living room piano.

But while playing takes a back seat for most critics (just think of the time crunch), I still play more than I write. My perspective as a performer has affected my critical occupations in that I am wont to get at the psychology of the performer. I am sensitive to how my state of mind can affect my playing. Pulling up certain images can pull into the musical moment and make me swing harder behind the drum set. When I'm freely improvising, I try to hold one basic musical idea in my head and come back to it at different points, while my subconscious handles the movements from one drum to another. I try to get at this same insight when writing about other musicians. I can usually get a decent idea just by how the musician plays, what decisions he or she makes. For an improvisor, it's the vocabulary and use of space (the motor-mouthed Pat Metheny vs. the restrained and intuitive Bill Frisell). For a classical musician, it's the touch and character of the performance (how much of the performance is practice-room autopilot vs. in the moment risk-taking).

A good piece of criticism doesn't need to hit on this level, especially from the listener's perspective. But I feel this kind of insight is much appreciated from the musician's standpoint. It doesn't trust translate the music for a lay listener, but brings the listener inside the musician's very world. If the listener can understand the musician, they're much more likely to feel like they understand the music.

It has been duly noted that this is post is heavy on the masculinity. See Lara Pellegrinelli for many smart words on gender in jazz.

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