Monday, November 13, 2006

Writing about people you know

I'm talking about musicians here or people you know otherwise involved in the music. And I'm talking about eai. My personal guess as to how many serious fans this music has, worldwide, hovers around 5,000. Totally a guess, of course, but I doubt it's very far off however one would define the term. Erstwhile, pretty clearly the pre-eminent label in the area, rarely sells more than 1,000 copies of a given disc. Partly this is due to distribution issues, partly--and increasingly--due to the simple fact that the music is downloaded rather than purchased. But live events, in NYC, ones that feature relatively prominent names, might draw 100-150 if you're lucky. Even if the artist has something of a cachet in the pop world--Fennesz, for instance--maybe 200 people show up for a performance in one of the biggest, most "art" conscious cities in the world. So I feel fairly safe in saying that there are about 5,000 around who have a rough idea of what, say, Keith Rowe's been up to in the last five years and care a little bit.

These days, if one so desires, one quickly gets to know a large proportion of both musicians, label owners and fans in the area. It's hard not to. Unless you're a social hermit, you interact with others on discussion groups, attend concerts and say hello to people there. Give yourself a year or two and, without trying hard at all, chances are you've come to know a large number of folk in the biz, some of whom you likely consider "friends". Many of them create or foster the production of music! How about that? And since the percentage of people who write about music among the non-musician fans of this genre is pretty high (sometimes it seems that this is the case more often than not), you're often called upon to write about stuff created or distributed by people you know or consider friends. Horrors!

The appearance of impropriety rears its misshapen head and you occasionally find yourself called out for venturing a positive opinion of someone you're otherwise acquainted with, accused of log-rolling (if you yourself have something to gain from a similarly appreciative response) or shilling, or what-have-you. Of course, this is a very real possibility, at least if you've no shred of integrity. But what's a poor eai writer to do? Restrict himself to comment on only those releases with which he has absolutely no personal connection? If you're writing about some spawn of a vast conglomerate, that could be quite easy. In this tiny neck o' the woods though, well, some releases would simply never be written about at all! We're an incestuous bunch, that condition forced upon us by our meager population. When you're members of a tiny, isolated village, sometimes ya gotta marry your cousin.

Now, as suggested by some (I'll namecheck Adam Hill here as one who has argued these matters very well and passionately in the past--if he sees this, I hope he'll comment), you could preface each review with a caveat stating one's relationship with certain individuals involved in the given project. One: that's pretty clunky. I've done it on occasion when the relationships went beyond the normal bounds. My write-up of "Duos for Doris", for instance, contained one such. But Two, at least on my part, I never make any secret about who I know, who I like personally etc. Again, I daresay most who read my stuff at all know me reasonably well from discussions going back to the boards and almost 10 years ago as well as more recent lengthy participation at JazzCorner, Bagatellen, I Hate Music, etc. If you know Rowe's music at all, chances are you know I'm writing a bio of him (and may even finish it one day). So, if I review a disc Keith's involved in, I trust the reader has this information already in mind and can judge my opinions accordingly.

Then there's the simple practical test: If I consistently love the work of someone who 90% of other fans consider to be abjectly mediocre, there might be good reason for suspecting I'm listening through rose-tinted ears. That's not been my experience, however.

That said....I can't deny that my perceptions of someone's music is often biased to one degree or another by either what I think of them personally or, if I don't actually know them, by what impression their (perceived) personality has made on me. It can work both ways. If I know and enjoy a person and, especially, if I have prior experience with his/her work, I find that I'll try "extra-hard" to glean some deeper understanding--in a positive sense--of a given performance. I'm not sure this is "wrong"; I have a working opinion of the person and I'm trying to "fit in" this performance in front of me. I think we all do something of the sort. But does this mean cutting extra, possibly undeserved slack for some? Yeah, could be. Does it preclude a negative review? Of course not. Hell, part and parcel of this area of music is that failure happens. On the other hand, if an individual takes the stage and exhibits persona aspects that entirely rub me the wrong way, let's say wearing leather pants and cowboy boots and a cross around his neck, are those attributes going to be something I'll have to work hard to get past? Well, yes, I suppose so. If a disc arrives bearing portentous track titles by a single (faux) named "artist", sure, my hackles have been raised. Still, I do everything I can to give a fair listen and a fair response. I think I achieve this more often than not; others may disagree.

This subject crossed my mind several times today after spending a lovely few hours yesterday afternoon talking with Annette Krebs at dba (btw, a great bar on 1st Ave between 2nd & 3rd Sts--check it out). I've enjoyed Annette's music for several years now and had previously met her at Musique Action in Nancy in May, 2002. I'll go so far as to make the presumption that we're now "friends". I'm looking forward to hearing more music from her over the next several decades. Should I not write about it? Should I preface future reviews with "Annette and I had several hot ciders on a rainy Sunday in NYC a while ago."? It seems silly. She was actually very appreciative that when I wrote up her most recent disc for Bags earlier this year, I was indeed critical of several of the tracks (I think I used the term "hermetic"; not a plus for me) and that, too often, people say that everything was great, everything wonderful, that it's refreshing to get honest opinions. Well, of course. Giving your honest opinion is what you do with friends anyway, isn't it?

As always, I welcome dissenting thoughts.


Richard Pinnell said...

Brian, you're right, most of us know you are writing Keith Rowe's biography, but I can assure you that noone anywhere thinks there's any chance of you ever finishing it ;)

This is an interesting subject that has caused me problems in the past. I don't write very much, but when I do I would never worry about other people's opinions are on my motives for liking/disliking something.

There is the point to remember that often you will be closer to the music of acquaintances, so you may gain a greater understanding of it, and therefore possibly take more pleasure of it.

This has definitely been the case for myself, and this has resulted in people accusing me of seeing the music of friends through rose tinted glasses, but the one thing I have always tried to be is honest, and as long as you remain true to yourself to hell with what anyone else thinks!

Also, Annette is indeed a very charming person... if you see her again before she goes home buy her a cider from me? :)

Anonymous said...

While you argue your case well Brian, I think that issue comes up only because of a desire to "be part of the scene" that drives a lot of people. I have been following "eai" for as long as about anyone and I can't claim any of the established musicians* as friends. I've met and been acquainted with a number of them and have even had lengthy discussions with a few of them. There are certainly a lot of great guys and people that would be good friends. But I have always felt that musicians must tire of being approached by fans and have never tended to so so. So I would argue that the position that you find yourself in is one that you brought upon yourself. It would be very easy (my case in point) to not be a "hermit" and not become friends with the musicians. In my case I have done this solely over this perceived notion of not wanting to harass the poor guys. If I was a music journalist I would pursue this distance even more aggressively. One can be friendly without compromising ones objectivity. This is the same issue that makes theatre, film and political reporters of diminished value, when you have to take them with a grain of salt. Of people discussing "eai" I have built up a 'profile' of what I think are their biases and one always has to apply that. But I do think it is more valuable when someone is outside of the scene in reviews. We don't really need the additional information that a closer relationship brings for a work of music should be a thing of itself.

* I would consider several up and coming musicians to be friends.

Great work on the blog and glad to see you keeping it up.

Brian Olewnick said...

Hey Robert, good to see you here. I was thinking about your comments last night.

I can only speak for myself of course, but I've found that my increased "friendship" (such as it is, which really isn't that extensive) with musicians is more a combined function of age, location, the Net and, to be sure, my having become a writer about the stuff.

Back in the late 70s when I worked at Environ, I came to know a number of musicians. But, aside from those in the immediate orbit of Fischer, none were "friends". Partly this was because I was 22-25 years old and most musicians were far older, partly because I was simply more shy about interacting, all the more so with artists I'd admired from afar for a long time. After Environ folded, from about 1980-96 (pre-Net), I really had no friends involved with the music, either jazz or eai. For that matter, I had few friends in the visual arts scene either, in which I was exhibiting my work. I had a number of close friends, they just weren't into the same aesthetic areas that I was.

Come the Net, I found discussion groups a good fit for me, with enough remove provided that I felt secure in voicing opinions within groups of people I could get to "know" from a distance. Living in NYC, it soon became natural enough to meet at shows. The idea of actually writing about music at a level "above" discussion groups really had to be urged on me, initially by Walter Horn (the liners for his first Screwdriver disc); I was real reluctant to do so. Putting myself out there in that context wasn't something I was eager to do. But the reception I generally received was positive enough that it seemed worthwhile and, admittedly, the ego-stroking didn't feel bad either.

Still, I'm not normally the type to intrude on others' privacy, especially performing artists. Part of what changed that was simply hanging out with Abbey who, of course, schmoozes relentlessly (! hey, Jon!) and in whose company one automatically meets a lot of musicians, some of whom one comes to like personally and, in the normal course of things (outside of the music deal) become friends with just as I'd do with anyone with whom there is a mutual attraction. Keith was one such. Part of it is just attaining an age and maturity where one (or, at least, I) felt more at ease interacting with near-strangers than I would have in my 20s.

On the other hand, because I do write about the stuff (and, I suppose, because some musicians or producers like the way I do), I am often approached personally or via e-mail by individuals some of whom, in the normal course of things, also become friends. It wouldn't be my nature to avoid friendship with someone due to "professional" (hah) concerns. That may well be seen as a black mark, but so be it. As I said, I try to be open about these things, allowing readers to form their own judgments about the merits of my writing.

Your tastes and mine (and Richard's, for that matter) seem to have a fairly strong degree of overlap. I imagine you, after reading a review of mine, take the opinion, weight it with whatever biases you've assigned me and act (or not) from there. Perfectly fine! I think we all do that, consciously or otherwise.

More later, maybe. I'm winging this off before, ahem, doing my job so if it makes less sense than it should, well...

Thanks for the kind words about the blog!

Anonymous said...

to keep my response short - well said. (I just dropped the same accolade on DJ Rupture, maybe that is the mood I'm in)

I don't know you personally, but I know where you're writing from - and assume you know (or have met) most of the artists you'd be writing about. New improv is a small scene (one reason why it has reached out so easily into noise and laptoppy scenes), and it is easy to meet and get to know people. and, given the improv climate, you might get to play with them (while nyc is full of musicians and places to play, it is missing something open and magnetic like Eddie Prevost's workshops - which are fantastic no matter who is there...)

that said, this type of music is a peronal music and is best reviewed by those "in the know" (or whatever) who have spent time with the artists (even if only at gigs) and understand the larger language they are working with when its put to record (selected, edited, mastered material representing a much larger performed output).

regardless of my own stories, knowing the folks can bring great insight into great music, but what if you don't like what yr friend or acquaintance is playing? that is a sticky situation. been in it a few times...

as for Annette Krebs, she did play a great show at Monkeytown. next you are in contact w/her, demand she release more recordings that I can actually track down!

Brian Olewnick said...

Thanks, BG. Annette mentioned that Phosphor has material ready to be issued and that they're looking around for a label. They have a nice disc on Potlatch from several years back and were interesting when I saw them at Nancy in 2002. Maybe a tad on the dry side, but still. She said that their dynamic range is much wider these days. I think it's the same personal aside from Alessandro Bossetti's departure.

Anonymous said...

Cool blog, Ollie!

Brian Olewnick said...

Uli, my man! Good to see you here.