By Beppe Colli
Jan. 1, 2012

Never a completely risk-free occupation even in the best of times, the act of looking back, come year's end, at what happened in the course of the previous year has rarely been as strong a source of stress as the moment we look back at 2011. In no particular order, we can see: a couple of wars, a few giant earthquakes, a nuclear quasi-disaster whose consequences will be felt for decades, and a financial-economic storm so strong as to make one pray that those in power will create fewer disasters than the ones the position they occupy makes them perfectly fit to cause. (All the while, hoping we'll never be confronted with having to decide what's better - a frightful end or an endless fright? Well, at least, let's hope that, come the moment, we'll be able to make the right choice!)

If one looks at those so-called "minor problems", well, things went the way they were supposed to go, i.e., very badly. For instance, just check those well-known trends regarding the musicians-critics-audience triangle, and see a downward spiral. As everybody knows by now, thanks in part to that famous essay penned by Brian Eno for UK newspaper The Guardian (i.e., that the old compensation scheme that for more than 150 years made it possible for music and musicians to be alive in the form that's familiar to all those reading this article is dead and gone, with no chance whatsoever of being resurrected in the foreseeable future), there is no place for hope, but "hitting ground" is an expression that can reveal new, profound, and unforeseen meanings. Such as: With the public sector resources being drained by more urgent issues, will consumers be willing to pick up the slack, so keeping alive the "art object" as a precious "cultural item", by spending their own money, now that new, dramatic priorities keep knocking on their doors?

Maybe because I'm quite nearsighted, movies have never been a burning passion for me. Which doesn't prevent me, of course, from reading the reviews and articles penned by A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis for The New York Times. And since, come year's end, every publication worth its name is supposed to run a piece that looks back at what happened in the course of that year, the two critics engaged in a stimulating dialogue, which appeared in print on December 14, 2011 under the title Old-Fashioned Glories in a Netflix Age.

The disappearance of the movie as we know it - i.e., shown on a big screen located in a big room, watched by many people at the same time - and the arrival of new choices such as "video on demand", and the availability of new movies via cable, make the problem (something which others often call "an opportunity") of the multiplication of the sources of information entailed by the thinning of the critics' "middle layer" (here meaning: skilled work in exchange for adequate compensation) even more dramatic.

Scott refers to what psychologist Barry Schwartz has called "the paradox of choice", so arguing: "With so much to choose from, how is anyone supposed to decide what to see, and how can anyone measure the aesthetic value or cultural importance of a given movie?".

While Dargis says: "I can't imagine, for instance, watching "War Horse" on a television, much less an iPhone: this is a self-consciously old-fashioned movie, shot in gorgeous film, which deserves to be seen projected on a big, bright screen and not via a thinner-looking 'digital cinema package.' (This is the studios' term for the compressed and encrypted digital files they use to store and distribute content, i.e., movies.)"

It's an article well worth reading in full. (I can't help but wonder how many music writers are able to see the parallel between what happens with digital compression in movies, and music files.)

One thing leads to another, and so, by association, I decided to check if J. Hoberman still worked at The Village Voice.

The work by J. Hoberman is something I have always fun reading when it comes to movies, and it's the main reason I still check The Village Voice. Yep, Hoberman is still there - or at least, he was on Wednesday, Dec 21 2011, when I read his double film review titled Spielberg and Fincher: Taming Creatures - WWI gets Spielberg’d; Fincher’s new girl in town.

But while reading this piece I remembered that it's at year's end that Polls always appear, so I decided to check if Francis Davis - 'cause it's him who coordinates the Jazz Poll for The Voice - had emitted any signs of life.

Bad news: Davis was still at The Voice - and it was with great interest that I read his column titled Up-and-Coming Players from 2011, the Year of the Tenor, which appeared on Wednesday, Dec 21 2011. Alas!, placed at the very end of the piece was a sad announcement: eight years after getting to wear Gary Giddins's mantle, this was to be the last of his regular columns for The Village Voice. But what about the Jazz Poll, then? "Results will be posted on soon after the new year."

Well, what does it mean, exactly?

As I've already written in the past, the blog called Do The Math - by Ethan Iverson, the piano player in the jazz trio The Bad Plus - is a place I like to visit . Once in a while, Iverson will write about a "controversial" topic, inviting readers to send their contributions under the banner Forumesque. As it's to be expected given the topics discussed on his blog, those who participate are for the most part musicians, or critics. And I bet the same to be true of most "lurkers".

Well, let's see if the story which follows makes any sense. About ten years ago - I was a registered member of the George Massenburg-moderated Forum - I wrote a post about my liking a certain musician, and was quite surprised when one board member wrote back, saying he had caught that musician on stage, in California, just the night before, adding: "There were twenty of us, all musicians". I have to confess I was not at all happy upon hearing this. An audience of twenty is seldom good news - and please consider that the music this artist plays is quite lively and captivating, not at all difficult to listen to - but what I found quite peculiar was the fact that all the people in the audience shared the same occupation. "Music for musicians"?

The fact of the music being (relatively speaking) very user-friendly made it impossible for me to take the element "stay away, kid, this is difficult music" into consideration. So maybe it was a problem of sharing a "specialized channel of information"?

Here the problem becomes quite worrying - and let's not forget what A. O. Scott said. As entailed by the notion of the multiplication of channels - and so differently than in the past, when it was at least possible to assume this as having a chance to occur - it's high unlikely that those looking for "deep analysis" and those looking for "instant satisfaction" will ever share the same platform, the same being true when it comes to newspapers and magazines. So the "jump" in understanding (which runs parallel to the model about the music one listened to, which was once made an object of ridicule given its "naïvely evolutionary" pattern) will only occur due to "external" reasons.

I really don't know how many readers are familiar with the yearly volume series of US origin called Best Music Writing. This is how the idea works (or doesn't): through an accurate process of selection, plus the contribution of an editor whose identity changes from year to year, writings in English language taken from various sources - press, the Web, blogs, and so on - are collected under one roof. I've bought a few of them myself, more out of curiosity than real enthusiasm (the price ain't bad, either). But this year my European source wrote to me, saying that the copy I had reserved was not to be available at those counters.

After a short while I happened to see a piece by Robert Christgau titled The Future of Best Music Writing, which appeared on December 11, 2011 in ARTicles, US National Arts Journalism Program's blog. It appears that, after the release of the 2011 volume (the one I never saw), famous specialized publisher Da Capo put an end to the fun. So there's word of a fundraising campaign - and does anybody have $30K to spare? - designed to kick-start the thingee, both in paper and digital form. Just write Daphne Carr ("series editor", 2006-present).

What is gonna happen now? Maybe more in the vein of "vanity press" (a trait which was definitely never previously absent in the series)? Will anybody - besides contributors, their friends and relatives - ever read those pieces? Will the books receive proper distribution in bookstores? Will bookstores still exist by then?

One of the last physical formats still on sale when it comes to "good, old music" is the one called the "deluxe edition", or the (typically more expensive) "box set".

In the hope of making the new editions easier to sell, and more profitable - let's put aside for now all those important, serious issues concerning re-mixing old, original albums - quite often the new editions feature more "modern-sounding" re-mixed versions of said old albums. The result being supposed to sound more appealing to both old and young customers, when compared to the original albums and those "refurbished" versions using the original two-track master.

One of the names held in very high esteem when it comes to re-mixing old albums is Steven Wilson, a musician of some renown both as a soloist, and as a member of Porcupine Tree. Having received serious acclaim for his re-mixes of old albums by King Crimson and Caravan, Wilson recently proceeded to re-mix the historic Jethro Tull album called Aqualung, forty years after its original release.

Of course, one can't help but be suspicious of those "public debates" where those who argue the aesthetic merit of a given work of art could also be the owners of a prized gold edition version of said CD, currently worth in the neighborhood of $600-1,000 on eBay. On the other hand, it's quite likely that those who argue in favour of the superiority of those new re-mixes see their arguments being polluted by the fact of owning a serious stock of said new boxes, to be sold on eBay, given time. But today, anybody owning a computer and the appropriate software can easily check the truth quotient when it comes to things such as "compression", "dynamic range", "frequency threshold", and so on, so making the amount of subjectivism, be it financially- or prejudice-motivated - be way less than before.

But one can't help but notice that those kind of debates are for the most part absent when it comes to the press, even when it comes to the anniversary edition of a "rock milestone" such as Nirvana's Nevermind. Why?

© Beppe Colli 2012 | Jan. 1, 2012