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
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 rhapsody.com 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,
"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
"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"
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?
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