Thursday, February 20, 2014

interview nuggets #1

i've done hundreds and hundreds of interviews over the last 15 years, what with the various books coming out in the various countries....  also trips abroad to conferences and festivals in countries where the idea of a visiting Brit rock critic is a novel occurrence....  and various other things (e.g. increasingly, i'm hearing from academics who are doing research into the history of music journalism and rock criticism).... these interviews are sometimes in person and other times by phone/skype and email, there's others still on the radio or live onstage at various events .... struck me that quite possibly there's been as many as 500 interviews! ....  naturally there's a fair amount of repetition and redundancy in all that talk but quite often an odd-angled enquiry will get me thinking a thought or two I've never had and would never have had otherwise...   thanks to the thought-full folks on the other side of the mic

in the first of a sporadic series, here are morsels from a dialogue with a couple of such thought-full fellows, the Estonian critics T├Ánis Kahu and Siim Nestor:

Q: There are two ways to see a critic’s role. 1) A critic must have firm principles that never change 2) A critic must go where the music leads him, even revise his/her own earlier statements. What’s your choice? And do you admit that there are some contradictions in your writing, too?

SR: I think it’s a bit of both. On the one hand, someone who has no values or central core of beliefs, inclinations, attitudes, taste, is unlikely to be that interesting as a critic. You want to have a sense of a person there, someone who has a set of audio erogenous zones, stuff that turns them on. On the other hand, they should be curious, willing to step outside their comfort zones, capable of new discoveries, of being stretched, and also able to admit when they been wrong, or missed something that was important. So the ideal state is a combination of flexibility and rigour. I also think that the job of the critic, as opposed to just the reviewer, is always to attempt to systematize one’s ideas and response. You may decide later that the system has major flaws and misses too much stuff and so you decided to junk it, and maybe build another system. But at least you’re trying to find some kind of coherence, always.

Certainly in my case, if you track through all the writing and the books, there’s a series of attempts to build a coherent system of values (aesthetic, sociopolitical, etc). But in each case that eventually needs to be rethought in response to the arrival of new music that doesn’t fit those criteria but is totally compelling. Sometimes the theory needs to be drastically altered;  something the entire edifice is scrapped. 

At the same time, if you look at all my writing, underneath all the changing ideas, there are consistencies, there are preoccupations that recur. A lot of my “table” was laid out early on, in the Melody Maker writing that went into Blissed Out,  and I have often found myself  returning to those early conclusions and expanding them, complexifying them, going into further depth with those ideas. 

On the other hand many of the obsessions of that time seem dated and questionable: the fixation on jouissance, this cult of an asocial, anti-historical bliss that is at once mystical and nihilistic.  That seems an inadequate model to explain every kind of musical pleasure and significance. But it does describe a certain moment in music culture, as well as in my life, the late Eighties. And if I hadn’t put all my energy into making my ideas into a consistent systematized theory of music ... well, I don’t think the writing that made up Blissed Out would have had the impact it did or even the entertainment value it has as prose.

I think anybody who comes up with a Grand Formulation, a mega-theory about what music is and how it works and what it’s worth – that is a valuable contribution. That’s why I admire people like Joe Carducci, or Kodwo Eshun, who have dared to set out a set of large claims.  I would rather be one of those people, than one of the nitpickers, those people who poke holes in the Big Theories that others come up, but who never dare to build system of their own. Hubris, rather than ressentiment.

Having that said, I actually think it is even more arrogant in a way when music writers just present their eclectic tastes for the world to contemplate and don’t attempt to make a coherent aesthetic of them. I mean, why I should care that you like X, and Y, and Z, and P, and L? If you can’t bother to try and make some larger claim for the aggregate of all your disparate taste positions and aesthetic reactions, than why should I pay any attention?

Thursday, February 13, 2014

sad songs say so much

some time ago a bloke asked me some questions about songs of sadness

1. What are your earliest memories of music?

The Beatles's "Yellow Submarine". The Hollies "The Air That I Breathe". The theme tune to Top of the Pops (Led Zep's "Whole Lotta Love", not that I knew that then). Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. Musicals like High Society and West Side Story. T.Rex, Gary Glitter, Sparks, The Sweet.

2. When was the last time music made you cry?

I can't remember. There are certain songs that infallibly make my eyes brim over, like The Smiths's "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out".  Often though it's not the emotional content of a song so much as the sheer grandeur of it. I have teared up at certain Kraftwerk songs for that reason, just awe at the majesty,the glory of it. Not just the splendor of sound but the vision and spirit behind "Autobahn" and "Trans-Europe Express" in particular.  "Neon Lights" and "Computer Love" are more poignant songs, melodically and emotionally, but I don't think they've had the tear-jerking effect.

3. What connotates sadness in music to you? Is it particular instruments, particular chords, something about the circumstances around the music?

Hard to say.  Minor keys, a certain kind of tremulousness of texture. Not so much dolorousness of vocal tone, and not theatricalised grief, on the whole.  I'd be more affected, by and large, by the non-demonstrative voice. "Pink Frost" by The Chills is a good example. Rather than the blatantly sad or sorrowful, the most moving songs are often more ambivalent or shaded.  Is "Whispering Pines" by The Band a sad song, or just yearning?  Is "Solid Air" by John Martyn a sad song, or more pained empathy for a lost and suffering friend? 

4. If you really want to wallow in your own misfortune what records do you reach for?

I can't remember the last time I did this, which either indicates that I'm pretty happy, or that I've learned that it doesn't work (like trying to drown your sorrows with alcohol)..

I think if you are really emotionally devastated, you'd probably have a gut self-preservation instinct not to try to make it any worse by listening to depressing music. The truly bad times in my life don't have any soundtrack, at least as I recall those times. Music was irrelevant.

5. Is there any music you can think of that isn’t particularly sad but provokes sad feelings or memories for you? Why?

New Order's "Thieves Like Us" makes me wistful about a relationship that didn't work out, because it soundtracked the short period of intense happiness we had together.

There's probably other examples. Very joyous music like Nineties rave tunes, or certain early things by The Aphex Twin, make me feel wistful precisely because those were such exciting, euphoric times. Any good memory is going to have that poignant twinge as it recedes further into the past, so music that is entwined with good memories will cause you to ache a little bit. Eventually that will mean that most music you love will have a tinge of sadness about it, I suppose.  

6. Why is sad music so good?

It's that "parting is such sweet sorrow" thing isn't it. The rapture that's the same as grief. Feeling something intense, even if painful, is better than feeling numb or neutral. 

7. Have you ever considered what kind of music you would want played at your funeral?