Book Review: How To Write About Music

How To Write About Music

How to Write About Music isn’t a manual. It’s a crystal ball worthy of any aspiring music writer’s gaze. It doesn’t hold your hand from concept to copy, but arranges tools you’ll need to get there on your terms.

The essays are excerpted from magazines, books, blogs, and the prestigious 33 1/3 series, of which this volume is a part. Lack of familiarity with the series is all the more reason anyone who gives a wit about the craft should have it in hand. The table of contents reads like a musical composition in its own right. Each themed chapter reflects a rhythmic structure of essays preceded by an introduction and advice from industry leaders and followed by writing prompts to get your utensils moving. In addition to these are interludes, dubbed “The Go-Betweens,” offering advice on salient issues such as networking, information sources, and critical essentials. Within the latter I note a common theme of empathy, which might well be the most important quality to cultivate as a writer of any persuasion. Witness my own review of a Jordi Savall concert I attended in 2015, for which I balanced aversion to the performed with empathy for the performer.

To the list of writerly necessaries, I add my own: be fearless. There have been instances, especially when writing about a live concert, during which I felt conflicted about my reactions. Unlike an album, one doesn’t have the luxury of playing such an event over and over, digesting it for however long feels necessary before textually fixing its place in time. But as music writer Paul Griffiths once told me, “Sometimes your job is to confirm what the audience already knows.” It has indeed been my experience, assuming I’ve been open to what was happening on stage, that my readers—at least those who come forward—have tended to share my assessments. Have confidence in that. Your readers are likely to feel just as uncomfortable with a gushing review of a patently horrible concert than a haterly review of a stellar one.

Effective music criticism is not merely that which tries to convince you to experience the art in question but that which allows you understand why anyone else would. In this regard, Lou Reed’s piece on Kanye West’s Yeezus is emblematic. It may not turn you into a follower, and it may not even strengthen an existing fan’s respect, but it may just convince you to throw caution to the Westerly wind and take it for what it is. Reed does, of course, treat Yeezus as a musical object, but does so by situating it culturally and socially. A superb piece by Alex Ross on Radiohead in the “Artist Profile” chapter displays likeminded attention to detail in providing context for the band, as well as context for the context. It helps, too, that the anecdotal bits Ross includes are vivid, often humorous, and always relevant. Descriptive turns of phrase, used well, can provide the same function. A case in point is John Jeremiah Sullivan, who in his protracted musings on Axl Rose says so much about the Guns N’ Roses frontman with so little: “With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet.” Another favorite in this vein is the article by Lindsay Zoladz on feminist punk outfit Pussy Riot’s visit to the Brooklyn Museum, of which the last line is classic characterization: “By the end of the week, I can’t decide if I’ve been in the presence of a group of real-life superheroes, or just getting to know a couple of down-to-earth Clark Kents.” Only a fan could have written this.

Everyone who ingests this volume will, I think, absorb more of one particular piece over the rest. For me, “Metal Machine Music: Composing With Machines” is the finest morsel. With his starkly metaphorical yet simpatico language, Brian Morton describes an internal landscape of technology and plugs the reader into it like a thirsty chip. Other notables abound throughout How to Write About Music. Highlights in the “Track-By-Track” section include a free dive into the antics of Taylor Swift by the prodigious Tavi Gevinson (only 17 when she wrote it) and Mary Gaitskill’s endearing love letter to B-Movie’s “Nowhere Girl.” A standout in the personal essay section is James Wood’s piece on Keith Moon. Even my label of expertise, ECM Records, gets due props in Rick Moody’s “On Celestial Music,” in which he cites Arvo Pärt’s Tabula rasa as a turning point in his engagement with so-called “serious” music. So-called alternative forms of expression are also given space to roam, and of them a snippet of the graphic novel on Black Flag by Marty Davis is fabulous.

Refreshing about this book is the variety of contradictory perspectives. Notice, for example, in the “Artist Interview” section that some advocate learning as little as possible about the artist in question while others encourage knowing everything inside and out (then forgetting it). This allows one to be adaptable to conversational turns. In the same section, Paul Morley notes that to write about music is to make myth, saying, “the best music writing generates great, billowing lies, elaborates the effective fantasy of great music, rather than confirming facts and meekly agreeing with dates, descriptions and existing classification.” On point, to be sure. Music writing is not a seeking of truth but a confirmation of its malleability. The axiom bears out repeatedly in the art of the interview, of which the book has more fine examples. Thomas Sayers Ellis’s conversation with Bootsy Collins is instructive. Before reading it, one need only look at the structure. Ellis’s short, occasionally single-word, sentences in bold, and long, rambling paragraphs from Collins reveal an interviewer who listens, sympathizes, and provokes. He merely shoots the cue ball and provides the carom for every pocketed ball thereafter.

Nearest to my practitioner’s heart is the section on blogs, the chosen authors of which confirm the combined importance of the internet and social media as bastions of where music criticism is headed. As an avid blogger with nearly a million words to his credit, I can only say: Don’t treat the blog as an erasable format. Though I will occasionally go back to old blog posts to fix grammatical or factual errors, I never radically alter content. A blog is a record of your evolution as a thinker. But because opinions can and do change, whenever my relationship to an album has dramatically deviated from first impressions, I do a “second look” review rather than rewriting the original.

If anything unifies this book, it is passion. The key is that its writers (and editors!) are passionate about what they love and about what they don’t. Charles Aaron’s essay on a failed performance by Hole, for example, describes the alluring car crash that is the widowed Courtney Love in such graphic detail that one yearns to have been there. That’s the power of great writing. Yet nowhere is passion so frontloaded as in the “Cultural Criticism” chapter, where one encounters a chunk of the 33 1/3 bestseller Let’s Talk About Love. Carl Wilson’s paean to Céline Dion is essential reading for anyone wanting to get into the business. To that end, the editors have kindly included a proposal section for those wanting to pitch book ideas during the publisher’s much-anticipated open calls.

In the end, one must remember that this book is geared toward writers of rock music. That said, its lessons will be enlightening for a classical and jazz critic such as myself. Whereas albums in those genres are somehow more immediate, popular albums require a longer period of gestation than I am used to. How to Write About Music, for its part, contains a technical analysis by Owen Pallett of Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” an insightful disclosure of technique as politic that revels in thick description. Such are the kinds of inner workings that only intimate knowledge can elucidate.

Hence a final point of continuity these writers touch upon but don’t feel the need to explicitly state: integrity applies not only to those who write music, but also to those who write about it. The eureka factor comes in being honest about one’s feels. For example, in his scrumptious piece on J Dilla’s Donuts, excerpted from the 33 1/3 volume of the same name, Jordan Ferguson describes the album as “really weird.” It’s not a phrase that would hold up in any academic court of law, but which nevertheless pulses with life. It is an unfiltered reaction, a bottle of good old tap water in a world of purified substitutes. Sometimes, one needs to drink directly from the faucet.

JAPO complete

I have now reviewed every release in the JAPO catalogue. Shout outs to Craig LeHoullier, Steve Lake, and Bernd Webler for helping make my JAPO listening complete!

Any of you regular readers out there might have noticed that I recently reviewed the two latest XtraWATT albums. These stand as my backward entry into ECM’s other sub-labels. I do, of course, plan to also explore WATT and CARMO in full on this site, although such reviews may be sporadic, mixed in as they will be with the most up-to-date ECMs, along with albums from farther afield.

Below is a list of all JAPO releases, hyperlinked to my reviews for your convenience.

JAPO 60001 Mal Waldron The Call (Feb 1971)
JAPO 60002 Abdullah Ibrahim African Piano (Oct 1969)
JAPO 60003 Barre Phillips For All It Is (Mar 1971)
JAPO 60004 Herbert Joos The Philosophy of the Fluegelhorn (Jul 1973)
JAPO 60005 Dollar Brand Ancient Africa (Jun 1972)
JAPO 60006 Bobby Naughton Understanding (Oct 1971)
JAPO 60007 Edward Vesala Nan Madol (Apr 1974)
JAPO 60008 Jiří Stivín & Rudolf Dašek System Tandem (May 1974)
JAPO 60009 Children At Play s/t (1973)
JAPO 60010 Enrico Rava “Quotation Marks” (Dec 1973, Apr 1974)
JAPO 60011 Magog s/t (Nov 1974)
JAPO 60012 OM Kirikuki (Oct 1975)
JAPO 60013 Manfred Schoof Quintet Scales (Aug 1976)
JAPO 60014 Larry Karush/Glen Moore May 24, 1976 (May 1976)
JAPO 60015 Herbert Joos Daybreak (Oct 1976)
JAPO 60016 OM Rautionaha (Dec 1976)
JAPO 60017 Stephan Micus Implosions (Mar 1977)
JAPO 60018 Ken Hyder’s Talisker Land Of Stone (Apr 1977)
JAPO 60019 Manfred Schoof Quintet Light Lines (Dec 1977)
JAPO 60020 Rena Rama Landscapes (Jun 1977)
JAPO 60021 Globe Unity Orchestra Improvisations (Sep 1977)
JAPO 60022 OM OM with Dom Um Romao (Aug 1977)
JAPO 60023 Lennart Åberg Partial Solar Eclipse (Sep 1977)
JAPO 60024 Contact Trio New Marks (Jan 1978)
JAPO 60025 George Gruntz Percussion Profiles (Sep 1977)
JAPO 60026 Stephan Micus Till The End Of Time (Jun 1978)
JAPO 60027 Globe Unity Compositions (Jan 1979)
JAPO 60028 Barry Guy Endgame (Apr 1979)
JAPO 60029 TOK Paradox (Jun 1979)
JAPO 60030 Manfred Schoof Quintet Horizons (Nov 1979)
JAPO 60031 AMM III It Had Been an Ordinary Enough Day… (Dec 1979)
JAPO 60032 OM Cerberus (Jan 1980)
JAPO 60033 Elton Dean Quintet Boundaries (Feb 1980)
JAPO 60034 Peter Warren Solidarity
JAPO 60035 Tom van der Geld/Children At Play Out Patients (Jul 1980)
JAPO 60036 Contact Trio Musik (Oct 1980)
JAPO 60037 Es herrscht Uhu im Land s/t (Dec 1980)
JAPO 60038 Stephan Micus Wings Over Water (Jan 1981)
JAPO 60039 The Globe Unity Orchestra Intergalactic Blow (Jun 1982)
JAPO 60040 Stephan Micus Listen to the Rain (Jun 1980, Jul 1983)
JAPO 60041 Stephan Micus East Of The Night (Jan 1985)

One in a million

As of this afternoon, between sound and space has reached one million hits. As always, I thank you all for reading. Keep an eye out for some new reviews this week, at long last!

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A request to all of my readers

I’m currently embarking on a little project, for which I am compiling my “Top 100” ECM reviews to date. Whether you’ve been following my blog for five years or five days, I trust that you will have some favorite reviews of mine. It would be of great help to me if you could list those reviews that you feel are most effective at capturing the spirit of the music, as well as those that led you to new and meaningful discoveries, by leaving a comment to this post. Thank you!

Photography update

As some of you newer readers might not be aware, I dabble in photography whenever I have the chance. I’ve recently updated my photography website, In a landscape, with images taken during recent trips to Japan, Scandinavia, and New York City. Click the photo below to see more.

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Looking forward…

Although I’ve reached a major milestone here at between sound and space, there’s little time to rest on my laurels. ECM will be releasing five albums stateside on June 2, so look out for those reviews soon, along with reviews of a few European-only releases, including Cyminology’s latest, Phoenix. I’m also preparing a small batch of articles and live reviews (among them, a stellar performance by Sheila Jordan with the Steve Kuhn Trio at Birdland) for All About Jazz. I will link to those as they appear.

Thanks to a new friend, I will soon be introducing a new “Rarities” category, diving into the most obscure ECM items on the planet. On a related note, I will be turning my attention back to the JAPO catalogue as well and hope to finish reviewing it within the year. In addition, I will be catching up on my reviews of ECM-related books, DVDs, and other such materials along the way.

2014 in review

Some stats from WordPress regarding between sound and space for 2014. I had 240,000 views (nearly 800,000 to date). I wrote 120,000 words (700,000 to date). My busiest day was April 17, with 1251 views. My most popular reviews were diverse, including a 2011 piece on actor Bruno Ganz’s spoken word recordings for ECM. Other popular posts were my reviews of François Couturier’s Un jour si blanc and Ghazal’s The Rain.

I’m particularly grateful to Nate Chinen at The New York Times for including David Virelles’s Mbókò on his Top Albums of 2014 list, and for kindly linking to my review of said album. I’m also deeply honored to have had a blog post quoted in Ellen Johnson’s Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan. Seeing my words in print was an intense validation of what I do here.

In 2015, I plan to reach my goal of reviewing every ECM and ECM New Series album ever released. It’s been a five-year journey, and I am humbled by all who have followed me this far.

A few side notes:

  • Over at All About Jazz, for whom I’ve been writing with greater frequency as I approach the goal of this blog, my most popular article was a critical analysis of the film Whiplash.
  • For RootsWorld online magazine I was proudest of my piece on Marc Sinan’s Hasretim – Journey to Anatolia.
  • And finally I was grateful for the opportunity to expound my love for ECM New Series in an extended piece for Sequenza 21 celebrating the imprint’s 30th anniversary.

Above all, I feel blessed to be surrounded by so much significant music and to be able to squeeze in the time between academic and family commitments to share my passion with others in kind. Thank you for reading, and never stop listening.

Milestone and four-week hiatus

As of my last post (Sinikka Langeland’s Starflowers), I’ve reviewed ECM’s first 1000 releases. Add to this the scattered others from later on in the catalogue, and that leaves only 144 albums before I “catch up” with the label’s unflinching rate of release. On July 17, I’ll be leaving for a four-week trip to Japan, during which time I will abstain from reviewing, immersed as I’ll be in linguistic and academic research in Kyoto. I’m sure you’ll find enough to mull over in the interim 😉

I’m beyond grateful to all of my readers, transient and constant alike, who’ve given me the resolve to keep this project going. Synchronicity is within reach!