Friday, June 22, 2007

Beast at Trough

My 14 year and 2 month old mutant black lab, Fiona, enjoying my nanny-like largesse.

An odd thread has run through recent days regarding torture. I had a dream the other night that I just remembered earlier today about a torture device that was a body-sized stainless steel grill with gas jets for heat, on which people who were enemies of the State would be fried alive, one side at a time, with the heat gradually being turned up. This dream was followed by reading an article wondering if "horror films have gone too far," examining the delightful (supposedly new) genre "gorn," spurred on by the release of the movie Hostel II. Apparently, among other varied and creative depictions of intense suffering, this bit of summer fluff features a long scene in which a woman is hanged upside down, blindfolded, poked with some sort of implement and finally sliced open in various degrees and bathed in cascades of her own blood. Today, thanks to be-jazz linking to Brian Olewnick's blog, I was treated to a John Zorn CD cover image of some sort of unbelievably gruesome torture from somewhere in Asia.

What does it all mean, I ask?

No answer yet. So what about John Zorn anyway? The article and commentary Mwanji links to is from The New Republic. A writer named David Hadju offers up one of those "spurned lover" pieces that pretends objectivity of an odd sort but is in fact dripping with sour-grape-i-tude. I know next to nothing about Zorn's music, having only heard the delightfully punk-infused, rambunctious Spy vs. Spy, Zorn's set of covers of Ornette Coleman compositions, and a few of the ultra-brief tracks from Torture Garden. (Yeah, I know, there it is again). But I know Hadju's style of snark quite well, having lived with the inside of my own head for nearly 46 years now.

One thing: at some point in the trajectory of every admired, respected, opinionated, stubborn and iconoclastic artist it becomes fashionable for members of the press (which now, in the age of Web 2.0, includes me, and you, and everyone we know) to pile on. Read some of the original reviews of, for example, Miles Davis's recordings from 1969-1975. (Ron Brown, in Jazz Journal, "reviewing" On the Corner: "I'd like to think that nobody could be so easily pleased as to dig this record to any extent.") I was astonished, years ago, to find a short "review" of a Cecil Taylor performance in The New York Times, acidly penned by none other than Peter Watrous, castigating Taylor for his precious Romanticism and aimless, self-indulgent noodling. I had to dig out my copy of CT's splendid solo piano set on For Olim and double check to see if, in fact, it was the same Peter Watrous who wrote this in the liner notes, published perhaps two years earlier: "Taylor touches the piano like no one else in the world, eliciting a tone that is at once steely and fragile. He draws on a frighteningly extreme range of emotions in his performances, making him perhaps the most unabashedly candid performer alive. Devoid of any simply defined attractiveness, his playing moves into areas of raw intensity which, in their straightforwardness, take on a singular beauty."

So maybe you're wondering what this has to do with my new obsession, JAZZONOMICS? Well, there's this: hip writers revel in the obscure and the undiscovered, revel in the role of having esoteric knowledge of outsider figures doing strange new things, revel in their own self-constructed role of Messianic tastemaker for the ignorant consumer. Many music writers are like the guy we all know who seems to always have that legendary bootleg or out of print recording that is always "better" than the one we admire. (I encountered this guy yet again recently when I was innocently enough expressing my admiration for the opening section of MD's Black Beauty; said individual finding it necessary to rave on and on about a series of cassette bootlegs of the same band that are "infinitely better." I politely feigned benighted ignorance of these tapes, despite the fact that I have a few, thanks to generous souls on the Miles Davis boards I used to frequent. I feigned ignorance because I have found it is "infinitely better" to let this particular type have his or her delusion; it just makes things go by more quickly).

This is writing that is not one whit about the music itself, but about the writer. Sad figures, many commentators and critics. Many are either closeted or failed musicians. ("Failed" used here in the sense of a "dream deferred," not as an aesthetic or, God forbid, financial judgment). Stanley Crouch comes to mind. Incapable of sustaining some sort of musical path of his own, Crouch gained some sort of odd cred by offering up all sorts of opinions on figures in this music next to whom he could not even hold a candle in sunshine. Somehow it has also become fashionable to be sort of snarky and unimpressed by The Vision Festival, which surprises me in my naivete, because when I look at the lineup my first thought is "Holy Shit! What an amazing bunch of inspiring and inspired programs!" There's a dart throwing impulse. All I see is the darts; I don't see the background. Of course, all sorts of political and economic controversy has to surround someone like John Zorn, someone like William Parker. Someone like Miles Davis. But I wish I could get a clearer picture of exactly what the dissatisfaction is, exactly where it resides. I suspect it's rooted in consumer culture and the lie of the "free market" more deeply than I had ever imagined.

From other. more generous perspectives, how could it not be enough to have had the sorts of cultural and musical impact and influence the above three figures have had? What would respectful but not slavering and worshipful criticism look like? And what relationship between "becoming a beneficiary" (to quote Agee again) and becoming a dartboard is there? If the only thing the music press is looking for is the hip esoteric outsider stuff and someone formerly with that cred suddenly wins a MacCarthur or Pulitzer, then what? Will we now see perhaps the 4th or 5th round of dart-throwing at, for example, Ornette Coleman?


Anonymous said...

"I know next to nothing about Zorn's music"

me neither, but with such a large - and diverse - discography/list of associations the pool of people who could claim to know something substantial would probably be fairly small..

Although just one listen to the Classic Guides to Strategy or the duet/s [depending on your feelings towards bootlegs] with Milford Graves is enough to tell me that in some respects at least, he must be onto something.

There does seem to be a lot of 'marketing' to what he does, but then maybe that was necessary for him to get where he is, and I don't think anyone could deny that he has done plenty to help like-minded musicians in his 'scene'. That is, this 'marketing' has enabled him to be a positive force in the 'community', maybe making music available to interested audiences that otherwise would be buried by pop-culture.

While some of the criticisms seem to point out factors worth considering [gimmicks?], the article does reek of sour grapes and twisted green cynicism.

Anonymous said...

that should probably be 'buried under pop-culture'. Like water under oil.

Peter Breslin said...

Hey Massimo- Good points all. I have a friend with a huge number of Zorn CDs and he's going to take me on a tour. Oddly, this friend is not a particular fan of Zorn. How he ended up with more than a dozen recordings might make an interesting tale.

I think the funniest part of the New Republic article is the detailed description of Zorn's approach to the venue down the sidewalk.


Anonymous said...

So an NYC journo who knows his audience had some fun at the expense of an NYC muso who knows his audience? Big deal -- they're both making a living out of it.

Peter Breslin said...

Hey realischtick- I guess I'm interested in *how* both are making a living.


Anonymous said...

FWIW, Hajdu wrote an interesting bio of Billy Strayhorn, as well as a pretty lightweight book about the NYC folkie scene that revolved around Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina.

I talked a bit about my take on arts criticism just now over at Soundslope....and I've got more in depth thoughts on the matter coming soon.

Nice dog...I've got a one year old black lab mix named Mingus.