Thursday, April 10, 2008

Public Displays of Aggression

This isn't really the place for this conversation, but ACD over at Sounds & Fury doesn't allow commenting in his house, presumably out of fear that the "proles" — which is to say, you and I — might scribble on the walls with crayons. So, faute de mieux en effet, here we be.

Mr. D has his knickers in a twist over my suggestion that Alan Rich's vile 2006 bitch-slapping of music critics Adam Baer and Chris Pasles might not have been, y'know, his finest hour. Yet in one of those wonderfully self-refuting moments of which he is himself a connoisseur, ACD makes my point for me by adding "(whoever they might be)." The fact that Baer and Pasles cast such comparatively small shadows upon the musical-critical landscape is precisely what makes the act of going after them — and doing it in such a bloodthirsty fashion — so small, and so unworthy.

Bernheimer, now — Bernheimer is another story. Whatever your views on the merits of Rich's 100-year crusade against Bernheimer, there's no denying that the powerful, Pulitzer Prize-winning chief music critic of the Los Angeles Times was at any rate a target worthy of his efforts. Bernheimer had an enormous influence on the cultural life of Southern California for a very long time. If you felt, as Alan did — and felt passionately, as only Alan can — that that influence was malign, then it became a moral imperative (and, let's face it, probably a pleasure as well) to combat it tooth and nail. But Adam Baer, the young freelancer? You've gotta be kidding me.

The inability to distinguish between those two kinds of aggressiveness has always been a flaw in Rich's writing, and it's a flaw that ACD's chest-beating paeans to "courage" and "hair-mussing" and "offensiveness" share in spades. To put it another way, Alan's willingness to say whatever is on his mind, regardless of consequences, comes in two flavors (both in print and in person). One is courage, properly understood; the other is merely thuggishness. I think it's important to celebrate the first while deploring the second.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008


Like all right-thinking people, I join the chorus of deploration (is that a word? Evidently not, unless you're Josquin) over the news that Alan Rich has been ousted from the pages of the LA Weekly. Perhaps the surprise is that they let him hang around as long as they did, given the longstanding and almost explicitly stated commitment of Village Voice Media honcho Michael Lacey and his troupe of flunkies to Lack of Quality at all costs. I'm not intimately conversant with the LA Weekly, but the SF Weekly up here where I live certainly carries the banner for all that is smug, fatuous, and thought-deadening. Alan's columns must have seemed defiantly, definitively out of place.

The good news, of course, is that he is still among us (note to bloggers: never title an item about an 83-year-old widely beloved legend "Bad news from LA" unless your express intention is to give your readers a nasty shock), and that he will continue to post his columns on the internet. I for one couldn't do without them — not so much for the window they provide onto Los Angeles' musical life as for the entree they offer into Alan's amazing musical consciousness.

It was reading his reviews in New York throughout the 1970s that first made me want to get into this game. Imagine what an eye-opener those articles were — the smart, pugnacious prose style, the insatiable curiosity, the breadth of knowledge, and best of all, the passion for music (it's a fortunate critic who loves and hates as keenly as Alan does). They opened up whole new worlds, and continue to do so, week after week.

Not, of course, that there haven't been missteps. In a post from Bizarro World, ACD singles out for praise Alan's most regrettable recent episode, his shameful tirade against fellow critics Adam Baer and Chris Pasles. True Richophiles would prefer to blot out the memory of that one; it was, in the memorable words of Tibor Fischer on Martin Amis' Yellow Dog, "not-knowing-where-to-look bad. . .like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating."

I wish I could counter with an extended quotation of Alan at his best, but my copy of his recent published collection seems to have absquatulated. And in any case, as I say, the Richerei I savor most dates from the old New York period, and lives on in my memory in bits and pieces — a glorious Mozart's Birthday essay (an annual staple in those days) connecting "Porgi amor" with the slow movement of the Bassoon Concerto, an unforgettable excoriation of George Rochberg's (in)famous Third String Quartet, a sidelong self-outing in something like 1970 (!).

Probably Alan's single greatest gift to me was a column he wrote, God knows when, about his declining ability to listen to and enjoy Brahms' symphonies. Drawing the comparison to a love gone cold, he wrote, "We have grown apart, Brahms and I." I caught my breath on reading that, not because I shared the sentiment — my love for those symphonies continues unabated — but because I hadn't known you were allowed to say things like that. Alan gave me courage, and an example. He still does, LA Weekly or no.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Nobody Listens to Me

Does Bob Dylan Deserve a Pulitzer?
By Gary Shapiro
"I don't think Bob Dylan needs a Pulitzer Prize," said a classical music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman...
— New York Sun, 10/19/04

A Special Citation to Bob Dylan for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.
— Pulitzer Prize Committee, 4/7/08

Note that the Sun headline doesn't reflect what I said, or believe; the quote does, though.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Toward a Typology of Juvenilia

An interesting concert last week by a dynamite local syndicate of teen composers reminded me that there are two principal ways of being a beginning composer, roughly speaking. (Yes indeed, if you divide the world into those who divide the world into two categories and those who don't, I'm in the former camp.)

One type is the kid who's bursting with weird, distinctive, half-formed ideas and hasn't yet figured out how to get them under control, or how to organize those thoughts in the most effective or coherent way. The other is more interested in doping out and mastering the technical aspects of the game, with the (perhaps) unspoken assumption that the ideas will come along in due time. Maybe another way of saying this is that the motivation for some young composers is to write stuff nobody's ever written before, and for others it's the desire to join the party by imitating the music they love best.

I'll bet there are plenty of (grown-up) folks with a strong preference for one type or another, but personally I have a soft spot for both — or rather, my feelings of indulgence and impatience settle at about the same equilibrium point in both cases. There's something simultaneously charming and frustrating about the reach-exceeds-his-grasp type of composer, just as the work of the skilled-artisan-in-parvo can feel both impressive and limited.

And it isn't clear to me that either predilection is necessarily a better marker for future success. "Give her time, she'll learn how to channel that imagination" seems just as plausible a proposition as "He's accumulating some useful skills; he'll be something to watch when he figures out what to do with them."

As a relentlessly dualist schematizer, I'd also point out that this dichotomy bears a strong family resemblance to one that applies to adult composers. You know the one I mean, as crude and reductive as it undoubtedly is: Lennon/McCartney, Schumann/Mendelssohn, Mussorgsky/Tchaikovsky, Mahler/Strauss, Flansburgh/Linnell, I'm sure there are jazz ones for those who know their jazz (pas moi, hélas).

What I'd be curious to know is whether composers tend to stay on the same side of that divide as they develop. Mendelssohn certainly did, but he's one of the only composers whose juvenilia we hear much (Mozart of course transcends all of this). Who's got access to funding for a longitudinal study?