Sunday, July 16, 2006

Goin' Downtown

Without much fanfare, Kyle Gann ties a little ribbon this morning around his remarkable career as the new-music critic for the Village Voice. Nineteen years' worth of virtuoso arguing, reporting, explaining and barely metaphorical fisticuffs — all the things a great critic is supposed to do — have come to an end, and even though Kyle sounds reasonably resigned, even serene, about it, I'm not. I'm sad and pissed off.

Not, I have to add a little sheepishly, that I'd been a regular reader of the column in years. When I moved to California from New York in 1983, I kept up a subscription to the Voice for a while, in the same way you might sublet a rent-controlled apartment: on the theory that it was only a matter of time before I headed back East where I belonged. Just around the time I realized that wasn't going to happen — at least not in the foreseeable future — Kyle started writing for the Voice, and I was on the hook for several more years of renewals. But eventually I had to cut the ties.

It's impossible to overstate the impact those reviews had on me, though. There was, first of all, the amazing erudition on display — the sense, which has only grown keener in the decades since, that Kyle had heard and analyzed and deeply understood every piece of music written over the past 50 years and more. There was the bare-knuckled truculence over musical politics, and the muscular-lyrical prose style that went with it (no surprise that Ives is his favorite composer). And there was the incredible urgency of those columns — the conviction that all of this mattered very deeply — which grew out of Kyle's double role as a musical practitioner and critic.

In theory I have grave doubts about that combination, and the various conflicts of interest that result. But with Kyle, I've never been able to resist it in practice. He's too damn good.

You can get a taste of those reviews in the recent collection Music Downtown, which I've been nibbling at compulsively. And of course Kyle's blog continues to be a source for Gannian prose. But there's something irreplaceable and unique about the flavor of a regular newspaper column, which neither a greatest-hits collection nor the intermittent postings on a blog can supplant. It's a shame.


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