Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

There is nothing more undignified that standing on a ledge threatening to jump. It invites too many unwelcome and contradictory reactions from hackneyed personnel. There is the trained negotiator who’ll try to persuade you there really is still a lot to live for. Just as plausible is the Dirty Harry have-a-go type who’ll simply sling an arm round your neck and haul you back into the shame of the human world, denied the opportunity to show you really meant it or that you are still glass-half-fullish enough to think there might still be something worth doing. Most likely and most numerous is the crowd who, with several motives or none, will gather to shout ‘Jump, you f***er, jump!’
A week after I left my last ‘proper’ job, which I abandoned to a mixed chorus of reactions – professional ‘suicide’ was mentioned, as were rats and sinking ships, though in this case the ship remained a float and the rat took a while to reach land – I wrote a larky magazine article about the protocols of resignation in which I made clear a certain contempt for those serial resigners who ‘consider their position’ every time their will is thwarted. The modest thrust of the piece was: if you’re going to go, go, but don’t keep shouting down at the crowd that you’re about to check whether Isaac Newton was right after all. The only people who were offended by the piece were a sub-editor who wanted to remove the analogy with suicide and attempted suicide (still considered a Breach of the Peace under Scots law and still deemed a criminal offence in half a dozen US states, I believe) and some of the serial resigners I left behind me, at least one of whom kept an undated letter of resignation in his desk drawer like a cyanide capsule.
So it is with a certain embarrassment and a guilty recognition that the conclusion is pre-ordained that I admit to having recently entertained the thought that I would like to give up writing about music.  Looking down at some familiar upturned faces, I don’t have to lip-read to know they’re not crying ‘Don’t do it! We need you!!’  There’s the rub, right there. The one person who rarely turns up at a potential suicide is the Malthusian enforcer who says ‘Well, actually, it would be quite helpful if you did go, clear out some old wood. There are younger people bucking for your job.’ The ace card is the knave in this hand. It runs against a basic ethological principle to accept one’s redundancy on the grounds of age, unless there is some mandatory limit written into the contract and even then it’s considered proper to make a show of resistance. Reference to a rising generation usually and properly provokes a rush to the ensign of Old Values, if not of orthodoxy.
The problem with jazz criticism at the moment is that it is the old guard which seems to speak out for heterodoxy, iconoclasm, radicalism as against the relative conservatism of the largest cohort of younger critics. Inevitably, though, those younger critics inhabit a culture which the old guard no longer quite recognizes and in which the function and social positioning of criticism is no longer the same. Their ‘conservatism’ is actually a kind of democratic fatalism. Their ignorance of basic principles and foundational histories is part of what is still nostalgically referred to as the ‘postmodern situation’.
If this is starting to sound as if I’m trying to talk myself off a ledge because there’s no one around who much cares either way, then perhaps it’s best to look at the specifics behind this recent urge towards felo da se. It has become almost syllogistic that in a culture where everyone is a critic, the critic is somehow devalued. As if: it was never exactly a socially secure profession. Needless to say, that’s a false supposition. To stumble over a conclusion, when everyone is a critic the role of qualified or, since there is no formal qualification, experienced critics is more important than ever. When criticism becomes a matter of handing out stars,  saying ‘if you like this you’ll also enjoy . . . ‘, or issuing telegrammatic commands to ‘download this’, there’s no better time to be writing informed and nuanced reviews. A certain self-confidence is called for. If, after umpteen years of practice, one isn’t able to make fairly rapid distinctions between original and generic music, or, biting the bullet, between good and bad music, then clearly it’s past time to have capped your pen. The only time I ever threatened to resign was when the editor of my BBC Scotland arts program suggested replacing paid, professional critics with vox pops. The issue was money, of course, rather than editorial values. The point was made, and won.
It’s axiomatic, too, that musicians don’t like critics, or don’t like those critics who are not part of what Harold Rosenberg called ‘the herd of independent minds’ who like a supply battalion could be moved to whatever point of the cultural front required reinforcement at a given moment. Like anyone who has written any form of criticism – and I also write about classical music, books and somewhat on the visual arts – I receive a certain amount of negative feedback from those whose work has been reviewed, a disproportionate element of it from musicians and a quite disproportionate element from jazz and improvising musicians. There are off-the-peg complaints: we don’t listen; we don’t know enough about music; we are malicious, or acquisitive. Like most of us who review this music, the last argument is entirely specious. I make my living these days cutting down trees and designing gardens. I write about jazz and improvisation because I care about it. A substantial amount of what I write on these subjects carries no honorarium of any sort, and not much cachet, either.
There’s a puzzle here but a possible answer to it emerged over the last few days as I thought on about why I chose to continue writing about jazz, even as I pondered the option of giving it up. I’d spoken to one retired critic who said he’d stopped because he’d ‘heard it all before’, a claim I found completely astonishing, even though it applies to a good deal of what I am required to listen to in the average month. Given the haunting mass of reissues that appear in the schedules, one quite literally has heard most of it before, but the challenge of revisiting old music and old opinions in the light of new cultural realities is an essential element of the job. And, pace my retired friend, there is more than enough novelty and adventure in the music to keep the experience fresh and alluring. There is also a witch-finding element, sniffing out those cases where the herd of independent minds is in league with the industry and trading in proper judgment in order to serve as a promotional claque. There are four or five substantial reputations on the current scene whose claims to authority are as bogus and amplified as the Wizard of Oz’s.
The small epiphany that dawned this past week or so was listening to a compilation called Larkin’s Jazz, a nicely annotated anthology of out-of-copyright material that redressed the tendency to think of Philip Larkin’s interest in jazz entirely in negative terms – the modernist music he disliked and dismissed as neurotic – by setting out the music that gave him daily joy. It’s well known that Larkin could easily pass a week without any contact with verse, but was incapable of a day without jazz, preferably with some whisky and female company somewhere on hand. Larkin’s conservatism, it becomes clear from listening to the music and reading the annotations, kicked in at the moment when jazz became the object of serious critical and academic attention. It was emotionally important for him that jazz be associated with a particular period in life and that it be defined as an experience without any armature of theory or ideology. Like someone who only liked a holiday spot when there was no one else there but close friends, Larkin switched off jazz when it became part of the culture rather than standing outside the culture.
Here, I think, he made a fatal error, and one that denied him continuing joy in his music. Perhaps he died too soon to enjoy a revival of interest and practice in old forms of ensemble improvisation, but he certainly jumped too soon into a reactionary crouch. What struck me forcibly reading between the lines of his celebrated and, for many modern-minded fans, despised Daily Telegraph columns was that Larkin didn’t so much have a tin ear for music as a tin ear for criticism. It seemed to pass him by that jazz had attracted some exceptionally fine writing, and still does. Though the industry recruiting sergeants always manage to find a muster for whoever they are trying to sell, jazz writing remains as vitally responsive to its subject matter as one might hope it would. Compared to, say, current opera criticism or fiction reviewing, it provides a model of thoughtful interaction with an art form and as such its practitioners probably deserve a more respectful and more sympathetic dialogue with musicians.
There are, however, elements of the equation which I share wholeheartedly with Larkin. He was quicker than some to recognize that the ‘post-modern’ condition was one in which criticism was privileged over creative expression. The flagrant absurdity of ‘critical theory’ was the assumption that critical or theoretical writing claimed an equal status with art. It does not and cannot. The rise of ‘critical theory’ imposed a bizarre pre-Copernican fallacy on cultural criticism from which we are only just emerging. For a music critic, the only equipment required is ears. Theory may provide illuminating insights but for the most part all it provides is cribs and evasions. I spent four years at university with a man who proudly never read primary texts, only critical surveys. He performed predictably well in assignments and examinations, but his view of his subject was like a view of the landscape in a hand-held mirror, shaky and very partial, and when he graduated and the academic apparatus was taken away, he was very quickly exposed as an affectless drone whose ‘critical’ opinion continue to clang hollowly in the British press. No sum of money will drag his name from me, but if you write me your guesses I won’t pretend I’m talking about someone else if you get it right.
What critical theory perversely legitimized was the very thing its scientific pretensions claimed to have eliminated, and that is mere opinion. It made it possible to write about something without ever referring to that something, or to create bizarre synecdoches by writing about the album cover or the supposed sexuality of the engineer as if these in some way illuminated the music. Or it took the higher-handed position of suggesting that the music wasn’t really ‘the point’ and that what was afoot was some other kind of nexus, self-defining, shifting and ambiguous to the nth degree.
Writing about music is straightforward enough. It involves listening, listening again, comparing what is heard with what has already been heard, and making judgments, most of which exist not in a vacuum of ‘objectivity’ or ‘subjectivity’ but in the presence of a steadily growing and evolving critical discourse. Comparison is often seen as a cheap critical fix, but it is of the essence. Comparison between the music performed and the stated intentions of the artist is a trickier business, and many of us do occasionally hide behind the ‘intentional fallacy’ and decide that we can’t let the artist determine how the music is experienced. Whenever I hear artists complain that music magazines are run by critics rather than musicians, I always suggest to them that they launch a magazine of their own and wish them joy of it.
Needless to say, the internet has changed everything, qualitatively and quantitatively, and it has changed the relationship between quality and quantity in the critical discourse. But again, the inverse is often the outcome. The ubiquity of both opinion and fallacious intentionality on the internet – and by the latter I mean the opportunity for artists to dictate how they believe the work should be appreciated – simply adds muscle and relevance to the critical Endeavour. Larkin remains a model, both in the positive and the negative sense: passionate advocacy of the music he loved, but also a failure to appreciate the equally passionate advocacy of others. Larkin wanted jazz to be exclusive to a generation and its experience; he wrote a good deal about growing up, but resisted it and in the process managed to sound elderly and sour.
He did have a point, though, and it related to the kind of music he valued, which was either joyous or stoical in the face of adversity. He had little interest in introspection and self-analysis, which he seemed to consider on a par with ‘critical theory’. Reading Larkin again, I was reminded of something Stephen Sondheim said on the solitary, brief occasion I met him; my Road to Emmaus moment, since I couldn’t quite believe it was him. Sondheim said, half-sadly, half-amusedly, more than half-and-half positively that when he started out in his career, he believed he was going into the theatre, only to learn that he was going into show business. One of the prevailing problems in jazz, which critical theorists have imposed on musicians, with insufficient resistance from the musicians, is that the fundamental purpose of any creative Endeavour undertaken in public is entertainment. ‘Art’ is an epiphenomenon: a tremendously important one, and one that is fundamental to our nature as human beings, but nonetheless secondary in emergence. Jazz and improvising musicians have been inclined to forget that. Coached by the critics to believe the theoretical nonsense they are happy to dismiss when it doesn’t suit them, they have bought into a certain kind of behavior in which the artist creating is vastly more important than the audience listening. In that situation, with a delicious irony, the critic becomes the most important player on the stage, the person who interprets what the audience is not simply invited to enjoy, and not as (s)he should be, a servant of the music and spokesman for the audience.
I expect I’ll give up one day, either when the ears stop working properly, or perhaps the ability to make meaningful comparisons, or when music evolves in a direction I am not capable of following. For the moment, though it scarcely profits me, I aim to continue. So here I am on the ledge, enjoying the breeze. If you look up and my lips are moving, it’s simply to say: ‘I’m not jumping. You f***ers need me up here.

Brian Morton©2010

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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