Toward the end of last year I posted a little essay (“Bent or Broken”) in which I expressed dismay at some of the music being composed, performed, and uploaded by avant-garde microtonalists. I was careful to suggest that my own tastes in music are somewhat conservative. This disclaimer was, of course, an invitation to those who might disagree with me to simply shrug and ignore what I had to say.
Unfortunately, one of the artists whose work I criticized has taken rather extreme exception to what I wrote. I have now removed his name from that post, though I left my unflattering characterization of his recording intact. Nor will I mention his name here. Not content to email me privately, he has now taken the step of sharing his opinions of what I wrote with others in the microtonal community.
This is his right, of course. I feel very bad about upsetting him, and I have apologized for it, but that doesn’t seem to have mollified him. I suggested to him, in an email, that different people have different tastes in music, and that both he and I are entitled to our own disparate tastes. As well as I can figure out, however, he seems to be taking the position that I’m an idiot because my tastes don’t agree with his.
He hasn’t used the word “idiot.” He has, however, referred to me as “lazy” and “an empty shirt,” and to my opinions as “sadistic” and “comical.” In an email that was apparently sent to at least one other person and cc’d to me, he said this: “…until we purge this bullshit out of our academic and societal sloth and foolishness, it IS OVER……..period.” I don’t know what it is that he thinks is over, but from that statement I think it’s pretty clear that he thinks everybody else ought to have the same opinions about his music that he does, and that he feels threatened by the fact that this is evidently not the case.
This contretemps raises at least three interesting questions.
First, to what extent is musical taste entirely subjective and therefore not subject to discussion; and to what extent, conversely, is it possible to discuss the merits and shortcomings of various musical works? If one is to discuss the merits and shortcomings of a piece, what frame of reference is desirable or permissible?
Second, what is the responsibility of a person who speaks in public about others’ music? Is kindness mandatory? Should criticism always be made in a dry, academic manner, or can it make use of pungent imagery?
Third, when one presents one’s own music to the public, either on the Internet or elsewhere, how should one respond when others are not pleased by it, and when they say so?
I can certainly understand that unabashed criticism hurts people’s feelings. But it can’t possibly be unfathomable to people who play avant-garde, experimental music that some listeners aren’t going to understand or appreciate what they’re doing. That reaction pretty much goes with the territory, doesn’t it?
I have only whatever musical tastes and preferences I happen to have. Other people — perhaps millions of them — may feel convinced that I’m entirely wrong. I can think of at least three record reviews that I wrote during my years at Keyboard that, in retrospect, were embarrassingly wrong, not to mention insensitive. (In my own defense, the editor didn’t ask me to change them.) As I’ve gotten older, I’m sure my tastes have become less adventurous. I happen to like Bach and Haydn a lot. On the other hand, I also like Miles Davis, Robert Rich, the Residents, Kraftwerk, and Frank Zappa. In my younger days I waxed enthusiastic about Skinny Puppy and Cabaret Voltaire. It’s perfectly sensible to suggest that I might start to like Stockhausen if I spent a few months getting acquainted with his oeuvre, that it may have charms of which I’m quite unaware. But you would be hard-pressed to make a case that I’m ignorant about music, or that I haven’t thought a lot about what works musically, and why it works, and what doesn’t work, and why it doesn’t.
Should I not share my opinions for fear I may hurt someone’s feelings? Should I air them but do so in a dry, boring manner, so as to avoid giving offense? I don’t like it when I cause other people pain. But is it really appropriate to take the attitude that everything is wonderful?
I invite comment. What would you do?