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?

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3 thoughts on “Jelly Side Down

  1. Well if you have made your music availeble for the public, then you must be prepared for some bashing. It can hurt – but at the same time sometimes you can use some of the critism to make better music or get an idear if there is an an audience out there for the type of music you are making.

  2. This is why I never tried teaching ‘poetry’. People are too likely to hear criticism as if you’d meant “Don’t bother writing any more.” (And I am extremely critical; plenty of perfectly good poets like stuff I can’t stand. Anything I don’t love I’m likely to hate, & that’s not good for the person criticized.)

    Hmm, I have a comment on a later post here about ‘felts’ — apropos to this. There’s a lot of loose anger looking for a target among the general population — along with a lot of mental/emotional disconnection — and these things strongly affect 1) what kind of music will be popular, hence what styles will be out-there as a model for musicians to emulate , as well as 2) the kind of personality & interaction you’re likely to find among musicians who were attracted to this art-form by that emotional tone.

    Gabor Mate’s Scattered has good background toward why I think this has been happening — ie Several decades of economic & social trends have vastly increased the emotional stress of parenting for most of us. What he says: Maternal stress is problematic when an infant is just learning to connect with the outer world, focus attention, control emotions. (All these tend to develop as part of the same process when things are going well, to have that development stalled & derailed various ways when the most significant parent has too many troubles of her own to devote full attention to playing goo-goo-gah-gah when the kid needs it most. Such delays don’t need to be permanent — but can be self-perpetuating, ie if the person develops an appetite for hostile interactions.)

  3. Hi Jim, I’m just reading through some of your microtonality-related posts for the first time. Being honest, I think that some of these things need to be said.

    I don’t mind hearing criticism of my own work, and indeed I see my music as a filter to find the people who have a similar mindset and tastes to me. If somebody likes it, then clearly we have something in common. At the same time, we must all realise that we can’t please everybody at the same time.

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