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On the fence

January 21, 2011

I read today’s chat/review of the Ecstatic Music Festival between Ronni Reich and Tris McCall with a fair amount of enjoyment, despite the fact that its formatted to be the opposite of easily readable.  It was great morning coffee dialogue while I waited for my Chicago hosts to wake up, and while I had a lot of opinionated statements on the whole thing, I’m in Chicago, and I’d rather not lay down a ton of words when I can be hanging out and comparing Intelligentsia to Metropolis.   Still, one thing stuck out that I wanted to share.

For the tl;dr crowd, I’ll try to simplify it.  Ronni is a critic coming from the classical music angle and generally liked most of the festival, while Tris, coming from the pop music angle, found a lot of it to be problematic.  For what it’s worth, Tris has made a few albums that I’ve really liked a whole lot, most recently Let the Night Fall (and the one before that, which apparently is no where to be found on his website, which I think is really odd).

The entire dialogue read like a dramatization of one of Kyle Gann’s columns I recently read/mentioned from music downtown:

The thing is, both Chatham and Zorn appear to be on the fence between musical paradigms.  What each is really doing, though, as becomes more apparent with every performance, is using material from one paradigm to solve a problem in another.  Whether you hear either as innovative depends on what music history you’re closest to, and the increasing split in critical reaction suggests that, though the underlying paradigms may be obscured, they still exert a decisive influence.  Our ears have different histories, and the ear without a history belongs to a dilettante.  When my rock critic friends think Chatham’s music is stagnating while I find it more brilliantly insightful every year; when my jazz critic friends can’t get enough of Zorn, while to me he sounds like the P.D.Q. Bach of the ’60s avant-garde (“his plagiarism limited only by his faulty technique”) – then it’s time to dust off William James’ pragmatic motto, “Where there’s a contradiction, draw a distinction.” (pg. 112 from “paradigms lost”  music downtown by Kyle Gann)

As much as musicians can attempt to create nuclear fusion by colliding genre-atoms at each other, people’s ears are still going to come from ‘different histories,’ and those histories are a significant part of how we come to understand music.  McCall’s criticisms read like comments a pop music critic would make, because he is one, and that’s not a bad thing.

The fact he even showed up to listen to the festival is pretty great, right?

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