Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Pleasures of Eclecticism

Driving to Michigan yesterday, I listened to country music on the truck stereo the entire drive.

That will shock some of my friends, who might think, because I'm a classically-trained composer who plays jazz and experimental music most of the time, that country music is beneath me. My feeling is that every artistic genre has got some great stuff, a lot of mediocre stuff, and some really very bad stuff. Most art is mediocre, rather than bad or good; most art is bland and unthreatening. These issues of quality affect every genre of music. There's even some heavy metal that I like; though generally I don't like metal, probably at least as much for demographic and social reasons as for musical ones.

As I drove, I was listening to country music that I like: old-timey stuff, roots country, edging over the line occasionally into bluegrass and Southern rock, even jazz. I'm a Willie Nelson fan, a Johnny Cash fan, a Patsy Cline fan. I like old country, I like roots music, I like mountain music, bluegrass, blues, western swing, and all their intermingled derivatives. And I like jazz, and contemporary classical, experimental, and avant-garde music, too.

Most of what gets marketed as country music these days is as over-produced and over-packaged as the pop music coming out of Los Angeles. It's all about as shallow, and the subject matter is pretty much the same. Contemporary Nashville country music is basically rock & roll with a twang and a steel guitar. Who cares?

On the other hand, one thing you can say for most country music, even the mediocre stuff, is that it makes the miles go by faster on those long drives. Driving in the Western USA, where it might take you an entire day to cross one state, on the FM radio you get mostly two kinds of listening: country & western music stations; and Christian stations. Of course there is some overlap. When I take a long road trip, I always pack a hefty wallet of CDs, which might contain everything from obscure to centrist. Kitchens of Distinction, Joni Mitchell, J.S. Bach, October Project, Sarah MacLachlan, Perotin, a few favorite film soundtracks, Robert Ashley, Morton Subotnick, Samuel Beckett, the Police, and John Dowlnad. You carry with you a wide variety so you always have something to match your mood.

I was listening in the truck as I drove yesterday to Charlie Haden's new CD, released this past fall, that he recorded with his family and friends. The CD is titled Rambling Boy, an iconic title for an album by one of our greatest living improvising bassists. He began as a singer with his family radio show band, the youngest of the clan, and grew up singing country music on the radio. When he switched to playing bass, it was partly because he had discovered jazz. This album brings Charlie Haden full circle to his roots. It's one of my favorite CDs right now, and definitely one of the best of 2008.

I also listened to Stars and Stripes Forever, from the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band, from the 1079s. I found that CD a few days ago in a thrift store, and it caught my eye. This was one of those great iconic bands of that anything-goes era in music, that I didn't really know much about. The Dirt Band played in a lot of styles, though, not "pure" country. Bluegrass, jazz, rock, and novelty songs were all in the mix. This album features some interviews and live performances; it's historical as well as good listening.

My point here is a simple one, and one that gets overlooked in most criticism in the arts: the person's right to be eclectic, even inconsistent, in their tastes, and their right to be independent of fashion and trends. I like music from around the world, and I like music from almost every era in Western music history. I'm partial to certain periods—Elizabethan England, High Gothic organum from the school of Paris, contemporary experimental music—and locations—Indian music, Javanese gamelan, American Indian drum, and some others. I don't think it's necessary to reconcile liking such a diverse variety. The main thing is that one enjoys them all.

Where most critics fail is their tendency to think that their personal tastes indicate quality. In fact, even critics who are relatively objective in their assessments of whatever kind of art they study and respond to, and who are relatively able to sort out their personal taste from their critical assessment—even those relatively objective critics still make judgments that are more subjective than they imagine. I don't trust a critic who claims that it's all fair game, and artistic quality it purely subjective. But I also don't trust a critic who claims to be more objective than everybody else, all of the time—even if they usually are. No one can make such a claim without eventually sticking their foot in their mouth.

What I write as a critic doesn't have to be fan mail. But it also doesn't have to be a hatchet job. Far too many critics equate objectivity with negativity. Far too few critics state what succeeds in a given work of art as well as what has failed. And even relatively objective critics occasionally completely miss the point. It's called being human, and it carries no shame—so long as one can learn from one's own mistakes, and be willing to revise one's opinions.

But as a reader I can afford to be eclectic, wide-ranging, and contradictory. I can like all sorts of incompatible artistic products. Maybe you don't like them all for the same reasons. I do read trash science fiction, sometimes, for the pure pleasure of the tale; space opera is great fun, even if isn't great literature.

When I read, I read for pleasure, for knowledge, for curiosity, for much more. When I read, I am not required to be a critic. I think one problem critics have is they don't know when to stop: sit down, shut up, read a book for pure pleasure rather than for having to form an opinion about it. I do think most poets need to write more criticism; there is a certain slacking off in critical thinking, in general, when a whole rack of poets claim that they're Artistes, not thinkers. Their thinking is abandoned in favor of pure feeling, to the ultimate benefit of neither.

In artistic appreciation, one is not required to choose sides. It's not an either/or choice to like both Willie Nelson and John Coltrane. It's a both/and choice.

Never be ashamed of having eclectic tastes. People who like only one kind of music, or one kind of poetry, are usually as narrow in their other views as they are in their aesthetic choices. People who you share no common ground with politically can still be your friends at the saloon. In fact, how else are we all to find common ground, if not in what we like to listen to, to read, and to talk about? How narrow the world must be for those do not have eclectic tastes. That's not an interesting enough world, in my view, to want to live in.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

In this respect you and I agree totally. I enjoy a very broad range of music and I do sometimes stretch my wife's ears more than they care to be stretched but as long as I don't overdo it she's very patient with me. I like to stretch my own ears. If reading took less time I'd hold the same point of view but I'm a slow reader even when I'm not doped up to the eyeballs. At least I can listen to music no matter where my head is.

Just in case your interested I'm listening to some kind of electronic soundscape right now - a kind of poor man's Brian Eno - and the last thing I listened to last night was Elgar's The Wand of Youth.

4:55 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

All well said.

I've once or twice inflicted my musical tastes on my friends to the point of rebellion, or pain. I try not to do that often; I need my friends. But the truth is, I've known for a long time that, even with many gaps in my musical knowledge, my tastes in and knowledge of music are far more eclectic than most people I know. Hence my thought that some friends might be shocked at my enjoying country music at times.

I like a fair bit of techno and electronica, actually. Of all the dance/pop music genres, techno tends to much more exploratory and experimental than most.

I like opera, too. Well, some opera. My favorite quote about opera comes from maestro Arturo Toscanini: "Wagner has some wonderful moments. . . and some dreadful half-hours."

12:04 AM  

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