Confessions of a New Music Blogger

Robert Gable
Robert Gable

I write a blog. Specifically, I write aworks, a blog dedicated to describing why listening to “new” American music is “interesting, important, and maybe even fun.”

Given their hybrid and still developing nature, blogs do not necessarily conform to the traditions and standards of traditional, top-down media, which may cause some to question the value of blogging. During the recent political conventions, considerable press coverage of blogging attested to journalism’s struggle to understand and accept the form, while Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon This Modern World commented on blogs (ironically) when a journalist asked “So—you post your thoughts and opinions on the Internet? That’s so fascinating.”

Blogs borrow techniques from a variety of disciplines. aworks draws from elements of more traditional resources: musicology, concert reviews, CD criticism, musical reference, and news, as well as Internet-specific elements such as personal bookmarking, social bookmarking, online reference, online American opera reference, news search, music portal, online playlist, and shared listening discovery.

Already, blogs are subdividing into various specialties. Examples of the diversity include a personal view, a broad set of entertainment and culture criticism, life in a particular urban center, a geographic and personal view, an American heartland cultural focus, an English cultural focus, a classical music blog written in Italian, classical music news, CD release news, online contemporary music, a blog written by a college class describing musical terminology, a conversation of music critics (and others) , Elvis Costello news and gossip, and reviews (in order) of UK #1 hits since 1952. Specialized by utility rather than content, MP3 blogs provide (or link to), hopefully legal, MP3-formatted sound files of merit for download. Examples include older pop music, current art-pop music, or better yet, aggregated MP3 blogs.

In my case, because I want to raise the awareness of new music and the composers who write it, each post is organized around a particular work by an American composer or artist, e.g. Concerto per Corde by Christopher Rouse. When appropriate, I provide a brief background of the work, maybe some cultural context, and most importantly, links to samples or MP3s so the reader can, if interested, also be a listener.

John Cage had the notion of critic as introducer; while I don’t have the discipline of a critic, who faces constraints like hard deadlines, word counts, objective coverage of music not of personal interest, etc., I do hope to be interesting to those who know this music as well as those just exploring it. So, a typical blog entry might be a comment on what I am listening to, some news related to a composer’s particular work, a link to someone else in the “blogosphere” commenting on the work, a link to a review É in short, anything relevant to a piece of American classical music. For example, a post on Rothko Chapel by Morton Feldman was an opportunity to use a good quote by the composer about his painter friends.

Consider that for aworks, newness is relative. From a world perspective, all American music can be considered new. From my original intention to highlight music composed in the last ten years or so, I’ve broadened my approach to cover all American classical and art music, be it classic minimalism from the 1960s such as Terry Riley’s In C, or older music from composers of the ’20s like George Antheil. I imagine most listeners will find any of this music original to them, be it Henry Cowell, Ned Rorem, or Charlemagne Palestine. I also believe in the context of music; if someone comes to the blog to read about Samuel Barber or John Adams, maybe they will also stay for Andrew Imbrie, Fredric Rzewski, or Evan Ziporyn.

In another blog feature, I have tried several techniques for estimating the amount of interest in a particular composer. In one case, I query Google News by composer and tally the results—currently, in increasing order of news buzz: Franz Schubert, John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Aaron Copland. In another case, I try to categorize the music by era, using an American historical model articulated by William Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning. If I look to improve my blog, I would spend more time finding and recommending MP3s of recent music, as in the currently developing MP3 blog culture which uses links to MP3 files as a way to introduce artists and songs.

I also read many blogs. Some are of professional interest (I am an executive at a Silicon Valley start-up). To handle the torrent of posts on each site, I use a tool called a feed aggregator, which shows unread posts for each blog of interest. This is a surprisingly efficient way to keep up, although it may juxtapose a political post, an engineer describing some arcane software tool, someone’s mundane personal moment, and an interesting art and cultural comment. As such, using the late Jonathan Kramer’s definition of postmodernism, blogging may be a response to current postmodern life, in that it blurs “high” and “low” styles, is fragmented, subordinates structural unity to values like timeliness and expression, and “presents multiple meanings and multiple temporalities.”

So, why read or write a new music blog? For starters, this music, all of it, is potentially important and deserving of a wider audience. It is also a way to engage with the music. While supplemental to listening, organizing your thoughts helps you absorb the music, especially as that music competes for attention with a great stream of other music, art, and entertainment. Like most, I have access to large amounts of online music and I am fortunate to also have a large CD collection. Focusing on several works a week provides a little sense of order and stability amidst the abundance of what I am (or should be) listening to. In effect, I am re-packaging or re-bundling the music in a way that makes sense to me, rather than how it is traditionally presented (by artist, composer, or recording). To the extent readers value this presentation (and its associated content), the blog becomes a trusted source to supplement other more professional resources.

aworks has “subscribers” who read (or at least scan) every post. I consider my readers to be cultural sophisticates who may not know as much about American classical music per se but have an interest in learning more. A subset knows much about this music and makes informed comments about a particular work, a composer, or a genre. My topic is a niche so I do not get the thousands of comments per day that, for example, a political blog in this election year does. As an avocation, I am grateful for the feedback I get.

Finally, and much more numerous than any other feedback, I get “referrers.” When someone visits a web page and then clicks a link to visit another page (and site), the new site’s web server gets a “referrer” link. Blogging tools can then list those links, in my case, on the sidebar of my site. Referrers might come from other blogs that link to my site, usually other music blogs. But more frequently, they come from search engines, as people try to find answers about this music in narrowly-targeted sites. And what are people looking for most? Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. People want MP3 and MIDI files of the music, CD recommendations, scores and analysis, or just simple identification of the sad, moving music they heard in the movie Platoon or in popular dance remixes of the piece (e.g. DJ Tiesto during the recent Greek Olympics).

Other recently popular posts include Tempest Fantasy by Paul Moravec (winning a Pulitzer Prize still has its benefits), Corey Dargel’s Accutane, John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and The Dharma at Big Sur, Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, Elliott Carter’s Night Fantasies, and Sweet Hardwood by John King.

I broaden my musical perspective when I read other blogs. For example, by reading his blog the rest is noise, Alex Ross has helped me connect American classical music with a European musical aesthetic. Kyle Gann’s blog PostClassic, based on his immersion in the contemporary composer and music communities, provides excellent pointers to new music composers such as Michael Jon Fink. From the UK, Tim Johnson’s The Rambler does a fine job of pointing out American works with impact in his country or at least for him personally, as seen in his list of music since 1960. And even extra-musical associations are interesting as in the blogger who associates Philip Glass’s Mad Rush with 9/11.

That personal stamp, for me, is important. The more objective style of a traditional critic or writer (as in Virgil Thomson learning to not use “I” in his New York concert reviews) does not work in blogs. Similarly, online groups like rec.music.contemporary and community blogs with multiple collaborative writers may not have the point of view and consistency of personal blogs. Of course, some blogs may have too much personality at the expense of content.

Blogs are also referential. As an example, the blog looking askance from ’63 posted an MP3 file of John Cage’s (silent) 4′ 33″, my blog briefly described the effect of listening to that work on my iPod, the Alex Ross blog the rest is noise praised my idea and added another anecdote about the piece, the Morning News online newspaper, which had recently interviewed Alex Ross, linked to my site regarding the John Cage MP3, which may have lead to the no goodbyes, only peaceful hellos LiveJournal blog referencing my post. Each of these blog’s readers have now been exposed to the idea of listening to the conceptual art of John Cage.

Blogging is still experimental, and I cannot predict that it will prove important. But it is fun and interesting for me and, in today’s fragmented cultural climate, I modestly suggest that it’s a fresh and useful way to highlight serious music.

Will it be a fad or a real trend in bottom-up communications? I look to the history of another technology: radio. Before World War II, radio was used for entertainment and indulgence; during a crisis, the medium became a unifying force.