Finding a Place and Calling It Home

As is usual, last year ended and this one has already begun with scads of jeremiads on the death of this or that. One that got me particularly worked up in the final two weeks of 2010, even though I had already heard it many times before in equally unconvincing blather, was that the album had died as a format. But at least all those grossly exaggerated death reports tempered my annoyance with Rhapsody for not including a single contemporary music recording on its list of the 50 best albums of 2010.

Having not yet heard any of Rhapsody’s picks, I suppose it would be unfair of me to say that any of the at least 50 amazing albums of contemporary music released this year which I actually have heard stand up to the gems on that list. (Here are some of them.) Since I always try to eschew ranking, it seems futile to engage in such contests, but at least their list (or a similar list that any one of us could come up with) is solid ammunition against the folks who claim that albums are dead. As most scientists know, it’s a heck of a lot easier to prove something exists than that it doesn’t. If there were 50 albums put out last year that someone thought were amazing and I can name another 50 that I thought were equally fabulous, that means there are already 100 out of who knows how many albums that were released last year. If the album was dead, there wouldn’t be 100 albums period, much less 100 wonderful ones out of who knows how many less than extraordinary, but potentially still worth hearing, ones. But as most scientists know, it’s a heck of a lot easier to prove something exists than that it doesn’t.

Last week, in between watching numerous foreign films, drinking several extraordinary bottles of wine, and doing my best to stay indoors away from the piles of snow that didn’t get adequately shoveled away in my neighborhood, I finally finished a movement of a piece of music that took me nearly two years to write, even though it lasts a mere 90 seconds. But those 90 seconds contain what I hope will be the seeds for other ideas that will lead to a substantial multi-movement work, although plotting such a goal is perhaps an extraordinary act of futility if the spin-doctors are right and albums are gone and people can only pay attention to short, single-movement content.

But it seems to me that worrying about fitting in to the zeitgeist is the only thing that ties any of us to this particular zeitgeist, or any other for that matter. Ironically finding your own place in any time can only really occur once you stop worrying about it, become comfortable where you are, and figure out how to be a gracious host when guests come over. And, as for the folks who say that it is no longer possible to do that, in a sea of possibility and creativity it is very easy to ignore them.

9 thoughts on “Finding a Place and Calling It Home

  1. mollys

    Pareles had an interesting piece in the Times over the weekend re: the current economic/cultural drive towards striping down the music in radio pop and beyond and how “songwriting by committee inevitably leads to homogenization”.

    He notes:

    Minimalism can be a corrective and a clarification, a reminder of primal pleasures and impulses, a knowing rejuvenation. The New York Times critic Jon Caramanica sees that spirit in the approach of Best Coast and kindred stripped-down bands that are due for albums this year, a strategy he has labeled the New Simplicity. And it’s true that if that style doesn’t generate its own orthodoxy, it could turn out to be endearing. Someone just might write the new “Wild Thing” or the new “Hey Ya!” Too often, however, less is merely less.

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  2. wjmego

    The album..
    The album will die when we also no longer have interest in having courses of food served concurrently. Something which I doubt will happen even in a consumer-driven, fast-food society. Even the Happy Meal is a sort of prix fixe menu…

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  3. holbrooke

    not including a single contemporary music recording on its list of the 50 best albums of 2010.

    This is an incredibly weird thing to write, but maybe some readers know what you mean.

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  4. Frank J. Oteri

    “not including a single contemporary music recording on its list of the 50 best albums of 2010.”

    This is an incredibly weird thing to write, but maybe some readers know what you mean.

    Point taken. As I and many others have opined here and elsewhere, one of our biggest problems is that we don’t really have an adequate name for this music. In order for someone to get a table or a bicycle or an order of French fries at a fast food restaurant (to further riff on wjmego), they have to ask for it by name. I think to some extent we like the ambiguity of not knowing what this music will be and fear that having a descriptive word for it will somehow circumscribe it (admittedly I have felt that way myself), but in a world which has so many different things vying for our attention and where the things that receive the most attention are the things that are most effectively commodified, lacking an appropriate descriptive name for this music has helped to further marginalize it. That said, there were no world music (talk about a term that is even more meaningless than “contemporary music”; isn’t all music created on this planet world music, but I digress) or jazz albums on Rhapsody’s list either which tells me that their purview is ultimately pretty myopic. However, as I stated in the original post, if there are already 50 worthy albums from 2010 in that small a slice of the totality of the music that was produced this past year, and one can infer from that that there are hundreds of worthy 2010 albums across all musical genres, then there’s no worry of albums going away anytime soon.

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  5. wjmego

    Carpe Vocabulum?
    I agree 100% that terminology is a major issue here… And I continue to think that “Classical Music” still holds tremendous cache with the average person (as a term). I know all the musicological complaints, and understand many people feel that getting away from some sense of ancient/stuffy/whatever is the key to success… But seeing as that success in redefining our craft continues to elude, perhaps we should reclaim the old brand name, and be overjoyed when the confusion prompts wonderful leading questions like, ‘People still do that?’ and ‘Like Beethoven?’ Those are great chances to actually engage people and turn them on to the new, the edgy, the exciting… direct them at an artist or concert they would never otherwise be aware of. Ya gotta cast a lot of un-bitter bread upon a lot of waters…

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  6. holbrooke

    I hear you Frank. But I think using very general adjectives that already have an ordinary meaning is a bad idea, and one that stifles dialogue. For those of us composers deeply engaged in work that you probably wouldn’t consider “this music”, being excluded from such general terms as art, new, contemporary, serious, etc. is just plain insulting.

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  7. Frank J. Oteri

    For those of us composers deeply engaged in work that you probably wouldn’t consider “this music”, being excluded from such general terms as art, new, contemporary, serious, etc. is just plain insulting.

    For the record, I personally strive not to exclude any music from my purview. So the larger issue is not about what I would consider to be “this music” but rather what some people reading this would. The epithet “contemporary music,” for better or worse, does indeed have a specific meaning among a specific group of practitioners, even if it is not general parlance.

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  8. holbrooke

    Frank, your reputation for open ears is well known and is precisely why I come to this site to learn about music that is otherwise off my radar. That’s why I was surprised that you wrote off the 50 artists on Rhapsody’s list as not this music. I see some of the most exciting young composers working today on that list: Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Ariel Pink, and Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) to name my favorites.

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  9. Frank J. Oteri

    I was surprised that you wrote off the 50 artists on Rhapsody’s list as not this music.

    I’m sorry you interpreted my words that way. I wrote: “Having not yet heard any of Rhapsody’s picks, I suppose it would be unfair of me to say that any of the at least 50 amazing albums of contemporary music released this year which I actually have heard stand up to the gems on that list.”

    Upon my first glance at Rhapsody’s list, I was actually upset that their list was not open enough to include music from the genre none of us is willing to name, however porous its borders may be. (We all have our buttons.) On closer inspection, I became even more perturbed that there was nothing from the realms of jazz or world music either. (And, yes, both of those genre names are problematic, too.)

    But my final thought on it—which prompted this particular essay—was that if someone else came up with 50 wonderful albums released this year, none of which are in the specific ignored categories (ghettos) I find myself championing a good deal of the time, that means there is an overabundance of great music being released on albums right now and that all the folks who think that albums are over are not really paying attention.

    But please don’t forget my “yet”. I very much intend to mine the information on Rhapsody’s list. I’m not going to let their narrow purview keep me from learning about the things within that purview that I could gain from listening to. And, of course, thanks for your kind words about me and NMBx and after your advocacy on this page, I am even more inclined to check out the music of Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Ariel Pink, and Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) so stay tuned!

    Reply

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