Jumping the Ring of Fire: The Impact of Genre on Judgment

It’s fantastic how quickly the buzz for the Fiery Furnaces’ new disc, Rehearsing My Choir, is shooting its way through the music community. If you’re unfamiliar, Rehearsing is sort of a non-linear CD opera for which sibs Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger built a whole album around selected moments from their grandmother Olga Sarantos’s lifetime worth of memories. Sarantos herself put in some hours in the studio alongside her granddaughter, and her 83-year-old voice is featured prominently. The total effect is like looking through a stranger’s family photo album at a thrift shop. Just glaze it over with lots of creative electronic timbres and a record collection-worth of influences; then mix.

The album, which only dropped on Oct. 25, caught my eye during a regular scan of record reviews on Pitchfork (think NewMusicBox for the indie-rock set). No surprise, since it was put out by the indie-label Rough Trade and music these days tends to stick close to the boxes and categories where it is known. The shock came this a.m. when I logged onto Sequenza21 and Jerry Bowles was gushing. New music fans may crossover into the alternative side of the record store, and alternative artists visit the Lucier bin, but bizarrely, neither side ever really talks about it publicly. Both sides take a loss there.

Whether or not Rehearsing My Choir is a great album (critic Amanda Petrusich only offered it a 4.0 out of a possible 10 in the Pitchfork rating game, though Sequenza21’s Bowles called it “darn brilliant stuff”), my hope is that this marks a true “sledgehammer between the genres” moment. After reading Petrusich review to get at why she scored the disc so low, I think it’s a development that would be good for all of us.

Here’s why… Switching back and forth between the indie side and the new music side of my brain while listening to the album itself, I found the last graph of her review especially eye-opening. She writes:

…No matter how open your mind, how welcome to art-without-directions you may be, it’s difficult to consume Rehearsing My Choir without taking some kind of quasi-academic, cultural studies stance, reachable only after hours of careful, dedicated, uninterrupted listening: The emotional components are in place, but willfully (and successfully) obscured behind obtuse instrumentation and overdone wordplay. You can pick it apart, but can you dance to it, roll around on the floor with it, weep to it under your favorite blanket? This is not to say that art should be easy or instant or utilitarian–but it should be penetrable, purposeful. And somewhere along the way, the Friedbergers got all chewed up and swallowed by their own experiment.

Fair enough. Didn’t inspire me to dancing or crying either. But I did find it both penetrable and purposeful, and the obtuse instrumentation and overdone wordplay could be seen as part of the record’s charm. Getting chewed up by your own experiment may be overkill for Petrusich, but for Bowles that’s very likely what sparked the glimmer of brilliance. It’s a philosophy ingrained much deeper in the fan culture on both sides than there is room to fully explore here, but strikes to the heart of what ultimately divides the two—and it’s a moving target on a the continuum of what music means and should accomplish.

So maybe Rehearsing My Choir fails as a pop record. But for the very same reasons it’s quite possible that, if you rip the label off, it succeeds rather brilliantly as new music.

2 thoughts on “Jumping the Ring of Fire: The Impact of Genre on Judgment

  1. Frank J. Oteri

    I’ve been reeling for the last 24 hours from the Pitchfork review of The Fiery Furnaces’s Rehearsing My Choir which Molly forwarded me a few hours before she posted her thoughts above. In fact, the only thing that put a new idea in my head beyond my trademark “anger-at-the-clueless-critic” pose was to actually listen to the album which I’m going to go out on limb and call a masterpiece. I was already starting to feel this just from hearing samples from the album posted on the web so I eagerly coughed up $12 to buy the CD later that evening and also picked up the Furnaces’s earlier Blueberry Boat for good measure.

    But no matter how much I’m truly mesmerized by both of these albums, and perhaps in part because I am, I keep returning to that “anger-at-the-clueless-critic” pose. How could Pitchfork‘s critic Amanda Petrusich so not get it?

    Molly posited that perhaps Petrusich, by judging the disc on its indie rock merits, was coming to this music with different expectations than we new music types, including our buddies over at Sequenza21, for whom Choir‘s eccentricities are pure ear candy. Perhaps we just like experimentation a little bit more. But that’s not it either, because there’s tons of indie rock that experiments, some beyond Choir‘s wildest moments. (Sonic Youth is still going strong after all and so is Tortoise whom I just heard live in San Francisco last week.) At the same time, there’s tons of music in our so-called world that doesn’t experiment at all and is none the worse for not doing so: there’s nothing particularly experimental about Naxos’s new recording of William Schumann’s 10th symphony, but it’s amazing nevertheless!

    Molly quotes Petrusich’s gripe: “You can pick it apart, but can you dance to it, roll around on the floor with it, weep to it under your favorite blanket?” I shudder to imagine how Petrusich would have reacted to something as viscerally powerful as Doctor Atomic or, to totally go for the jugular, the string quartets of Elliott Carter or Milton Babbitt. But this ultimately has nothing to do with genre. Sure, it’s great to cozy up to Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston or many of Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening recordings in the wee hours of the morning, but could my “favorite blanket” ever have anything to do with Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet or even Beethoven’s Eroica? For the record, I don’t have a favorite blanket.

    Petrusich claims “this is not to say that art should be easy or instant or utilitarian—but it should be penetrable, purposeful,” but who can make an objective claim about what is penetrable or purposeful no matter what the trappings of the genre might ordain. In fact, Choir‘s exploration of the life of an octagenarian might make it the first indie rock album that isn’t inpenetrable to people outside indie rock’s genre-imposed generation gap. Ironically, Petrusich herself was such a huge fan of The Fiery Furnaces’s 2004 Blueberry Boat that it ranked Number Two on her best of the year list for the Village Voice. So why the complete volte face a year later?

    Perhaps liking the earlier album so much deafened her to what The Fiery Furnaces’s subsequent development turned out to be. Blueberry Boat is also filled with remarkable things and includes a fair amount of experimentation as well, but the unity that Rehearsing My Choir represents is a quantum leap forward. But appreciating that unity requires paying attention to detail and a willingness to listen carefully for the entire duration of the record. I don’t mean to imply that Blueberry Boat is a quick fix, hardly, but it is somewhat easier. Whereas Rehearsing My Choir is something that can get completely lost if it’s just playing in the background while you work on something else. It demands 100 percent commitment, something most folks in our society seem incapable of giving to anything these days.

    Petrusich was justifiably taken to task on the Confabulators a few months ago for writing a review of Sufjan Stevens’s Illinois without having listened to the entire album.

    I have tried to be “tasteless” in what I listen to (no need to go there again here), but I have steadfastly remained committed to a “classical music” way of listening to whatever comes across the transom. That might mean there’s usually no dancing or rolling around on the floor, and it’s frequently not cozy, but most of the time it’s extremely fulfilling both emotionally and intellectually all the same!

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  2. ian

    Hooray for buzz
    I just want to say that it makes me really happy to have such lively discussion within the new music community / media about a new CD release like this. I’m notoriously horrible about purchasing recordings (I’m pretty much the opposite of Frank–I only buy it if I already know I’m going to like it), but I happened to be in the Virgin Megastore this evening and saw this CD for $9.99 and was sorely tempted to buy it sound unheard–and that was even before I saw the latest posts here and on S21. I think buzz of this kind is very healthy for new music, even if only a few artists are the primary beneficiaries at first. For the same reason I was happy to see such saturated coverage of the Doctor Atomic premiere in San Francisco. In a way, it almost doesn’t matter whether it’s a good piece or not–the fact that there was such genuine excitement leading up to the premiere bodes well for future endeavors. Of course the fact that it was a good piece by many accounts helps affirm the credibility of the buzz-making machine, as well. Kudos!

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