When I turned in my resignation to the Voice in May, my editor, Bob Christgau, was typically understanding and supportive. But he did make one final request. He asked that I write a farewell article, sort of explaining my experience with the Voice, and the events leading up to this decision. Partly he didn’t want anyone to think that I had been eased out of the paper, and partly he just figured that such an article would be of interest to many readers of the Voice music page, where I had been contributing for 11 years. It seemed like a reasonable request, and I said sure, fine. But four weeks and five starts later, the assignment seemed like the hardest I’ve ever taken. Somehow it’s a lot easier to write about other people than to write about yourself.
The problem, as with most autobiographical articles, is that everything is so close to home, and it’s easy to get carried away. Everything I wrote seemed to come out as regrets or boasts or fond farewells or thank-you notes or confessions—the kind of personal drivel that you don’t like to ask someone else to read, no matter how sincere the feelings may be. I was really struck until it occurred to me that I should just do what I always tried to do in the Voice. Write honestly in the first person. But emphasize the description of what happened. Keep the interpretations secondary. And try to leave the evaluations up to the reader. Before I knew it, I had an introduction explaining how hard it was to get started on the article, and was launching into a little personal history in a tone that seemed appropriate.
I first got involved with the Voice late in 1971. I’d run across a most engaging concert by a young unknown composer named Phil Glass, and an extremely stimulating one by Stuart Dempster, an experimental trombonist no one seemed to know about, and I’d noticed that no paper in town was reporting on any of this kind of new music. I’d had some journalistic experience with Musical America back in 1962-63, and I needed money. The logical thing was to approach the Voice. I simply complimented the editor on what a fine job the paper was doing with experimental dance and film and theater, and pointed out that they needed someone like me to fill in the musical side of the picture. They wanted a sample article, and after they read it, the woman who was to become my editor, Diane Fisher, said okay. But she also suggested politely that I get the cobwebs out of my head and try to write more clearly, sort of the way Deborah Jowitt does. The suggestion helped me a lot, and I think it is still good advice for anyone who wants to be a critic.
Before long I was turning in articles Monday afternoon, and they were appearing, always improved slightly, but never really cut or changed, every Wednesday morning. As I started exploring the musical scene more carefully, I found that an interesting little series was going on at a new place called the Kitchen, and that lots of unknown musicians around lower Manhattan were doing some very strange music, but often doing it very intelligently. My articles began to stimulate response from the musical community, and general readers seemed to appreciate knowing what was going on too. No one realized at the time that one of the most significant genres of serious music of the century was developing, a genre that was to become known as American minimalism, and which would find imitators all over the world in the course of the 1972/steve-reichs-drumming few years. But it was already obvious that downtown musicians were going through some kind of unusually creative period, and somehow The Village Voice and I were an important part of what was happening. Nicolas Slonimsky, in the Baker’s Biographical Dictionary, later accused me of being a crusader, and I guess I did turn in an awful lot of rave reviews during that period. It was hard to remember to look for flaws when the general thrust of what was going on was so new and so positive.
My editor, along with a lot of other good people, was a victim of the changes that took place when New York magazine bought the paper in 1974, but fortunately, I was not. In fact, I benefited from the change in several ways. My salary went up to something like $90 an article. My columns began to appear on single readable pages, sometimes even carrying photographs. And most important, I was now assigned to work with Robert Christgau. At first I didn’t like having to go in for editorial meetings every week, and the work itself became more demanding too. Standards of stylistic smoothness went up a lot, and since my editor had both a keen eye for specious reasoning and had a deep love for rock and roll, I now had to justify my opinions much more intelligently. But the advantages of the new situation were obvious, and the aesthetic arguments Bob and I would get into were among the most stimulating I found anywhere. I soon began looking forward to those weekly sessions. We continued a most fruitful working relationship, one which I’ll now miss a lot.
By the mid-’70s I found that I’d already written three or four articles each about people like Phill Niblock, Charlemagne Palestine, Steve Reich, Philip Corner, Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, and La Monte Young. It was getting hard to find new things to say about these composers, and boring to write articles that just repeated the same impressions I’d described before. Besides, the Times, thanks to John Rockwell, was now covering the weekly experimental scene more thoroughly than we could, and journalistically it seemed to make more sense to give space to a more truly neglected genre, non-Western music. This was not my specialty, and I’m sure I made a lot of ethnomusicological errors when I wrote about bansuri flutists, kotoists, vina players, oud players, mbira players, American Indian singers, griot singers, Chinatown ensembles, and so on. But at least these people, some of whom are superb musicians, were obtaining some recognition from the white majority press. And I got a lot of satisfaction from the thought that my articles could help listeners to find this music, and the musicians to find more outlets.
I had been active as a composer all this time too, and in general I found the two professions compatible. There were times when people wouldn’t even consider performing my music, because they felt it was more important to have me come and write an article about their concerts, and that used to really irk me sometimes. But there were also occasions when people would get interested in my music because they liked my critical perspective. The situation was neither particularly advantageous nor disadvantageous careerwise, but hearing concerts and meeting musicians was of interest for me in both respects, and by carefully avoiding even the most subtle sorts of tit-for-tat agreements, conflict-of-interest questions never arose.
An important shift took place in my composing career, however, when I made my first European tour late in 1979. These 10 concerts led to some new contacts and some invitations to return to Europe later, and the trip also changed my perspective as a critic. Before that I had more or less thought, as did most of my colleagues in New York, that the only good experimental music was American experimental music. But after getting to know the scene in Europe a little bit firsthand, I knew that this just wasn’t true.
It took me a while to digest this information. It was not until some months later that I wrote the first of several articles decrying our obsession with American music and arguing that a more international perspective would be more sensible. Working in New York, however, it was a little hard to develop this new critical concern, as there were really no performances of experimental European music to write about.
I thought I had a solution in 1981. Several opportunities had come together for me in Europe as a composer, and I wanted to go there for a period of six months, so I suggested to Bob that I send in my articles—which had become bi-weekly in 1980 to allow me more time to compose—from Paris. I was delighted when he said yes. Once again I felt I had a sort of mission as a critic. Six months and a dozen articles later, though, I was not so enthusiastic. I don’t think there was one letter of reader response during that whole period, and when I got back, I found that even a few of my friends, who were always interested when I wrote about New York, seemed to have hardly read what I wrote about Europe.
A year later, when I wanted to go to Europe for another long stint, I was not very excited about taking up space in the paper with articles that didn’t seem to have much reader appeal, and my editor was not very excited about depending on the foreign mails, and making do without editorial conferences, so we agreed that this time I should just take a leave of absence.
At the end of these past six months, several things seemed clear. (1) It was going to take a long time to develop my listen-to-Europe theme with any noticeable effect, and I wasn’t sure I had either a good method for delivering this message or the patience to hammer away as long as it might take. (2) Sooner or later Americans were bound to find out about Zoltan Jeney, Arvo Part, Wolfgang Rihm, Louis Andriessen, and others anyway. (3) I was kind of burned out on most of the subjects that had seemed important earlier. (4) I had watched what can happen to people when they keep regular jobs mostly just for the sake of keeping regular jobs, and I didn’t want that, money or not. (5) Eleven years had been long enough.
Or we could give a simple geographical explanation: (1) I was finding it more useful professionally, more stimulating musically, and more pleasant personally to spend most of my time in Europe. (2) The Voice is basically a New York paper and can’t really justify having a regular European music correspondent. (3) Ergo, it was better for us to part ways.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be in Europe the rest of my life, and I’ll be making regular trips to the States anyway, for all sorts of personal and professional reasons. I may even write an occasional article for The Village Voice, if I run across a good story and find that I can’t completely break my old habit. But I’m off the masthead.
So far I’ve been pretty good about just describing what happened. But as in many of my columns, I’m finding it hard to stop without a little evaluation, and there’s one value judgment I especially want to make, because I think both readers and staff sometimes tend to forget it.
The Voice is a great paper.
I still don’t know of any other newspaper or magazine where writers like me, who have trouble toeing the line and keep going off into special styles and offbeat concerns, can not only survive, but can even find support and encouragement. The Voice is one place where the freedom of the press is not just a corporate freedom, but a freedom that extends all the way down to individual writers. The paper has been wonderful to me, often supporting me emotionally as well as financially. We’ve been together for a long time, and it’s hard to part with her. But she has a strong personality, which seems to have survived quite well through all sorts of editors and mergers and policy changes, and I have faith that, with just a little understanding and care from us, she will outlive us all.
With that, my space is running out, and it’s time to say good-bye to the paper, and to some others. So long Bob. So long Leighton and Greg. So long Rob and Marilyn and M. and Jon and Fred. And so long faithful reader.