Leaving Your Musical Island

New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff and New Yorker classical music critic Alex Ross are currently engaged on a correspondence on Slate. The Slate Dialogues debates don’t always turn out well: they can drift off topic, or come to a screeching halt just short of their stated goal. Sometimes the elaborate courtesies the participants exchange can lead them to drift off topic for fear of appearing too esoteric, too enthusiastic, or too bellicose. Ratliff and Ross aren’t really debating anything.  Rather, mostly it’s a polite exchange of bulletins from their respective beats. Their genres carry the same problems and challenges: fusty audiences who don’t like the new, the transience of young tastes, lazy concertgoers, the menace of rock.

Ross is a freak of twentieth century culture: a kid who only listened to classical music as a kid, "a preteen classical snob," who encountered rock music, the central musical genre of his lifetime, only after college, and then after a transition phase of Cecil Taylor. Who am I to doubt the veracity of Ross’s life story, but his credentials as a critic rest largely on his origins as a listening savant, unsullied by popular music. I’m currently reading Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. I’ll have more to say about that book when I’m done, but so far it’s been an ear-opening experience.

Ratliff has long been a favorite critic of mine. His tastes are closest to my own, although I’m not as enamored of Cuban music as he is, and I still don’t understand his tolerance, even enthusiasm for death metal. I don’t know how the New York Times assigns beats to its music critics, but I’ve always suspected that Ratliff and Kelefa Sanneh (who covers rap and country music, surely the most unwieldy combination of interests of any music critic) were forced to pick up leftover genres because the Times‘ readers have limited patience for Ratliff and Sanneh’s main beats.

In any case, Ratliff’s hip eclecticism contrasts with Ross’s precocious purity. Ross is noticeably awkward outside classical music, although he considers himself a "generalist critic."  Ratliff seems more comfortable with the Slate Dialogue form, even going so far as to sign off yesterday afternoon’s post "B."  The Tyler Cowen-inspired topic, leaving one’s musical island, is only a setting off point. Neither is much interested in listening to anything outside their own categories; they simply want you, with your narrow guitarist tastes, to try their stuff. Ratliff ventures some of critical principles. For instance, he likes music that combines, in a single work, "the really, really new with the really, really old." In his latest post (as of this writing) Ratliff considers "the conditions under which we try to understand our music." He hints at how he listens to music when the musicians are settled in to an ordinary set on a Thursday night. "So you become patient," he tells Ross, "and the visual aspect becomes important: You’re looking for clues as well as listening for them, feeling your way through it just like the musicians are." Ross has yet to respond, but Ratliff has hit upon an essential difference between jazz and classical: the former is constantly in flux and open-ended, while the latter strives for wholeness and perfection.

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