Following my reviews of Matt Weston’s “Rashaya,” and “Resistance Cruisers” albums, I contacted him to find out if he would be interested to do a small interview– I had hoped that such an opportunity might provide some balance– and also allow STARTLING MONIKER readers a chance to further pursue some of the ideas raised in the original entry.
If it hasn’t become clear by now, I’m perpetually interested in digging deeper into topics. I have tried to make my approach to reviewing in general not one of simply saying that something is bad or good; and even beyond explaining why. Instead, I always attempt to place the work being reviewed into a greater context for readers, and though I sometimes fail, I hope that this intent at least “colors” my efforts.
While originally listening to Weston’s recordings, it did not take me long to realize that the interesting question was not why I disliked the albums, but how meaningful a review could hope to be, especially given the finite framework of a reviewer’s own experience and taste. I included examples of two reviews, each a dramatically different “take” on Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music” as illustration of how a single work could inspire multiple viewpoints.
Naturally, this led me to other questions– how important is external information for reviewer? How much info is a musician expected/needed/wanting to present alongside a work before it overshadows the work itself? If everyone is said to have their own unique vision, at what point in time does it become appropriate to judge this vision? In what way could something completely unique ever be judged?
Today (about a week after writing) I saw a referral page in the STARTLING MONIKER statistics– Matt Weston’s “Tarfumes” blog. He had written an entry reacting to various reviews of his work, mine among them. And while I was happy to read that our e-mail interview was still a “go,” I was a bit disconcerted to see Weston’s appraisal of me as a shallow fellow, apparently more concerned with my popularity, and how it would be affected in relation to my opinion of his album:
“It seemed like the reviewer was more concerned about whether or not he was ‘supposed’ to like or dislike my records…or if it was ‘cool’ to dislike them.”
So much for considering myself well-spoken! It’s obvious my point was missed completely– that there is a generalized fear among many reviewers of not wanting to be the “uncool” guy that drives tepid, wishy-washy writing. In a way, it’s understandable. Taking a strong stance against something has a way of backfiring on folks. Would you want to be known as the guy who passed on the Beatles? Or the guy who said Elvis Presley would never amount to much? Who wants to be Mr. “Shut up! You’re supposed to be a pop group!” Hornby? It is quite possible that every thoughtful critic wonders if a little more information would make the difference between understanding and failing to understand.
When I wrote the “Rashaya” and “Resistance Cruisers” reviews, I was making a small stand against the fearful tendency to allow such possibilities to slant my writing.
With this idea in mind, I present my short e-mail interview with Matt Weston. Because he brings up more than a few interesting concepts, I’ll address them following the transcript:
STARTLING MONIKER: Obviously, you’re not rummaging around in a large box of percussion instruments. I also seriously doubt you’re using hunting calls. What IS your setup?
MATT WESTON: There are two different setups represented on the recordings. On Resistance Cruisers I was using an 18″ floor tom, a bass drum, 3 rototoms, various cymbals, and various metal objects placed on the head of the floor tom. On Rashaya the setup is essentially the same, except I’m using a tympani in place of the floor tom. As for the “hunting call” sound, that’s a contact-miked cymbal fed through various effects pedals and into a small amplifier. I also rub mallets across some of the drum and cymbal surfaces.
SM: Unless you’re rather twisted, its a fair bet we don’t have similar opinions regarding your albums, “Resistance Cruisers” and “Rashaya.” What is your interpretation of these works? What element do you imagine I’m missing (or misunderstanding) as a new Matt Weston listener?
MW: It’s difficult for me to imagine what someone else might get or not get from my work — that wasn’t a consideration when putting these records together. I know one thing that might help is to try not to shoehorn them into an area you may already be familiar with. You wrote that one of my records “doesn’t go far enough to quite become a noise release.” I wasn’t trying to make a “noise” record. I don’t know what “noise” is, in the same way I don’t know what “jazz” or “rock” is. I love Merzbow and Voice Crack and Francisco Lopez, for instance, but they never played “noise.” Similarly, with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Bill Dixon, etc. etc. — none of those artists played “jazz.” Or rather, none of the aforementioned artists approached what they did as as explicitly fitting into the predetermined constraints that would connote a “genre” of music. So no, my records aren’t “noise” records, just as they aren’t “improvised music” (or that most useless and idiotic of terms, “free improv”) records. They’re my work. In terms of reference points that might give a listener a “way in,” some of my key influences in making these records were the works of musician- composers like Bill Dixon, Tony Oxley, Keith Moon, and Milford Graves. But I don’t know if any of what I said, or could say, will make up for what you perceive as “missing” — ultimately, that’s out of my control anyway.
SM: I have the impression that more information (liner notes, for example) might have been helpful in understanding your musical direction. Still, if it HAS to be stated in text, perhaps something is musically lacking. How far do think an artist has to go to “meet” the listener on these terms?
MW: In terms of my approach, I would say that I’m working on areas that a drummer or percussionist wouldn’t normally delve into; or, more accurately, wouldn’t *want* to delve into. For the most part, I despise liner notes. There are only a handful of instances in which I’ve felt that liner notes actually aided in my appreciation of a work (a few off the top of my head: Bill Dixon’s liner notes for Franz Hautzinger’s “Gomberg,” Pete Townshend’s liner notes for the Who’s “Odds and Sods,” Berk Noglik’s notes for Cecil Taylor’s “Looking: The Feel Trio,” and pretty much anything written by Dave Marsh or Ben Young), but generally I find them to be superfluous, almost embarrassingly so. I don’t feel that an artist necessarily *has* to try to explain or elucidate what they do; but I don’t feel that they necessarily *don’t* have to. I like answering questions, but I’m not good at anticipating what the questions might be, especially since I have no way of knowing what points of reference may or may not be helpful for any listeners. It’s like what the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said about why he doesn’t “recommend” movies: without knowing each audience member personally, how can he possibly know what they may or may not like? Is it the reviewer’s responsibility to try to broaden their own perspectives, or the musician’s responsibility to somehow anticipate what the reviewer’s tastes and background are, and alter their approach accordingly?
SM: I have read that these are re-releases. What label(s) did “Resistance Cruisers” and “Rashaya” originally appear on, and when?
MW: These were originally privately issued limited-editions, sold only at my concerts. Each copy was signed and numbered, with artwork unique to that copy.
SM: What are your personal plans for the near future? Tour, etc?
MW: I have a few solo percussion concerts coming up: March 29 at the Tank in New York; a house concert in Florence, MA on April 1; April 27 at Strange Maine in Portland; and May 6 at ABC-No Rio in New York (also in duo with saxophonist-composer Blaise Siwula). My trio Barn Owl has a concert coming up on April 16 at the American Legion Hall in Florence, MA. And Thrillpillow, a band I play guitar in, is working on new songs. I recently finished a single called “Holler” that will be out in the spring, and my solo album “Not To Be Taken Away” will be released in the fall, at which point I will most likely undertake a tour of the northeast/midwest.
SM: What’s on the radar for 7272Music?
MW: We’ll be putting out “Holler” and “Not To Be Taken Away” (the latter despite our strict no-albums policy). We may also release new EPs by Thrillpillow and Tizzy. Tizzy was a mainstay of the Western Massachusetts scene, and was reportedly a big influence on Sleater-Kinney. They recently retired after 13 years, but not before finishing a 3-song EP.
Weston has a lot of interesting things to say, especially in his answers to my second and third questions. Without trying to debate him in print (which would be really unfair, seeing as how I’m doing the writing here!) I’d like to sort of add my voice to the mix– let the readers sort all this out and take away what they will.
First off, Weston makes good points along the lines of Miles Davis’ old quote, “I don’t play jazz, I play music.” For a musician, that’s a great attitude to have, and one which I tend to share in regards to my own creations. Here’s a quote from an interview I did with a local entertainment newspaper a few years back:
“‘For example, according to Dave X, there’s no fundamental difference between music and noise.
“Semantics, nothing more.” he said. “It’s the same with nations of the world. Some recognize Taiwan, some don’t. But it’s the same place for the people who live there.'”
And while I admit this is a great position for musicians, its not a very helpful track for reviewers or critics to take, is it? Being able to place an artist’s work in some sort of context is critical– can you imagine how unhelpful it would be to read reviews of unfamiliar albums, and only finding out that they “made music?” Saying:
“…(Resistance Cruisers) doesn’t go far enough to quite become a noise release…”
isn’t the same as claiming “Resistance Cruisers” to BE a failed noise album– it is saying that it does not have this intent, to clarify to readers that they should not be considering the album in these terms. There is no effort here to “shoehorn” Weston into any genre– I think that all but the most juvenile of writers understands that genres and labels are not the rigid boxes Weston despises. But let’s not get too cute with just calling everything “music,” either. When you take the word “jazz” away from Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Bill Dixon you remove one of the key tools listeners use to understand and frame this music.
As amorphous as the word “jazz” can be (covering everything from Louis Armstrong to John Zorn!) it is still valuable; categorization can highlight the path of music’s development, and allow readers to use familiar artists as reference points for unfamiliar ones. We know Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis are not the same artist, but how does using one to partially describe the other differ from any other way in which humans approach an unknown? Don’t we always compare it to that which we know while learning more?
What Weston surely knows, but overlooks, is that reviews aren’t the final “say” on an album. They’re the first step (and even then, just one of many possible first steps) toward learning more about music. It is a recommendation, an observation, and maybe even a trusted opinion– but as everyone knows who loved a movie that got bad reviews– its no substitute for personal taste.
update: I forgot my manners, and neglected to link anywhere! This is fixed now.