Musicians dread words

John Zorn asked writers not to review his performance opening the season at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, though he was pleased we wanted to attend. How can/should an arts journalist comply?

Publicist Blake Zidell, no stranger to the particularities of musicians, presenters, freelance critics and others on the New York City scene, was apologetic. “Maybe you’ve run into this before with him: John is happy to extend press tickets to you tonight, as long as you don’t write about it.” And it wasn’t just me: he’d told the same to two reviewers from the New York Times.
It isn’t that Zorn’s piece wasn’t ready to be reviewed. It’s that Zorn doesn’t believe in reviewers reviewing. He’s of the opinion. I’m afraid, that music journalists are ill-informed and demeaning, unnecessary and maybe parasitical, not just unsupportive but actually obstacles to the realization of musicians’ potentials. But he has received a fair amount of highly laudatory press over the years as well as some negative and ill-informed comment, and has been given a MacArthur fellowship, among other awards, so its not like he was under a rock and nobody noticed. What have music journalists done to deserve this?
I first heard John Zorn play reeds in 1976, at a loft across the street from Joe Papp’s Public Theater, with guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, celebrating Charlie Parker on the anniversary of Bird’s death. I’ve followed his music ever since, through its many unprecedented twists and prodigious expressions. I’ve written about him — in liner notes, record reviews, interviews, magazine features and my book Future Jazz, to which he contributed a nice blurb. I produced a nationally syndicated half-hour radio program featuring his explanation and all-star performance of his intriguing composition Cobra — which I also played at the old Knitting Factory among a distinguished troupe of music journalists. I got to know him in a collegial and neighborly way. I am aware that he cultivates at least a superficially contentious relationship with the press, and takes vocal, often principled exception to dull and generic conventions of performance, presentation, production and dissemination through his own compositions and improvisations, the records tumbling out on his Tzadik label, the nightly chamber concerts in his recital room The Stone.
“What does John mean,” I asked the publicist caught in the middle, “that I can’t write about the event — ever? In any form?” I’m thinking that this agreement would be sort of a reverse on the clause publishers now slip into contracts of unwary authors, claiming all rights in all forms of media now known or to be discovered in this or other universes. “If I paid for a ticket — $30, for an hour-plus with an interesting audience at a cool black box theater specializing in cross-genre rock/art happenings — then he would approve my writing about it?” (Some publications demand that rather than face conflict-of-interest charges against those of us who receive tickets free, but it flies against a freelancer’s expense realities).
“If I don’t write about it, should I just forget it existed? Maybe I shouldn’t hear it anyway, as I won’t be able to forget it (if it’s any good), so it might infect any writing (about anything) I do in the future. If I don’t experience it, I don’t have to forget it. Then too, if he doesn’t want me writing about it, he might not do it — play music, as promoted, in a public space.”
Well, I attended the performance. As it’s already public knowledge, I feel free to print here’s who was in the ensemble Zorn directed (playing alto sax on one piece): guitarist Marc RIbot, drummer Joey Baron, keyboardist Jamie Saft, vibist Kenny Wolleson, bassist Trevor Dunn and percussionist Cyro Batista. Repertoire was from a new album, The Dreamers, two pieces from a previous release, The Gift, were performed as encores. The next night Zorn was scheduled to provide music for historic silent movies. I won’t say anything more about his engagement at St. Ann’s Warehouse than that. Hold me to it.
But tell me, too: What can a musician legitimately demand of a music journalist? Dutiful awe? Guaranteed praise and promotion? Accurate reportage? Insightful, empathetic analysis? Honest personal response? Broad and realistic perspective? Sensitivity to innumerable social and esthetic issues? Or self-negation: dumb silence?

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  1. says

    So you felt obligated NOT to write about it because you were asked not to write about it as a condition of receiving a free pres ticket. Can I switch that around, and offer writers free press tickets on the condition that they DO write about the show?

  2. says

    Indeed, I seem to have the opposite problem: musicians who give me a ticket to their show with the expectation that I will act not as a journalist and critic, but as a publicist. Not long ago a musician put me on the guest list for a Friday night gig, then wrote me on Sunday demanding a write-up.
    I sometimes feel like a heel if I accept a ticket and then DON’T write about a gig, but there are too many to cover, and damn it, I see some that just aren’t worth writing about.
    So it’s hard for me to think that the journalist owes anything at all. And I wonder if I ought to give disclaimers to those who offer me seats at their gigs.

  3. Peter says

    (Warning: Cynical composer’s opinion following…)
    As a composer who has been on the wrong end of some critical reviews, I can certainly see Zorn’s point of view. I speculate that, like many composers and performers, he sees the value of a review more in terms of publicity and less for its criticism. At this point in his career I’m guessing he’s not that worried about the publicity and thus not at all interested in the criticism.
    There was a time when there was a healthy symbiotic relationship between performer and reviewer, but unfortunately those days are gone. In many cases the reviews feel like little more than another arm of the great NY publicity machine.
    This is not to say that there are not great writers out there writing well crafted and sophisticated reviews. But the average reader’s interest lies largely in determining whether to spend their money on a concert/recording/play/etc. If the reviewer pans it, then they skip it and move on. It’s a minority who are actually interested criticism as a form of writing. In this situation, performers could be forgiven for being wary of reviews.

  4. michael cassidy says

    The NY Times should pay for their own tickets. Its a bit sleazy for the Times to get free tickets, free hotel space, free airline tickets etc and then review.
    As for Zorn he should not give out free tickets to reviewers if he does not want them to review the performance.
    I think you should review him.

  5. sanford robinson says

    Performance artists who push the boundaries of their art and challenge an audience must be prepared for responses that range from delight to bafflement to hostility. It’s not only absurd of Mr. Zorn to ask writers not to publish their views, it’s arrogant to suppose that nobody is qualified to pronounce on the nature or value of his performances. Whitney Balliett, Nat Hentoff, Gene Lees, Gary Giddens, Francis Davis, and other writers on music have established standards hardly less exacting than those of the many musicians they’ve listened to so attentively and discussed with insight and intelligence. Alerting us to underappreciated artists and occasionally puncturing a few inflated reputations are both valuable services that such writers perform.
    Perhaps Mr. Zorn is embittered by critics’ lack of enthusiasm for certain performances of his in the past, such as the notorious concert at the Painted Bride in Philadelphia some years ago when the volume of the band’s amplified instruments was truly, literally, deafening and drove some of us out of the room with our hands over our ears. Francis Davis, among those present, later wrote it up and described the volume level, with perfect accuracy, as assaultive. Perhaps if it had been up to Zorn, the story would never have gotten into print. But for Davis not to have reported the incident would have been irresponsible toward those who might unwittingly attend a future performance and wind up suffering permanent hearing loss on the grounds that a good audience (and a good critic) is expected to just sit there and take it.
    Mr. Zorn may be prepared to make sacrifices for his art, but why should we?

  6. Stephen says

    It may also have to do with Mr Zorn’s notorious rudeness and simple-minded arrogance.
    I once had the misfortune to see him ‘work’ at a SF MOMA presentation in San Francisco. His 4-letter cursing was the least of it; according to Mr Zorn, no other opinion was even worth hearing. Ugghh. Even if Mr Zorn had talent, a more civil guy would let someone else be the first to point it out.

  7. says

    Sorry, this is an ethical no-brainer.
    Musicians play, reviewers review.
    If asked not to review, you should not accept the ticket.

  8. Simon Ordel says

    You should feel very flattered, Mr. Mandel. The line between professional and amateur critic has been eroded to an extraordinary extent over recent years, and there’s nothing to stop me, or other, amateurs, writing anything at all about Zorn’s music (short of actual defamation). Here, Zorn has paid you the dubious complement of attempting to censor professional criticism at a time when he can do nothing at all about most public criticism of his work. It’s rather traditionalist of him to lean on such an old-fashioned conception of the relationship between art and criticism.

  9. Arthur says

    Pay him for a show he is not allowed to play!
    But have you asked him for his reasons? Maybe the answer is just a very simple and understandable one
    (work in progress, just a ‘fun’ concert, he had a cold etc etc)

  10. Chris H says

    I was at the show on Friday, and anyone who thinks he asked people not to review the show b/c “he knew, in advance, that it would not be worth reviewing,” is waaaaaaay off base. Killer performance and the Cd is solid, taboot. I’d imagine that his hesitancy to “allow” reviews may have something to do with the fact that Friday was the premiere of the “Dreamers” and it was likely the first time the musicians had played it all the way through since they recorded the disc in 2007. Just my guess, but with Zorn, who knows.

  11. Chris H says

    Though I do find it strange that, based on the existence of David Adler’s review, Zorn had no problem being reviewed a couple days later in Philly.

  12. Tony says

    Zorn’s attitude is reflective of many of the forces in this country that are trying to throttle public discourse. Of course, you have the Bush administration prosecuting, intimidating, coercing , co-opting and paying off journalists in an effort to throttle dissent. Now even those who supposedly espouse expression as a way of life and an art form try to prevent others from that same right of expression. Ironic too in this age of a million blogs; perhaps they are only in favor of THEIR expression; everyone else must remain silent. Scary.

  13. Mike Boehm says

    I think Zorn’s next album should be entitled, “King Canute,” after the legendary royal who tried to command the tide not to flow. He’s entitled to his opinion on reviewers; so are all the other readers he’d like to preclude from getting to make up their own minds.

  14. Anonymous says

    but if you did take your mission as a music reviewer so seriously, why couldn’t you just pay for the ticket and write about it?
    isn’t it about time reviewers write about music only other than all other things surrounding it? it’s really shame that the reviewers don’t stick to discussing the work but wander into some irrelevant area as if it really affects the music itself. there are so many reviews these days, not only about john zorn, that have so many extra “details” such as what the musicians wore, what kind of jokes they made, how they walked and so on. is it because they think it might help the readers more “interested” in what they have to say? and the same goes for the audience. why should it bother you so much if john zorn uses 4-letter cursing words or not? there are plenty of other great musicians who use that kind of language. on top of all that it’s not for you to judge anybody else.

  15. says

    Zorn’s attitude isn’t surprising at all. Given his outright hostility towards his own audiences at times, it seems Howard and the other reviewers were handled with comparative kid gloves!
    I suppose it never hurts for an artist to ask for a show not to be reviewed, especially if he’s providing the tickets for it. However, he shouldn’t be surprised — or offended — if a review pops up anyway. As someone said earlier, reviewers review. Howard’s ethics lean towards the impeccable, and I respect him immensely for that. But there are any number of journalists who would deliberately write something antagonistic just to deliver a good ol’ “screw you” to Zorn’s artistic temperament. That kind of crud doesn’t exactly foster goodwill towards the journalistic profession.
    John Zorn is an incredibly complex, intriguing person, fully aside from being an artist. He seemed genuinely touched a few years ago when I put him back in touch with his old mentor, Jacques Coursil, resulting in Jacques’ return to recording. Zorn combines a deep sense of honor and respect for his peers with a natural suspicion of outsider analysis. Despite the MacArthur grant and other accolades, he may have been screwed over more than most any other performing artist in New York. It’s always a difficult situation when a profoundly creative artist makes music that people are likely not to understand, and Zorn has upped that ante too many times to count (“Leng T’che”, anyone?) I’d say just take him as he is, and enjoy the fruits or not.

  16. says

    Indeed, I seem to have the opposite problem: musicians who give me a ticket to their show with the expectation that I will act not as a journalist and critic, but as a publicist. Not long ago a musician put me on the guest list for a Friday night gig, then wrote me on Sunday demanding a write-up.