Friendly Fire

I haven’t been blogging as much lately. Frankly, the blog has become less fun. The reason is the comments. The nature of them has altered over the last several months, and I feel like a habit is forming to try to tear down everything I say.

Let me explain before you react. I realize that I have very unconventional ideas about music, and that a lot of conventional musicians who believe what they were told in grad school get angered by my ideas. I’ve always believed that the people made angry by the things I say deserve to be made angry, that their protests were evidence that I’m hitting a nerve, and I relish going at them again and again. This isn’t about that. This is about, I mention that I enjoy Emerson, and someone writes in to tell me Emerson was a lousy writer. This is about, I mention something in passing, and that something Must Be Brought Down. If I mention an author I like he must not be very good, if I publish a transcription it must be inaccurate, if I refer to a piece of music that’s meant a lot to me it must be inferior, if I refer to a theory from another discipline it must be bogus, if I apply a term to music I’ve spent my life studying it must be misapplied, if I bring up a hypothesis it can’t be something I’ve been thinking about for decades based on continual experience, it must have a simple flaw in it I’m teasing you to catch. This is about being unable to say anything so innocuous that someone doesn’t write in to disagree. The comments aren’t adversarial or disrespectful. On the contrary, it’s almost flattering, like Postclassic has become a popular game show. Each entry is the ten pins I set up every few days, and once the item pops up on the RSS feed, all of new-music country moblizes to see how many they can knock down. But if the question is “I’ve always liked Jane Austen,” the answer “Jane Austen was an overrated writer” doesn’t knock down as many pins as you think. 

I’ve deleted a record number of comments lately, most of them on the basis of a principle I’ve stated here before: I will not allow people I admire to be denigrated simply because I gave an example of their work on my blog. The example is necessarily out of context, the author has no control over the presentation, and I will not place the reputation of friends or strangers in a gratuitously vulnerable position. On the other hand, some comments attack peripheral points or issues that have nothing to do with new music. I am happy to debate the merits of so-called “irrational” meters, the definition of postminimalism, pop music’s influence on new music – where better than here, and in some cases, where else than here? But this is not the forum in which to decide whether Emerson was, in fact, a writer whose reputation deserves to survive. Certain musical matters might well be revolutionized in these pages, but the world will little note nor long remember what we say here about long-dead essayists. 

What perplexes me most, I guess, is the willing and gratuitous disparagement of my lifelong enthusiasms. If I admit here that a certain author (or book, or body of music, and so on) has been crucial to my intellectual development, has helped make me the arist I am today, what could you possibly gain by writing in and informing me that my affections have been grievously misplaced? Do you imagine a comment from you will change my mind about a lifelong passion, or achieve anything besides making me consider you a scoundrel? If you want to insult me, why not do so outright? Why beat around the bush? I visit a lot of music blogs, and I see a lot of writers express boundless enthusiasm for artists and subjects I care nothing about, and it would never occur to me to barge in and leave a comment to the effect that their favorite composer was a talentless fraud. Authoritarian statements and presumptious mandates piss me off, and I have a certain reputation for being overly brusque in replying to them, but I have never believed in spitting on enthusiasm. In my Village Voice days, if I seemed to be the only audience member not enjoying a concert, I simply wouldn’t write about it. I had no impulse to rain on everyone’s parade. I am grateful for enthusiasm whencesoever someone derives it, no matter how little I could be inspired by the same source. 

And then, while writing blog entries is somewhat too self-indulgently fun, responding to lengthy negative or quibbling comments is a laborious chore. Of course I could just print the comments and let the reader sort it out, but too often that amounts to ceding the field to the commenter, who may have cherry-picked examples to quasi-triumphantly disprove the general principle on which my entire entry was based. And so I’m left with the discouraging choice between deleting the comment (which often these days comes from a valued frequent correspondent), dropping my other work to write a point-by-point rebuttal, or writing the person privately to explain why I’m not publishing it, by which time I might as well have chosen option number 2. I’ve actually given a lot of thought in recent months to simply turning off the comment button in hopes of making blogging more fun again. Some of my favorite bloggers, like Alex Ross and (until very recently) Jan Herman, don’t allow comments, and no one has seemed to think the worse of them. But I really do value the comments part of this site, which more than half the time is funny, entertaining, insightful, and informative. 

We haven’t figured out how this internet behavior thing works yet, and we’re all still learning. I don’t notice the same problem on other blogs I visit, and it does seem to me that the tone of comments on this blog has taken a truculent turn in the last, oh, eight months or so. I ask those commenting to back off a little and ask themselves why they’re commenting. When I enjoy something you don’t, what do you hope to acomplish by letting me know? Don’t such subjective preferences more rightly belong on your own blog? If your blog isn’t well known or you don’t have one, are you trying to take advantage of a larger audience here? The web’s combination of newness and egalitarianism makes it look like all of us who write here are eager 25-year-old grad students, but in fact I’m 52 with white hair and a D.Mus., have published three books, possess a CD collection that covers three walls, and am a tenured professor at a slightly well-reputed liberal arts school. For almost any statement I make about music I have more mountains of evidence than I could possibly adduce in the constrained format of a blog. I am sometimes wrong; I may even be slightly insane. But either you concede that my cockeyed opinions carry a certain inherent weight, or I can’t imagine why you would bother reading them, let alone responding. In any case, they are not the daydreaming hypotheses of a novice, as the level format of the internet seems to lead everyone to assume, nor am I wet enough behind the ears that your advice is likely to lead me out of the path of error. It has often occurred to me that I was too old to go onto the internet, which still seems like a young person’s medium, but it’s one I found congenial to my skills and personal habits. 

I really do enjoy an energetic back-and-forth discussion of musical minutiae: the recent controversy about meters like 4/3 and 7/5, which spilled over onto Darcy James Argue’s blog, was right up my alley. It saddens me that I’ve been losing enthusiasm for the blog. I still have impulses to write a blog entry almost every day, but now instead of yielding I stop and think what objections are likely to arise, what argumentative e-mails I’ll be called on to answer, what further time commitment I’m courting – and more often than not I take a breath and let the impulse go by. I don’t take any of it personally, I think it’s a general aspect of blogging that we haven’t collectively learned how to deal with yet. I repeat that I neither perceive nor return any animosity from my correspondents. On the contrary, it’s like I’m Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and everyone wants to challenge me to a knife fight. But as Mark Twain quoted the guy who was being run out of town on a rail, “If it weren’t for the honor I’d just as soon walk.”

And if you don’t like Mark Twain, I don’t need to know about it.


  1. says

    For me, It boils down to the attitude of this comic.
    “Duty Calls”
    I won’t recap the attitudes you’ve mentioned above, but I’ve never understood the impulse to curtly dismiss others enthusiasms; well-vetted or not. Even if the intent is to start a productive debate, how does that help?

  2. says

    I’m very sorry to hear about that, as I have always enjoyed your blog very much. I think you have a point, though.
    Why exactly I would think that someone who took the time to write a good article on a topic he knows something about is too stupid to know that he could notate his complex rhythms by simply using triplets or any such thing is completely beyond me. [I’m not citing any particular comment, in case someone feels misunderstood]
    Generally, my own preferred method of first believing somebody else had a valid point and then trying to test my own assumptions makes for less fiery discussions (although sometimes one cannot back off easily) but a more friendly communication. One may learn that things are different than one had thought – or at least that there are different useful ways of seeing them; which sounds like a good thing to me.
    Everybody tends to have opinions (often strong ones), but nobody will get something good out of just shouting them at each other.
    I realize my saying this is somewhat moralistic, but I do think we should go back to civilized talk even on the internet, even if we post anonymously.
    Apart from that, I suppose it’s not only me that enjoys your writing, checks out the music you mention and may even revisit authors he had dismissed before, disagreement though there might be.

  3. ligeti42 says

    Would it be reasonable to cherry-pick the comments you wish to engage and leave the rest to your audience to judge? I think of my favorite film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose reviews on the Chicago Reader website without fail elicit a range of trying responses, from personal qualms to more reasoned but still irrelevant digressions. He only chooses to respond to certain comments, out of what I assume is the same discrimination we’d expect from his film critiques. I suppose it boils down to how actively involved in your blog you’re compelled to be.

  4. ruby fulton says

    dear kyle, two cents worth from baltimore: please don’t ever be too old for the internet, because i really (enthusiastically) dig reading your thoughts.

  5. says

    hang in there, Kyle. it reminds me of my classroom (I teach middle school music, 10-14 year-olds), and no matter what I play, or talk about, there will always be a couple of students that feel it is their duty to dismiss and criticize. people (and readers and students are no exception) like to think that they know more and have something to say; by criticizing the speaker/writer/teacher, one can feel as if they are better – higher up on the ladder, and be recognized.
    with the good ( I love the irrational meter discussion) comes the bad, and some days (weeks, months) it is just harder to take. make sure to eat breakfast, drink less coffee, drink more coffee, put on some music from high school, and revel in the fact that people want to be noticed by you.

  6. says

    I’ve read your above piece twice, and I still can’t figure out what the problem is. There is no problem. Simply disable comments. Once done, you can then indulge your “impulses to write a blog entry almost every day” freely and without penalty.
    BTW, I disabled the comments function on my blog from Day One, and enable it on a post-by-post basis only on those rare occasions when I’m seeking information. I disabled comments not for the reason you describe above, but simply because I take the view that if someone wants to argue with anything I’ve written, he can damn well start his own blog for the purpose as that can be accomplished in pretty much the same time and at the same cost (zero) as commenting on my blog. And that’s the thing, actually. It’s *my* blog, and what’s written thereon are *my* views, and I flat-out refuse to have *my* blog serve as a publishing platform for the views of others.
    KG replies: Well, in the early days before Arts Journal enabled comments, there was a small problem in that readers would send me comments privately, I’d write back to ask permission to quote their comments, they’d write back yes, and I’d paste comments into the body of an entry. It was a little time-consuming, and publishable comments at first came as a relief. The question is whether answering argumentative comments takes up more time than quoting private comments. Since this is a rather technical composers’ blog at times, I get, ask for, and welcome quite a bit of technical advice. But thanks for the perspective.

  7. Tawnie says

    This is only the second time I’ve posted a comment to your blog. I really enjoy reading it, and I hope you won’t let the cranks out there slow you down for too much longer. ACD’s suggestion of only selectively allowing comments seems like a good one. After all, although I often read and enjoy the comments posted, I’m really here to read your thoughts.

  8. says

    Paul Newman was overrated in “Butch Cassidy and and the Sundance Kid.” As a matter of fact, the whole movie was overrated.
    But seriously folks . . .
    I won’t say “welcome to the internet” because this behavior exists in the flesh and blood world as well. It’s just magnified on the net.
    There are many people who feel a need to contribute and if they have nothing positive to offer, they offer something negative, anything at all to feel as if they have contributed in some way. We had more than one board member like that at The Kitchen. If they couldn’t offer a donation or pitch in to help, they would criticize. That way, they could leave a meeting feeling as if they had participated.
    I wouldn’t take it personally – the reason you don’t see it as much on other bogs is probably because the bloggers have deleted the nasty comments.
    Just always keep in mind that the comments don’t represent the opinions of the majority of your readers, just the opinions of people who like to leave comments on blogs.

  9. says

    Like the telephone, not every comment needs to be published. It’s your blog. Since you’re already moderating the comments (a good thing) delete the ones that are not productive, helpful, or appropriate.
    I’m negatively amazed at some of comments I get. The vitriol is depressing. I consider it like spam and delete immediately.
    Blame Bush and Cheney, and carry on.

  10. says

    Why do people try to post off-topic and belligerent comments here? Because (1) people want to be heard more than they want to listen and (2) they like to challenge perceived authority. In other words, readers recognize this site as a real forum with a real audience, and they perceive you as an authority figure. Those are two feathers in your cap.
    If they make you think twice before posting—is that such a bad thing? Too much blogging is unsupported opinion. A reflected, well-backed-up post is the exception online, and I’m not sure why that should be other than it’s easy.
    That said—delete as many comments as you like. (Errr, except for mine… Naw, just kiddin’.) A well-regulated comments section is almost always better than the electronic bathroom wall that the internet tends to become. But the one of the best things about blogging is the dialog that it allows you, the critic, to have with your audience, and vice versa. What’s the point of posting outrageous ideas and then ignoring the response? Then you’re just that crazy guy in the park, shouting from his soapbox. It would be too bad if this forum disappeared.

  11. says

    I’d echo other comments encouraging you to continue writing. I value your writing very much.
    I also wouldn’t hesitate to delete comments that you don’t think speak to the bigger point you are trying to make in a post. It’s your blog, there’s nothing wrong with controlling the discussion. I don’t think anyone is owed an explanation either. Once people know the rules, the remarks will take on a more civil tone.
    As John Cage has said, the biggest criticism of someone else’s work you can ever make is to compose a piece yourself (paraphrased I know but that was the gist). Let those folks write about their concerns on their own blogs.
    Your blog = your right to inform and discuss in a manner that makes sense for you and is hopefully (somewhat) stress free.
    Thanks for your work.

  12. says

    I, for one, would hate to see you cut back or even discontinue your blog. I visit wherever you’ve posted something new, and I often find worthwhile music, composers, or ideas to investigate. Why not just disable comments for a while, perhaps for a fixed test period of three months or so, and see how it feels?

  13. says

    I often refrain from commenting because I don’t want to be mistaken for a foreigner hunting for American contacts or exposure. I just hunt for interesting people, ideas and music, and I could find them here (and elsewhere too).
    You have a large audience of people who really love your blogging and your ideas.
    I’m sure all of them want to to keep on writing daily, if possible.
    KG replies: Hey, feel free to hunt for American contacts. Where better?

  14. Kyle Gann says

    Enough, thanks, I’m abashed by your outpouring of support. I start thinking no one is reading sympathetically, and you’ve given the lie to that impression. As a professional writer I hate putting energy into writing something and having it disappear, and I assume it’s no fun for anyone. So I’d rather complain and prevent future delete-worthy comments than just start deleting them. Thanks for everyone’s understanding. And suggestions.

  15. says

    Yes, please don’t stop. I also find your blog very inspiring and affecting and it’s changing the music I’m writing these days in various ways. I’ve noticed the intemperate and negative comments and maybe I/we should spring to your defense a bit more, but my shy nature entails some conflict-avoidance behavior and you seem to defend yourself pretty well without me.