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.