What Blogs Are Good For

[Update below] I haven’t been blogging. Just haven’t felt like it. 

1. I keep noticing that I’m repeating myself. I’ll write a blog entry and two days later notice I expressed the same idea in 2005, better. 

2. I’m tired of being criticized, which is something that’s been an issue my entire life. In high school I was practicing Webern, Ruggles, and Rochberg, and was told by my classmates that I wasn’t as good a pianist as this kid who could play “Hava Nagila,” because he played music people liked. In my early years as a critic, the criticism made me sharpen my arguments and become more strictly evidence-based. Now it just makes me self-censor. For instance, the term “Downtown” just drives some people insane, and so I’ve learned a hundred ways to write about Downtown music here without using the word. But what fun is blogging if I have to self-censor – or else deal with blizzards of complaints?

3. I suspect the blog keeps people thinking of me as a critic. It makes sense that managers keep sending me press releases and artists keep fishing for articles, but I’m trying to discourage it, and I’m afraid the blog has the opposite effect. Critics write blogs, especially when their print medium goes under; composers don’t, or not often, and a composer’s blog is presumed to be read only by his music’s diehard fans, which would cut my readership down considerably. Putting my name in front of the public every week, as I’ve been doing since 1983, became a habit, as difficult to stop as any other habit. For years it was a way to keep my name in the air while I struggled to get my music out. But my music’s out now, at a level respectable enough for a former Downtowner, and I don’t want any more gushing feature-story requests from ensembles that wouldn’t consider giving me commissions. Yet I feel guilty writing about my own music here, because this started out as a critic’s blog, like I’m promoting my music under false pretences.

What I need, after six and a half years, is some kind of blog makeover, like Alex Ross has given his blog (though his content doesn’t seem to have changed as much as his format). I’m thinking about the things blogs are good for, and what they’re not so good for:

1. Gathering information: this is perhaps the most beneficial, for me, purpose of the blog. Sometimes I need information or perspective, as I recently did on the idea of teaching a 12-tone class, and everyone with any expertise to share is happy to write in. It’s like having 3,000 free consultants. I would miss it terribly if I quit.

2. Writing about teaching: wonderful. All we music theory or history professors are pretty much in the same boat, all of us run into the same problems, none of us have been specifically trained to do this, and we can all use whatever suggestions we can get.

3. Presenting musicological work: not so good. If I’m writing a book or scholarly article about something, it’s because I’m sitting here looking at and listening to materials you don’t have access to. Unless you are Keith Potter or Charlemagne Palestine or somebody, your insight into what I’m writing about is not as good as mine. Everyone has a right to his or her opinion of my music; only a handful of people have a right to their opinion of my scholarship, and those people will be consulted by the peer-reviewed publications I write for. A blog is a democratic format, and scholarship is not a democratic activity. I’ve come to think that the presentation of incomplete musicological research in blog format has a poor return. One nice thing about writing a book is, anyone who wants to refute you’ll have to write his own damn book to do it, not just fire off a note on his laptop.

4. Information about my music: feels self-serving. Of course it’s a godsend being able to provide my own publicity for upcoming concerts, and it would be difficult to give that up. Essays about my music, though, should probably go on my web site, where people interested in my music can go to look for them, and I’ve been adding material there lately as a substitute for blogging. I even suspect that my presence in the blogosphere inhibits my music being discussed there. You’re either a subject of the conversation or one of the conversers, and no one has demonstrated yet, I think, that you can be both. 

5. Opinions: mine are notoriously unconventional, and I get tired of defending them. Some days I wish I’d kept my big mouth shut all those years. As for trivial opinions like my favorite movies and beers and such, I respectfully disagree with the blogging community that anyone should care.

6. Various goings-on in the music world: of course this is what blogs are for, but it requires a tremendous administrative investment, and, frankly, more curiosity about the outer world than I possess. For decades I kept track of concerts, records, books, and I just don’t anymore, especially now that the music of the Downtown scene I was involved in gets so little attention. And if you write praising one composer’s new CD, 32 other composers get the idea that you’ll write about their CD too, and the correspondence alone takes hours a week. For decades I was a willing and active cog in the capitalist publicity machine, and you’re either in or out of that machine; there’s no hanging around the periphery.

And so I’m left with information requests, observations about teaching music, and notices of my upcoming concerts. Maybe I’ll get inspired to start a new direction. But for now I’m composing daily, and I think getting out of the habit of weekly public pronouncements was probably a good thing for me.

UPDATE: The more I think about it, I guess it seems like a blogger comes off as a group discussion leader, an initiator among equals. Everyone feels invited to join in, whether to compliment, disagree, mouth off, whatever. Usually the topic is one of common access: “I saw the movie Blick last night, Brad Pitt was great but the plot was awful,” and so everyone can say, “Really? I thought Pitt sucked,” and like that. But if I’m sitting here with materials you can’t get, and I’m telling you information that’s been secret until now, readers can’t contribute out of their own store of knowledge. But they feel they have the right to say something, so they write in and say the piece I’m analyzing sucks, or improvisations should never be transcribed, or my feet stink, or else they pick up on some passing comment that refers to something they’re familiar with. It’s just not a top-down medium. It’s not an efficient one-way information transfer. Even a blogger as high-powered as Salon’s Glenn Greenwald is usually commenting on news reports or documents that are out there, that he can link to, so it’s not his private information. If he were getting confidential communiqués from the government or something, I guess people would be up in arms attacking his veracity. 

Still one great things about blogs for musicology: when you need to put up audio examples, as I did with Dennis Johnson’s November, there’s just nothing like a blog. 

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Comments

  1. says

    It’s a shame you’ve taken heat over your musicological posts, I find them incredibly informative and entertaining. Dennis Johnson was just a name mentioned briefly in reference to Lamonte Young to me before your posts on November. I, for one, am grateful for your efforts.
    KG replies: Thanks, Steve, I was a little afraid as coming off as fishing for compliments. What I’d rather see is some discussion about how to present scholarly work on the internet without everybody taking a crack at knocking it down.

  2. says

    Blogs can take on a life of their own, one in which you find yourself but caretaker of this exotic beast which controls what you see, what you hear, what you say, and how you say it. Pick what the blog should be about MOST, one topic…and blog on that. If it’s composing, you’ll find you have a lot more to write about, and a lot more desire to write about it. If you MUST blog on the other aspects of your life, start DIFFERENT blogs. Sounds silly, I know, but the digital seperation will lead to slightly different readerships in time. Also, lose the scheduled posting, post when you feel like it.

  3. says

    I always learned a lot from your blog. That’s the kind of stuff I’ll miss reading the most. But I understand completely!

  4. says

    Your wonderful ability to talk about music in fresh ways, along with the samples you’ve put up, have been terrific. I’m well outside your world, but it’s been like auditing a high level university course. You’ve gotten me to think about what music is and can be in all sorts of new ways. So just wanted to thank you for all that, and to say it’s completely understandable your tiring of all the ego intoxicated comments. I’m just glad you’ve kept up with it as long as you have. It’s been a real treat and I wish you the very best in your future endeavors.

  5. says

    I’ll be honest: a blog will be as democratic as you allow it to be. Just close the comment device when you write musicological texts and that will be ok (unless people are evil enough to take the time to e-mail you). Don’t overestimate “democracy” in the blogosphere. Many of your readers (myself included) love your texts about which we can’t debate. Perhaps we can’t debate them, but we learn with them. I know I do.

  6. steve voigt says

    Hey Kyle,
    I’ve been thinking about starting a blog lately. If I do, one of my first posts will be about how I can’t stand music blogs, with the single, huge exception of PostClassic. What I love about your blog is the same thing I loved about the Voice reviews: An articulate, passionate exposition of interesting ideas about music. When I read your discussion about a composer/piece/article/whatever, it’s not primarily because I want to know more about that topic: it’s because the topic is medium through which you express your ideas, and I always find your ideas worth reading. So I hope you’ll keep writing, particularly about pieces you’ve heard, or composers you like/hate, or your own music. As for the latter, it doesn’t seem self-serving if you’re writing about the decisions you make while composing, and why you make them. That’s interesting.
    Oh, and I completely agree about bloggers who spew about their favorite movies, beers, etc. Can’t stand it.

  7. Ernest Ambrus says

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but to me, your blog has always been a valuable tool to learn from. I’ve read many blogs, but none have come close to sharing the keen insights about music, theory behind it, composing, teaching, and practical aspects, as you have. You may or may not continue it as you have, and that’s understandable, but it’s important to just put it out there that for people starved for intelligent discourse about these things, your views are an asset.
    I don’t know who might primarily think of you as a critic, but even a quick glance at your posts shows this isn’t the case. Your clear and unassuming style alone should give that away, but hell, people are people. With criticism, even, the ones most vocal have the least to say.
    Whatever changes here, or in your personal life, I wish you the best of luck. I just wanted to say that you have fans regardless of what others peg you as, and your music, and writing are both things to take to heart. Not many can do one well, but to do both deserves respect.
    KG replies: Thanks, Ernest, I’ve always appreciated your support. The people who continue thinking I’m a critic don’t post to my blog, they send me breathless press releases trying to get me to write stories about their product. You wouldn’t believe how inappropriate some of the requests are: trying to interest me in Yo-Yo Ma albums, pop groups, Debussy recordings. It’s clear these people don’t even wonder what I do, they just see a music blog and put my name on a press list.

  8. Luk says

    He Kyle,
    Aggreeing with Alfredo: you can let this blog be as top-down or one-way as you want it to be.
    I would much rather keep reading your insights without the ability to comment than to have to miss your posts altogether. The comment device is the least necessary bit of the information-sharing set-up.
    L

  9. says

    Kyle,
    I respect and sympathize with all of your reasons for wanting to do things differently. I hope you’ll consider a suggestion, which I offer in part out of self-interest (I have found many of your longer essays on particular issues to be invaluable and hate to thing that they might no longer appear.)
    What if you were to either convert PostClassic or create a new blog strictly for the purpose of just such occasional essays, as many as several a day or as few as one every six months or so. A subscriber list of email addresses could be established, and whenever you posted an essay a notice could go out to the list. That way one wouldn’t have to check the blog every day, and you wouldn’t have to post regularly just to keep the thing viable.
    KG replies: Hi, Paul, I am thinking of maybe putting more scholarly stuff on my web site and then referring to it here. A subscriber list sounds like forethought and organization, not my specialties. As for checking everyday, everyone else seems to have these RSS feeds that notify them of new posts, but I don’t know how they work.

  10. says

    I don’t think there’s a way to avoid every comer taking a crack at what they’ve read on a blog, no matter how out of their league they are. That model of behaviour has become too inherent to the blog experience. Unless of course you just turn off comments on the more scholarly posts, as suggested above. I wish more bloggers did that sort of thing, keep discussion out of places where little good will come from it, and containing it to places where it’s actually useful/interesting.
    I prefer the info being here rather than your main site, mostly because the blog has an RSS feed, so a) I don’t miss anything, and b) I can easily find it later.

  11. says

    Even if you decide to scale down your output a bit, I hope you’ll continue to post some of your insights here because I think it’s pretty clear that there’s a lot of people out there who’re getting a lot out of it.

    Personally I find your ideas refreshing mostly because of your willingness to include a musicological perspective on contemporary music practices…I’ve been sort of a interloper in that area myself, and it’s been pretty surprising how little interaction most composers seem to have with musicologists and music history people. It seems like many of them are simply resistant to having their work put in context for whatever reason.

    Of the criticisms I’ve seen happen here, I think you defended yourself pretty well. But then again maybe you’re just tired of arguing in general, especially when they come down to trivial stuff like the “Downtown” issue. But I do think that you’re doing the music world a favor by posting your “unorthodox” opinions because that’s precisely what it needs right now. Your ideas are usually fair in the assessment of facts, nuanced in presenting multiple sides of an issue, and contains a level of intellectual rigor that you don’t see too often in music scholarship. It’s sad to think that something like that would be considered unusual, but I think that in the long run people will come to appreciate it.

  12. Richard says

    Kyle,
    Even though I can be a pain in the ass, yours is still one the handful of blogs that I even look at. You’re almost always enjoyable and enlightening. Of course, with my ringing endorsement, you might want to take this in consideration, and just bag it ;)
    KG replies: Heavens, Richard, I’ve never seen you be a pain in the ass.

  13. Samuel Vriezen says

    The “scholarly stuff on site with link on blog” approach might be great. Like most commenters here, I’ve always enjoyed those aspects of the blog.
    BTW what I myself best like to use my blog (which is in Dutch) for are thoughts, such as observations and notes about my work, which aren’t just opinions (because they don’t reflect your preferences so much as what I’m thinking about at some moment; thoughts can be less “political” let’s say than opinions) and that aren’t scholarly either (because they’re speculative).
    KG replies: I do wish I could read your blog. Like everyone else, you overlook my reason no. 1: I don’t seem to have any thoughts left. I’ve been wracking my brain for something worthwhile that I haven’t already said here, and I can’t think of anything. This blog seems to be an inventory of my entire brain, or the developed part of it.
    Of course, the compliment I *was* fishing for was, “Oh Kyle, we love your music so much that we’re happy to read the blog just for that.” I notice no one’s offered that one. :^)

  14. says

    I’ve learned more from this blog than any other internet resource and it’s been an important part of my growth as a musician. For someone who never attended music school places like this are extremely important. I have no one to talk to about these things, I learn only through books, blogs and websites. A resource like PostClassic is invaluable.
    Listen, if you shut this thing down and you need to get something off your chest give me a call!
    KG replies: Thanks very much, Matt. I have no desire to shut it down, but I do need to figure out a different attitude toward it.

  15. Patrick says

    Kyle please keep blogging regularly. Your metametrics posts literally changed my life when I was starting my undergrad. I am now waiting to hear from grad schools after sending them applications and writing samples covered in the names Branca, Chatham and Gordon.
    KG replies: Wow, let me know later how that goes, seriously. That’s worth a new blog entry in itself. And thanks.

  16. mclaren says

    Dude. Dude. Dude. No. Publicity. That’s what blogs are good for. PUBLICITY.
    Look, people hate what you say, they hate it, hate it, hate it, absolutely go hog wild, starting freakin’ out, chewing garden hoses and licking door knobs in rage? Great! There’s no such thing as bad publicity. John Dvvorak learned that long ago by doing Mac trolling. Every time he explained how badly macs sucked, his column views spiked by an order of magnitude. Dvorak is famous for a reason.
    Look, the big problem for any contemporary musician today is getting noticed. Serious contemporary music has been studiously ignored by the mainstream media.
    So who cares if people hate what you write? Great, you get noticed. “It sounds self-serving…” Yeah, and the problem is…?
    As for being a critic, shoot, everybody’s a critic. Everyone has an opinion and they all spew ‘em out in public. Why not flaunt it? The more outrageous and the more provocative the opinions, the better. Look at Boulez — you think he’s the most famous modern musician by accident?
    As Alex Ross points out:
    Not since Wagner had a composer played the bully to such effect. Boulez’s tactics were exuberantly brutal: he compared himself several times to the Bolsheviks and to the Chinese Red Guards. He placed Stravinsky in his neoclassical period at the head of the “useless.” He accused Schoenberg, after his death, of the “most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.” Webern was “too simple.” Berg suffered from “bad taste,” Ravel from “affectation.” Twelve-tone music in its extant form was overrun by “number-fanatics” who engaged in “frenetic arithmetic masturbation.” Boulez’s teacher, Olivier Messiaen, produced “brothel music.” John Cage, who was at one time an ally of Boulez, became a “performing monkey,” and Karlheinz Stockhausen, likewise, a “hippie.” The American minimalists displayed a “supermarket aesthetic,” the American serialists had a “cashier’s point of view.” Brahms was a “bore,” Tchaikovsky “abominable,” Verdi “stupid, stupid, stupid!” And so on.
    Contemporary American musicians have this delusion that they should sit in the corner quietly and never annoy anyone with independence or originality or sharp vivid opinions. Hah! That’s a con job by the elites to keep the rest of us from rocking the boat. The truth is that guys like Boulez only became famous because they weren’t afraid to be squeaky wheels. They spoke up and pissed people off and got into it and mixed things up.
    Jeez, c’mon, self-serving is where it’s at in our culture of ornamental celebrity superficiality. You’re competing with brangelina’s latest nude beach pics, fer crap’s sake. The big problem is you’re not self-serving enough. Most contemporary composers need to be a lot more self-serving.
    As for “presenting muscological work: not so good”…whaddaya mean? I’ve learned more from your blog posts on contemporary composers than from any dozen books or bloated incoherent turgidly jargon-laced peer-reviewed journal articles journeying into the depths of numerological mathturbation.
    Listen up, buckaroos. Erik Satie drove onstage in a silver Rolls Royce under a banner that unfurled to read THE WORLD’S GREATEST COMPOSER.
    And I think every sensible competent musician and music-lover would agree that the world is a hell of a lot better off with Erik Satie’s music getting the recognition it deserves. Well,that didn’t happen by magic. It happened because Mssr. Satie knew how to get self-serving with a vengeance.
    Man, we could all learn some lessons from old Erik.
    KG replies: Of all the pep talks you’ve given me, McLaren, this is undoubtedly the best. I’m wondering if I can submit it for that Best Music Writing of 2010 publication.

  17. says

    You left something off the list:
    Posting recordings of your own music.
    Thanks for doing that.
    The blog should be whatever you want it to be — it’s free-form. Favorite movie, favorite beer, favorite Scotch — bring it on. Nobody has to read all the posts.

  18. says

    You should make the blog what you want it to be, and those of us who value your knowledge, insight, experience, and perspectives will continue to read it. Thanks for introducing me, via this blog, to the following: JLA, Neo-Riemannian theory, Robert Ashley, Harold Budd, Dennis Johnson.