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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A resolution for 2012: A more comprehensive and specific approach to writing about art

Posted By on 01.03.12 at 08:00 AM

Flying Lotuss Cosmogramma
  • Flying Lotus's "Cosmogramma"
I’ve spent some time recently, mostly in the past few days but also in the rest of 2011, thinking about the idea of “originality.” Most of my writing gigs before working at the Reader were music-related, and one thing that most people writing about music bemoan, both recently and in the past, is a lack of originality. This has been an especially resonant issue with critics since the rise of the Internet, when music has been more available and attainable than ever. For serious listeners, this has presented an interesting paradox: Now that we can hear everything, it’s likewise easier for us to hear contemporary music’s influences, and concordantly, to pinpoint just how imitative or derivative the music is of a past artist’s work.

The most discussion-inducing music-writing book of the year is probably Simon Reynolds’s Retromania, which explores this phenomenon—a deceleration of originality in pop music—more extensively. Most likely in response to this book, friend and Pitchfork editor-in-chief Mark Richardson posted a resolution for 2012 on his personal blog:

Maybe we could spend extra time in 2012 thinking about how we, as individual listeners, respond when the music of the present seems especially connected to the music of the past. To figure out when and why we forgive artists that seem only the sum of very clear influences and when and why we actually seek out such artists. And maybe we could articulate a set of criteria for when “originality” is important to us. What does it really mean to “transcend influences”? Is that something that can be explained? What does it really mean to say an artist has a “unique voice”? We use these terms often, but I’m not sure we’re clear in our own minds what we mean by them.

To a certain degree, what Mark seems to be getting at is that music critics have been doing a worse job at adequately explaining themselves when they use certain terminology. The critic uses the terminology with the presumption that the reader knows what they’re talking about, when in reality not only does the reader not know, but the writer may not know either. Or maybe the writer does know, but is just not articulating him or herself to the degree that the reader can understand precisely what it is they’re trying to say.

The excellent music writer and academic Eric Harvey posted an interesting response to Mark’s proposition. Eric poses that the anthropological issue at stake is tied into notions of “the historical move in any society from pre-modernity to modernity.” More specifically,

In the former society, people are mainly concerned with passing down culture from one generation to another, carefully preserving it to the degree that they are intellectually and technologically capable. Myths, folklore, “oral traditions,” and so forth—the sort of thing that gains power and value through the force of direct, perfect repetition. Once a society starts modernizing, however, more and more cultural objects start circulating—this is what modernity is, in part—and especially in capitalist societies, their “newness” is privileged as a form of their value.

Eric elaborates more fully on this premise in the rest of his post, and I recommend reading it, as it provides a lot to think about. One thing that Eric and Mark both graze but never seem to tackle head on is the role of technology on ideas of "newness." The aspect I'm most interested in, however, is how technology continually enables musicians to revisit familiar sounds in new ways. One of my favorite examples is an album from 2010, Flying Lotus, aka Steven Ellison's, Cosmogramma. I can reference a number of musicians and sounds on the album: The spiritual, harp-strewn jazz of Alice Coltrane; the twitchy, shrapnel-laden digital distortion of glitch music; and the steady, regimented rhythms of underground hip-hop. But the "hybridization" that Eric refers to in his post—in this case the compressed electronic surface of Ellison's production style; and its related assemblage, a patchwork of scribbles and extended experiments—places these sounds in a new framework.

What I prize on Cosmogramma sounds original to me contextually, but conceptually, this conglomeration doesn't seem quite as novel when I think about it. And yet, I can't help but feel like the music is pushing these sounds into new realms. What does that squaring away say about how we view "originality" or "newness" in music? Better yet, what does it say about how we view these concepts in all works of art?

Trying to situate a work in relation to its history, then situate it in relation to myself—and perhaps the other way around—is not a bad resolution when writing about art in 2012. I hope to deal with more questions like these when writing about any piece of art in the next year.

Flying Lotus, "Zodiac Shit":

Read more from Resolution Week:

"NBA resolution: Walk less, not more" by Ted Cox

"Once burned, thrice shy" by Kate Schmidt

"Say you want a resolution?" by Tony Adler

"Rahm swears off swearing for 2012" by Steve Bogira

"A resolution for 2012: Watch more Indian movies" by Ben Sachs

"Nixon, Mayor Rahm, Herman Cain, and Pam Grier—only in the Reader!" by Ben Joravsky

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