Tuesday, September 14, 2004


September 14— TBA Noontime Chat

Joseph Gallivan (Portland Tribune), Steffen Silvis (Willamette Week), Catherine Thomas (Oregonian) with Bill Flood, moderating

It’s an alluring premise. Take a group of writers who spend their every waking moment describing, critiquing, lambasting, lionizing, tsk-tsking, praising, slandering or just plain in love with the performing arts and let them talk about their practice. It could be a great sting operation (like inviting people with bench warrants to an empty warehouse for free tennis shoes) with aggrieved actor-waiters looking for frontier justice, an AA intervention (“when you say, ‘he bowdlerizes Beckett like a “stain on silence” it makes me sad’), or the chance for some juicy philosophical back-and-forth. As it was it was a bit of all the above. With a little bit of Steve Allen’s "Meeting of Minds" thrown in for good measure (with Joseph Gallivan as Joseph Mitchell, Steffen Silvis as William Hazlitt, Catherine Thomas as Jayne Meadows playing Catherine Thomas).

There was a good deal of demystifying of the obscure Masonic practice of arts criticism (ex. answering good questions like, “how do you choose which things to go to—are there certain words you look for"; or “do you say good things because theater/dance companies buy ad space"); some plain-spoken shop-talk; but perhaps best of all, a great deal of focus on the function and process of criticism.

Choice shards of wisdom or tainted recollections:
• Catherine Thomas distinguishing between being a “critic” and being a “reviewer”—important—later on adding a third category: “archivist,” to refer to the chronicling/documenting that an arts writer has a hand in or a responsibility to (if one accepts the onus of history-making).

• Silvis’ hierarchy—being first responsive to the art form (is it being served by the work, or hectored)—providing stylistic, historical, or idiomatic context and measuring the work against certain aesthetic standards; communicating any intrinsic values to readers of the review; and offering a critical assessment to the artist. As with many experiences, as we look back and try and limn lines between fact and fancy, we find ourselves at the threshold of what Silvis referred to as “Montale’s 2nd Art”—which I’m sure was a reference to the poet’s "Second Life of Art." But I liked the notion that after the ball, he was concerned with “what lingers . . . or is it just like pieces of candy?”

• I was, by and large, impressed by Gallivan’s calm, thoughtful remarks (especially his appreciation of Anthony Lane’s choreographic New Yorker film reviews)—and from everything I know of his depth and breadth as a generalist and broad cultural reporter, a quality so very rare these days, I was surprised to hear him mention his interest in the “higher arts”—which included opera, dance, theater, but not the multitude of pop culture bits and pieces that make up his paycheck.

This last bit may just remind me of statements my father has always made about “serious” music (read: classical), as opposed to the unserious music (jazz) that has occupied the better part of the last 20 years. But it hit home for me the missing piece in all this let’s-talk-about-performative-art-and-dodge-parry-and-share schtick, and that was the absence of any critical presence from the music community in the discussion. I do believe Mr. Seldes considered it one of the “lively arts.”

And now I have to come clean: I’m a jazz writer (for the WWeek, among others), as well as an active jazz artist. And may in fact be the only one in town who exclusively writes about the Art form (capital A) of jazz. It seems once again, that PICA and “higher arts” have decided that jazz is good for putting at the corner next to the buffet table at their next fundraiser playing the “Girl from Ipanema,” but because it’s a joyful noise heard round the world— simultaneously art and entertainment—it’s an affront to, what Richard Sennett called, “silence in the face of art.” Jazz has been blamed for madness, deviance, graft and nearly every other conceivable left-handed form of human endeavor. Jean Cocteau said it was stimulating “in the same way as machinery. . . or danger.” But like it or not, since it’s birth-pangs (“like whips of sex in the Sousa-filled night,” said poet Ed Dorn)—it’s been regarded as our most highly original art form.

Silvis said at one point, he likes to ask himself whether he’s moved, astonished or perplexed by the work he reviews. Jazz does all three.

I may be beating a dead horse all around my jazz mulberry bush of mixed metaphors, but someone needs to fight for a critical voice at the table. This is what I said last year during this same festival—and based on my experience at lunchtime today, I have to concur with myself (and I hope I won’t go blind doing it):

“If, as Walter Pater suggested, all the arts aspire to the conditions of music, don’t you think it’s a little strange that in the context of the TBA Festival, music finds itself standing at the servants entrance of the arts—looking in on the feast, lucky to get a smattering of crumbs at the day’s end? More specifically, why is there so little emphasis on music as art in the festival— I mean what is more risk-oriented and time-based than music . . .especially jazz and improvisation? The history of art in the 20th century is girded to the path of jazz—a soundtrack of futurity, dizzying in its syncopated, angular drive. Cultural critics, composers, filmmakers, poets, and visual artists have all borne witness to jazz’s kissing-cousin synergy with the arts. . . but despite its international currency (some say a greater export than either democracy or baseball), the musician is still waiting to fed from above.

The poet Allan Graubaud said, “with the heat of music lies the capacity for an embrace of other arts. There is nothing inconsequential about this.” Its capacity to evoke whiplash emotions, mine memory’s deep well, raise the roofbeams with its sonic power or merely “sustain a flat surface with a minimum of contrast,” —Morton Feldman’s phrase—gives it a visceral immediacy unparalleled by its neighbors in the performance arena. Considering the architectural qualities of instant composition, a navigational grace traversing the vertical and horizontal, it’s no wonder that music inspires such deep synaptical surrealism and synesthetic tendencies. . . .[the problem is] When it's allowed in the same door as dance or theater at TBA, it’s either been given a polish and a shave or it's relegated to functionary status.”

While I got some great pieces out of the talk (and have a great respect for the rigor of all three panelists)—and it was great to see that the same questions of power, parity and what constitutes good criticism are the same here as everywhere else—I’m sorry to see that once again we’re going to bed hungry on this side of the critical tracks.

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