On Music Criticism
[Henry Kuntz photo made by his brother Paul]
In this interview with writer and radio impresario Bob Ness, I had the opportunity to reflect on the publishing of BELLS and on the nature of music criticism. The interview took place in Berkeley, California in November 1976.
BOB NESS: WHY WAS “BELLS” STARTED?
Henry Kuntz: BELLS was started in 1973 out of a frustration with what was being written about, because it seemed to me that most of what was being focused on in the Seventies was music that was already pretty old, and that most people writing about it were writing as if it were still ten years ago. So there was little recognition of what were current developments in the music.
Part of the reason for this, I guess, was that in the Sixties there was a great deal of consciousness developed about the music being black music, and that was all well and good and as it should have been, but it didn’t prepare people for what started to happen in the Seventies, which was that white European musicians started to make contributions to the music and in some cases to go beyond what was being done in America. And so a lot of the reason BELLS was started was to deal with that music and with any music that was important that other people weren’t dealing with.
Bob Ness Photo: Bob Ness
BOB: WHY WERE YOU PERSONALLY SO INTERESTED IN THE BRAND NEW STUFF?
Henry: Well, it has to do with my feelings about what music is about, which is that I see music as being part of the culture, and it either helps to hold the culture together or to push it forward in some way or open people up, open their minds up, to new ways of looking at the world. And when I started listening to music, which was in the mid-Sixties, that’s pretty much what it was all about, that is pushing itself forward. You couldn’t even buy a record without it being somehow more “advanced” than something you’d just heard. Everybody was pushing the music a great deal, and I feel like that’s what it’s about. It’s about being original, it’s about finding out about yourself and your relationship to society and to other people – and I would say even to the universe – and how you relate to that, and how you organize all this, and so forth. So I don’t think that the music ought to ever stand still. I feel like it’s important for people to find out what they want to say musically.
Like take the people who have come along playing in a style similar to John Coltrane’s. Now that’s interesting in a certain way, but the essence of Coltrane’s music was that he was original – he was trying to push himself and the music somewhere. And maybe there are still some areas to explore that he opened up, but I’m not too interested in that personally. I’m interested in how the music is growing and how it can be pushed forward and how we can help push this whole thing forward that’s going on around us.
And it’s for that reason that I’m finding right now, for example, that I’m usually very bored in talking about music a great deal because the kind of focus that happens – or at least I haven’t found a way to avoid it very much – is one that tends to distort the nature of the music. It’s like the music is there to push things forward, or to help people to grow, but instead of learning how to grow – and all of us are guilty of this to some extent – we try to focus on the object or the source of what’s pushing us. We do this because we’re in this consumer society and our reaction is to try to consume what it is, the object, that’s making us feel good. What seems to me is that the music implies whole other levels of reality – spiritual and existential realities – but it’s not itself those realities, and it seems to me to be a mistake to focus on it as if it were.
And so I try a lot in BELLS – though it’s hard, because I’m caught up in it too – to get away from the idea of consumerism and to get away from looking at the music in that kind of way. I try to look at it in such a way that it can help open people up so they can hear the music as it is and to interpret it for themselves. I try to not give an interpretation of the music though I do try, say, to “analyze” it or to look at the aesthetic qualities of it, the aspects of it that produce emotion in the listener. It seems to me that what music does is that it sets up these kinds of tensions, and the tensions are what hits you as a listener – it’s what you perceive as “emotion” when you hear these tensions that are going on in certain ways. So when I look at music I try to find what those points are that are causing this to happen.
Henry Kuntz and Henry Kaiser 1977 Photo: Mark Weber
You see, basically, I agree with Leo Smith that criticism is nonsense. It’s a totally unnecessary activity. And I know this from experience. Like recently, I went to hear Cecil Taylor with a friend of mine, a person who has only very little knowledge of the history of the music, or anything that happened in the last decade, or anything. And it’s like you just don’t need to know anything to relate to the music. It’s nonsense to think that you do. But I also know from my experience that it’s helpful, that it can help you to hear what you’re not hearing. It can help you to listen in the right way, or to hear what’s meant to be heard, so you can begin to respond to it.
So what I try to do in a criticism or review, or what I see as the justification for it, are three things: first, to provide information to the listener that, say, may not be available on the record jacket, or that you have some personal access to; secondly, to provide some perspective on it historically, to see how it fits with what’s happening generally and with what came before; and finally, you want to focus on these points of tension I was talking about, to see what’s happening with it aesthetically.
But, you see, even though I believe all that I said before about how the music can help you to grow and how that’s its kind of “purpose,” as it were, I think it’s a mistake – as some writers did in the Sixties – to focus on that about it, because then you’re beginning to interpret things for the listener and, in a way, you’re not respecting the listener as someone who is intelligent like you and who is able to respond to it like you, and you’re starting to feel like you have to tell him or her something about it and to guide them through this “heavy” experience.
So the purpose, it seems to me, is to try to open the listener up, open the music up actually, in some way that people can begin to respond to it and to interpret the experience for themselves, however they want to interpret it. Because all of us are at different points of development anyway, in our personal lives or whatever, and you’re really limiting someone’s experience of the music to try and say in some terms what it is or what it’s about. And on one level, the music can simply be seen as pure energy, with almost any “interpretation” of it being finally irrelevant. And so it gets limited somewhat anyway to even do what it is I’m trying to do.
And this is pretty much my self-reflection on what I’ve been doing with BELLS over the past three years. I didn’t start out with this kind of attitude. I wasn’t consciously aware at the beginning of what my approach to the music would be. I feel now like some of the things I wrote earlier are not that important in this respect. Some of them are, but some of them have some of these faults I’m talking about. Some of them tend to be oriented toward, not exactly consumerism, but pushing people out as heroes and stuff like that. And it is hard to avoid doing that sometimes.
BOB: SO YOU WANT TO MINIMIZE THE MUSICIAN AS “HERO” AND FOCUS MORE ON THE MUSIC?
Henry: Right. I mean, the musician is some kind of contemporary folk hero. The people who are pushing the music out there are doing it against tremendous odds. There’s little or no economic satisfaction in the society for that, and it’s like a totally personal quest that they’re on. And so you want to support that, but it’s really wrong to get hung in it, I think. That’s what downbeat does, that’s what everybody does. And I’d say I’ve done it too, that being pushing people out there, focusing on the object again.
BOB: LIKE BRAXTON IS NOW BEING TOUTED AS THE NEW MESSIAH, ETC.
Henry: Right. And it’s like even if he is, or even if anybody is, it’s wrong to blow it up or to make it into this thing that it’s not. Because that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about people becoming heroes. In that way, you’re emulating a whole culture that’s decadent. I mean, that’s what this culture is about, this thing of consumerism. A guy becomes a star and he makes money. And that’s just nonsense. But we, those of us trying to stand outside of all that, tend to do it too, and we fall into a lot of the same traps. So the music still ends up limiting rather than expanding our perspectives.
BOB: THERE’S THAT WHOLE HISTORY OF HEROES AND FOLK MYTHOLOGY…
Henry: But, I mean, there is a point to it. There’s some point in preserving what’s going on. We want to be able to relate it to people later on when it’s gone. But that isn’t exactly what it’s about or, at least, that’s a philosophical point of view of mine. It’s like, why are you here on the planet anyway? That’s what it’s about, and that’s what the music is about. It’s like the music somehow seeps through these crevices in the culture and lets something out of the bag. And that’s a lot of the reason I’m interested in avant garde music as opposed to, say, jazz in general or something like that. It’s because when I go to music I would like the music to challenge me, and if it’s not going to be a challenge to the musician and to you, then all of us are wasting our time. We’re just going to be entertained. And that might be OK sometimes. It’s not like we have to be on this heavy, dead-serious trip all the time, but as far as what direction things are going in, that’s what’s important to me.
BOB: HOW HAS THE RESPONSE TO “BELLS” BEEN?
Henry: I get basically a good response, and people are also willing to tell me when they disagree. And I’m always glad to get letters like that. And that’s another part of it, people agreeing and disagreeing. One thing I would like a lot is that I would like no one to take what I write too seriously, in the sense that it’s the last word or something. Because people have this tendency to take critics so seriously, to think that critics know more. And in that sense, it begins to limit experience a lot, and it makes me think then that maybe it shouldn’t even be done at all, if that’s what’s happening with it.
What I’ve come to feel – and this follows from what I said before when I was focusing on those certain points of tension in the music – is that if you’re focusing on the right things, then it’s OK if sometimes you’re not exactly right in what it is you say. It’s sometimes OK to be wrong if you’re opening things up in some way or focusing on what’s important about it.
And I would like to think that people who are reading what I write or what anybody writes are also thoughtful people, and that they are not going to necessarily agree with me, and I don’t even necessarily agree with myself a lot of times.
But what I decided a long time ago was that it was OK to be wrong if I could just focus on it right; and so that’s what really frees me up to write, because there’s a certain pretension in writing anyway, or in presuming to say something about anything to anyone else. But when I realized it was OK to be wrong, then I realized I could write anything, that it was OK to say whatever was on my mind, even if I wasn’t entirely sure about it at the time, but that if it was an interesting enough idea to me and had helped me to see the music in some way, then it was OK to say, even if it might not be quite right.
But I am still very conscious of trying to say it right or how I want it to be said – and, in any case, to say it in a way that opens the music up rather than closing it off.
BOB: HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO DO “BELLS?”
Henry: Well, BELLS takes up an awful lot of my time. I could do BELLS full time, if I had the time. It takes a lot of time and a lot of listening and a lot of consideration to write and to feel good about what you’re writing.
Henry Kuntz and Loren Means 1978 Photo: Mark Weber
BOB: I WAS WONDERING ABOUT HOW THOSE GUYS WHO CHURN OUT THESE COLUMNS EVERY DAY DO IT.
Henry: I don’t really know. It amazes me, though sometimes it pretty much looks like they just churned it out, and that’s one way they do it. I mean, you can react right away and write something, I suppose. That’s possible, but that’s another thing that’s a consumer consideration. That’s something they have to do by the nature of their job and the fact that the newspaper has to come out tomorrow, and it has to have something in it by them. Under ideal situations, people should write when they feel moved to write. I mean, I rarely write about things right away. If there’s someone playing in a club, I usually see them a few times if I’m going to write about them. And when I’m listening to records, I just get carried away, because you just get led from one thing to another without even thinking about it. I might be trying to review two records, but before I know it, there might be a dozen that I feel like I need to listen to. Like this article in BELLS 20 on trombone players – I was probably thinking about that for months. And I was really only writing about two trombone players, but I must have listened to a dozen. I spent a lot of time, say, just listening to Roswell Rudd, and that amounted to only six lines in the actual article.
BOB: HOW MANY HOURS A DAY DO YOU LISTEN?
Henry: It’s hard to say. I mean, I’m listening a lot of time during the day when I’m home. And when I listen, I pretty much just sit and listen. I don’t really do a lot of other things. But I’ve gotten to where I don’t necessarily listen to one record all the way through. I might jump around a lot, from one part to another.
BOB: SO YOU GET INTO A REAL DISTILLING PROCESS.
Henry: I try to do that because, as a writer, I feel like it ought to be very concise. I don’t see any virtue really in writing long articles because, as I said before, I don’t even think they’re that necessary. It’s important to just say what it is you want to say and let it go at that. I mean, I don’t think you want to draw it out too much for people, because then you do get into this thing of limiting people’s experience, and it’s important that it be left open, though maybe you can provide some touchstones. I guess that’s why people read about music. I don’t know why else they do, unless they’re into this thing we were talking about before, of making heroes out of people and approaching it from that aspect.
Note (August 2007): Additionally, I would like to express my gratitude to the BELLS contributors. It was my great privilege to publish each of their writings. Collectively, their contributions brought a depth and breadth to BELLS that would otherwise not have been possible. I was consistently inspired and challenged by their work to become a better writer.