The Vitalist

A Literary Laundry Blog

Interview: Music Critic Mark Richardson

Mark Richardson is the Editor in Chief of Pitchfork, and a prolific music critic and writer.

Q1: Resonant Frequency has always seemed to me like a very Eno-nonian (forgive the awkward coinage) project— that is what you’re doing isn’t straight up music criticism (just as Eno isn’t always doing straight up music) but a simultaneous investigation into culture, technology (the internet more specifically but not exclusively), along with music, and biography… among other things. Do you think this is an accurate description of your the column and your critical interests? Can you explain a little bit about how you came to this way of thinking and writing?

Yes, this is how I think of it. My main idea with Resonant Frequency is to examine music from a variety of different ways and to have the format be open, but the key thing is that the music/listener interface is where the most interesting stuff happens. Individual columns have taken many forms; some are more memory-driven, others are about things that happened last week, and then others more or less take the form of reviews. But my own responses to music, trends, technology, and so on are at the heart of it.

I can trace the inspiration for the openness of the format to one place, and that is David Toop’s Ocean of Sound. I read that book in the late 1990s and it more or less changed my life. Ocean of Sound moves between history, interviews, personal stories, and more mystical speculation and weaves them all together into something that stands as a unified work. And once I saw how Toop did this it really got my mind going and I knew I wanted to do something similar to document my own musical explorations. I wouldn’t compare my writing to Toop’s in terms of intellectual rigor; he’s forgotten much more about music than I will ever know. But I feel like my columns share a certain spirit with his approach. I took about 18 months off from writing the column and when it re-launched in February 2005 I wrote about the then-new Haunted Weather: Music, Silence and Memory, which made the inspiration explicit.

Q2: You wrote in your last Resonant Frequency column (is this the last column altogether?) something that I thought was both profound and slightly oblique: “I thought maybe Alog would turn into another Fennesz or Oneohtrix Point Never— abstract music that people who don’t really like abstract music will make time for— but it never happened and probably never will. And in the larger scheme of things, Alog don’t matter. At all. Unlike Nicki Minaj, if their music didn’t exist, the world would be virtually no different. So when writing about Alog, I have no choice but to write about how this music might work for a single person (me), and how these abstract sounds might enrich a single life (mine). That’s where the meaning is found.” Are you suggesting, perhaps, (and rightly I think) that all a critic can do, in cases of profound love for a piece of art, is write about him or herself? Do you see criticism as a subjective enterprise that works its way (perhaps not without real struggle) to resonate with wider tastes?

It is not the last column! There has been a pause because I’ve had trouble making time for it, but the column will return soon.

What I was trying to get at there was something I grapple with when it comes to writing about music that is obscure and not well known. Many of the best music critics I know write about popular music that has a profound and identifiable impact on the culture at large. So music criticism in a lot of these cases comes down to dealing with big questions—what does this music mean for the industry, for “kids”, or for larger and identifiable groups of people?

One more recent album that comes to mind is Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. With the statement he made in the week before the album’s release, where he told a story of falling in love with a man, much of the writing surrounding the album talked about what it might mean that a guy from this sphere of popular music admitted to being attracted to a someone of his own gender. Were there thousands of people afraid to discuss their desires who might suddenly feel more OK about doing it because of his example? That’s really important stuff that actually has a clear impact on how a lot of people actually live.

But with something like Alog, they don’t matter in a cultural sense at all. And for someone else who is used to writing about popular music that has this wider resonance, you couldn’t approach something like Alog in the same way because it has, ultimately, no significance. (I use the example of Fennesz or Oneohtrix because they make abstract music that got a small foothold in indie music culture. They make year-end lists, they might play shows in decent-sized venues that otherwise have indie rock bands coming through. But something like Alog is much tinier than that.) So when I write about Alog, the relationship between me and the music feels virtually one-to-one. There is no one else for me to think about. And writing about their music becomes a very private act and ultimately a very personal act. Because I know so little about the people making the music and there is no cultural context, it really comes down to just me and the sound, and for me that’s an interesting situation.

Q3: So what you said at the endabout music being a very private, personal act (a statement which resembles the mystical speculation that you said was one of the aspects of Toop’s work that you admired) which can happen independently of that music having any cultural resonanceleads me to wonder if you’re almost defining two different (primary) functions for music: binding us together socially/culturally, as well as offering a private, aesthetic experience that is only worthwhile in-itself. If you accept this division, how do you navigate it as a writer and critic and thinker about music? Is there a temptation to lean to one side or the other?

This is exactly it. These are the two poles and, for me, all music experience exists somewhere along this continuum. And I think different spheres of criticism/appreciation privilege things on one end or the other. For example, there is a line in more poptimst-driven criticism that says music develops meaning mostly (or exclusively) as part of a broader social ritual. And this sort of thinking is in part a reaction to the fact that rock criticism proper has historically valued more solitary, cerebral analysis. It’s the difference between, say, Greil Marcus meditating in private with Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and Maura Johnston writing about a Ke$ha show for the Village Voice (I wouldn’t peg Maura as specifically a poptimist-oriented critic—or anything-oriented, really—because she is too good to pigeonhole. But she did write a great piece about Ke$ha last year that discussed her music in terms of this huge, communal performance that had no meaning without its social aspects).

And I think it can be difficult for people prone to one one extreme of this continuum to understand how someone on the other end might feel. I’ve found that people who value music primarily as a social activity can sometimes be bullies, deriding solitary listening types as shut-ins. And the latter might dismiss socially-oriented music as shallow since it’s not necessarily designed for this kind of up-close scrutiny.

So you know, in my own listening, I’ve experienced music at every point along this continuum. But I have a feeling that my best work as a critic is probably done from a more solitary perspective. The insights that I have these days tend to come from that place. And I suspect that a good portion of the people who like what I write about music are coming from a similar place.

Q4: How do you approach this continuum as an editor? To clarify: it seems to me that Pitchfork has become a point of axis for a huge swath of both independent and mainstream music culture. In a sense, what the internet has created, is a domain where a private aesthetic experience can grow into something communal—and this is what criticism has partly always been about—but the rate of this transformation is now much much much faster (someone like Bon Iver is a great example). Are there times when you feel that internet-music culture pulls things too much to the side of “lets make this big fast” or do you think it’s allowed a whole ecosystem of niches to flourish? Or both? Open ended question here—

Yes, there are certainly examples of music that wants to be smaller scale, and is made larger scale because of the internet, including through sites like Pitchfork. I’ve thought about this a lot with indie music that was really tiny in the cassette era. There was a label in Seattle that I used to really like called Slabco, and they put out albums by projects like Land of the Loops and Sukpatch. And this stuff was tiny, like, a few hundred people knew what it was and sought out these cassettes. And that size audience and that level of attention seemed organic to what these projects were, which was part-time, homemade things done for fun. And now a lot of projects that should operate at this level can grow very quickly.

But, I think as an editor, in terms of my role in working with Ryan Schreiber and other editors at Pitchfork to figure out the scope of our coverage, I can’t spend much time thinking about this. I feel like it’s our job to cover the music that: 1) we find interesting; and 2) our audience finds interesting in a thorough, smart, and entertaining way. I personally never feel the pull of trying to “make something big,” but I’m obviously aware that exposure on Pitchfork can lead to that.

Q5: I was watching an interview with the playwright/actor Sam Shepard the other night, who was talking about the director Terrence Malick (who he worked with on Days of Heaven)—and he says that Malick likes to make films about the somewhat distant past because he, basically, can shoot his films through the poetic distortion of memory.

Now you wrote last year that,  “Sometimes albums start to feel like companions. You go from putting them on for fun to putting them on to study them to putting them on to soundtrack your life to putting them on because you want the music in the room with you, maybe even because you feel a little lonely without it. You can lean on these records. And before you know it, you’re asking every friend in earshot whether they’ve heard it and what they think of it because you want them to understand something about you that you yourself might not be quite clear on but which seems vitally important.”

The juxtaposition between this quote and the bit about Malick might not be immediately clear—but I suspect that the premise of what you’re saying here, and maybe the whole Resonant Frequency series, is in part, that the reason we not only love, but need music, is that it’s actually a key to parts of ourselves that we’re normally locked out of—and that we can only real communicate those aspects of self to others through music. I know some fans of both may find this comparison absurd—but listening to Teen Dream by Beach House, or watching Malick’s Tree of Life (which came out relatively at the same time) both bring about an almost absurdly cathartic experience for me: listening to Teen Dream again is like being sixteen again, and watching Tree of Life is really, I think, about reexperiencing the poetry of early childhood… In fact, I can’t really explain what I feel listening to certain records, or watching certain films, I can only just hand them off— say “listen! watch!”. So can you talk a little bit more about how music has functioned in your life, on a personal level? Do you see your writing, even, as an extension of the whole “listen![so you can understand]” impulse?

I do, yes, but ultimately it’s about trying to do whatever you can to bridge the gap between “explaining” and “Listen! Watch!” I love words and I can accept that language shapes consciousness but I also think there is a huge swath of lived experiences that words can only touch in a really clumsy way. My wife is a choreographer, she makes these kinds of experimental dance/movement/performance pieces, and this is something that we talk about all the time. She makes performance pieces in part because there are things that words could never hope to communicate. So we spend a lot of time talking about the limitations of language.

Something your last paragraph here touches on though is another thing that I’ve returned to in Resonant Frequency, and that is the “danger” (scare quotes b/c there is no actual danger) in “sharing” music as a way to communicate feelings, and that danger is that the music that is easiest to share becomes a sort of default unit of expression in the online world. “Listen to this” has become so easy, and has in fact become a software extension critical to those who want to make money in social media, that it is danger of losing its meaning. You could say that a “Like” on a social media say is an expression of shared understanding when words fail. But I think the struggle of articulation, which is ultimately imperfect, is so important, in part because it reinforces the things that we have in common while simultaneously showing us where we may differ. The struggle of articulation is also pretty much the key part of a job description of a writer. Skrillex doesn’t have to worry about such things! He can share music without using words and he makes a lot of money doing it.

Q6: So do you think the role of the music critic is changing as a result of the “Facebook like” phenomena? That because we’re basically monetizing the sacred moment, the critic has to work extra-hard, and extra-inventively to point out what makes a particular song or record or artist special?

Yes I do. I think “articulation,” for lack of a better word, is becoming even more important, since there’s a lot of online activity dedicated to things that used to be the province of the music critic. I like to use this analogy when talking about what I hope Pitchfork does, and the best music criticism in general does: we’re John Henry battling the steam-powered hammer. Because there are tens of thousands of brilliant computer programmers all over the world who think that if they write the perfect algorithm, they’ll have the entire field of human communication and sharing figured out as far as music is concerned, and writers will no longer be necessary (this is an absurd paranoid fantasy, but it’s a good motivator). In one tunnel, you have the computer-generated “Like” and “Recommendation” engines, taking data from large groups of music lovers and turning that information into something “useful.” And in the other, you have a lone writer with his or her own biases and limitations trying to figure out how to render thoughts about music into words and ideas that will make sense to someone else.

So ideally, I think criticism should evolve to recognize this conflict. Once upon a time music critics might have been there to say “This album exists, maybe you should buy it” or some variation on that. And while I think evaluating quality and letting someone know whether a record is worth their time is still important (readers’ investment of time, if not money, is still an important consideration), substantive ideas about music are something that computers are still (I hope?) not going to be offering any time soon. I hope I don’t live to see the Deep Blue of music criticism.

Q7: I don’t think it’s necessarily a paranoid fantasy to think that we’re, except on the margins, losing the ability to reflect on our own consumption of music with “substantive” ideas. I personally feel like music is more pleasurable now when I find it outside of the blog/Facebook/Twitter sphere: an old record, an incidental performance, a strange radio program in the car. Why that’s so I can’t really say. Maybe just because so much music is propagated without a substantive idea behind it, other than maybe like “rad show in Bushwick” or “side-project of so and so.”

Do you feel like maybe the next phase of your own critical writing—the column or whatever—is going to be responding more and more to the way technology is changing us and our music? Do you think this is inevitable? Or do you feel like deep down the experience of listening to music is not changing very much? And what other music writers do you think are valuable in talking about these kinds of questions?

Hmm, this is a great question, and I feel like both of these things are true for me simultaneously. I think the experience of listening is changing and that this is a hugely important thing for critics to grapple with. And I do try and do that sometimes with Resonant Frequency. There was one I wrote called “Listening to Listening” where I kicked around the idea that the boundary between listening to music and making music might not be as clear as it once was. And those kinds of ideas crop up for me all the time when I’m thinking about music now, how the fundamental way that people experience music is changing fast. And when I think about this, I try really hard to adopt a Marshall McLuhan-like approach, which is to not judge these changes but to try and understand them the best I can. They are very different from what I grew up with, but that doesn’t necessarily make them any better or worse. I’d much rather figure out what is happening and what it means rather than get upset because these new paradigms don’t measure up to what I’m accustomed to.

That said, I also think exploring music from my old-school perspective could potentially have some value for both people who have internalized my approach and for those for whom it’s more of a novelty. Because I still enjoy the process of communing with recorded music in a very simple way (putting on a vinyl record and doing nothing but listen to it in my living room), it seems possible that I could provide some perspective and insight that might be a little bit harder to access for people who grew up with a different situation. So I don’t think of how I listen to music as outdated, just different, and I feel like people have things to learn from each other no matter what they are used to.

As far as other writers, I think Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz is starting to tackle  these questions in an interesting way (she has a new column on the site exploring these ideas) and Eric Harvey is another Pitchfork writer who has spent a lot of time grappling with these issues. Definitely Simon Reynolds, too, through his Retromania book and in some pieces since. And also Nitsuh Abebe through his work at New York and also on Pitchfork.

Q8: Ok, last question: what’s (to date) your most meaningful experience with music, either recorded or live?

I have one experience that I can fairly say is the most meaningful, but it’s something that I’ve been wanting to write about for many years and I’ve quite gotten straight in my mind how to approach it. So I’m hoping that someday I’ll think of how I want to do it, and I’m going to save that story for another time.

But there is one moment that comes to mind that is actually connected to this other idea, and I can talk about that here for a moment. In 2008 I covered the Roskilde Festival for Pitchfork, along with Marc Hogan, who was doing a lot of writing for us then and still writes for us sometimes. And playing at that festival was My Bloody Valentine, one of my all-time favorite bands. They played in this enormous tent in the daytime, and the great thing about the tent is that it was reasonably dark in there and they could project images and they would show up well. And the soundsystem they had for this gig, which was I think in front of about 17,000 people (I feel like this is the largest tent in Europe of something to that effect) was just incredible. When they came out and they were tuning up their guitars and then Kevin Shields did a few strums to make sure it was in tune and just the volume from those couple of strums was absolutely insane, it felt like you could hear it for miles. And I texted Marc Hogan to come to the tent immediately. he was off covering something else. We were both as close as you could be in the second tier of spectators, so pretty close. And the set they played was just completely devastating, so incredibly loud but beautiful-loud, clear, good quality, I’ve never heard anything like it in my life. For much of the set I kept earplugs in but sometimes i couldn’t help myself and I took them out. And you know, at that volume, you might expect it to hurt but it didn’t, although it was clearly at a dangerous level. I didn’t keep them out too long.

And then at the end of the set they went into the “holocaust” section of “You Made Me Realise”, where they hold a single D-chord and create this massive noise-drone, and it was really something, I felt like my shirt was flapping in place, never felt sound in my body like that before or since. And then it ended, and I found Marc, and we walked outside and it was a beautiful sunny day and the festival crowd was there and the grass was green and the sky was blue. And we walked a little bit without saying anything, our ears were ringing, I’m sure. And after a little while we sat down on the grass and mumbled a few things about what we’d seen and heard. And then we look over and Neil Young is playing an acoustic set on the main stage, not far away. He’s singing quiet, peaceful music like “Harvest Moon” and we just sat there for a minute and soaked it in. No better comedown was possible, it was like it was scripted. At that moment I felt like music was really taking care of me, doing so much to make life something worth living.

(Interview conducted by MG)

  1. phillippantuso reblogged this from markrichardson and added:
    A fascinating conversation between the great Mark Richardson and the Vitalist’s Matthew Gasda. Topics covered: how...
  2. thenewobjective reblogged this from thevitalist
  3. desnoise reblogged this from thevitalist and added:
    Many of you will probably have already seen this, but I wanted to flag this great interview with Pitchfork’s Mark...
  4. interstate808 reblogged this from markrichardson and added:
    Great questions and even better answers.
  5. towerofsleep reblogged this from markrichardson and added:
    Mark Richardson has been one of my favourite music writers since back when he was still writing as Mark Richard-san. I...
  6. jakec reblogged this from markrichardson and added:
    This is pretty cool.
  7. markrichardson reblogged this from thevitalist and added:
    criticism. It took...interesting ideas...writing might go...