Perfect Sound Forever


Sophisticated Ignorances
by Nathan Osborne
(August 2016)

Hints and murmurings across the Web suggested it wasn't just a dream. I thought I remembered a link in a Wikipedia page for some obscure album to a review. 7.5, I think it was awarded, and what exactitude for such anonymity. But damn, what was his name? The fact that his name was all the information the link provided was itself of interest. The only other critic afforded that by Wikipedia is Robert Christgau; even Lester Bang's old reviews are given as "Rolling Stone ****", etc. His name sounded like some Italian academic theoretician, with prose seemingly as impenetrable to match. Who was this guy? Next time I checked Wikipedia, though, the link was gone- as quickly as this unfamiliar voice did swim into view, it was snatched away. The bait had been cast though. I'd find out what it was I had read, who had put it there, and why it had been so quickly buried.

I. Where there is no vision, the people perish

Nowadays, it's a not-so-hidden secret that, even at its best, you always have to consider the biases and agendas of the big music publications. Not-so-hidden because when exclusive interviews appear just days before glowing reviews of that same artist's new work, common sense tells us something might be up. Hidden though, because in spite of these conflicts of interest and the generally servile state of criticism, we keep coming back to eat the shit up. Thus, for those looking for singular voices untainted by industry collusion, the search leads straight to the underground. This split between uncoerced writing and the "mags that people actually read"1 goes all the way back to the first generation of rock critics. When record companies first discovered the unheard-of sums of money to be had in the new "youth culture", and when publications sprouted up to document and review the outpouring of energies, there developed a mutually profitable relationship just barely able to elude accusations of payola. Throughout the last fifty years, alternative voices have risen; these have ridden the crests of new movements and genres until they replace the relics they intended to. Then begins again the cycle of descent into moneyed interests and eventual irrelevance. This rise and fall can be glimpsed happening today too with the current batch of "authoritative" magazines and websites. What remains, however, past the fortunes of revolving institutions is the struggle of the individual voice to make itself heard. What won't last are the anonymous PR-readymade hype and slights of criticism's shifting tastes. In other words, what's needed is a little less Pitchfork, a little more Richard Meltzer.

Pierro Scaruffi, in his encyclopedic website of musical criticism 2, positions himself between the conflicts of criticism and aesthetics. His most well-known piece is his takedown of the Beatles. To do this, he makes repeated comparison between what the Beatles were recording in specific months and concurrent further innovations by others. Through such chronological quibbling, all major advances attributed to the Beatles are handed to others of differing degrees of notoriety. Aware of the inevitable backlash of such an endeavor, Scaruffi expends more time and energy documenting specifically what he means than in any other section on his site. The opening lines of the piece provide a groundwork and justification for such a break with consensus: "The fact that so many books still name the Beatles as ‘the greatest or most significant or most influential' rock band only tells you how far rock music [and criticism] still is from becoming a serious art... Rock critics are still blinded by commercial success." Straw man or not, he diagnoses the mainstream of music criticism, and deliberately places himself outside of it. Divergence, however, does not guarantee truth. What, then, are the values which Scaruffi maintains?

I followed the trail of digital crumbs back towards his website: Pierro Scaruffi was his name. And like the discovery of some alien intelligence that's always been there, I found his essays on (tens of?!) thousands of albums and artists. How to orient oneself in such a deluge? On his homepage lies a friendly piece of help: "Greatest rock albums of all times." But God, I recognize only maybe three or four of these. Am I really that out of the loop? I guess the only place to jump into is at the top...

II. By their fruits you will recognize them

Musicologists have long spoken of a certain violence against the listener in the music of Beethoven. Imperialistic in a sense, this violence conquers its subjects through manipulation of uncertainty and bold assertion. As a proposition of musical history, Scaruffi's list of top albums can also be considered an act of violence, against his readers. In our historically illiterate age, Trout Mask Replica is best known perhaps as that kind of album one compels on unsuspecting friends, testing "How far can you really go with this shit?" On Scaruffi's list, however, it lies at the top as the greatest "of all times", in deadly earnest. Scrolling down further the list, this wild inaccessibility example proves overwhelmingly the rule rather than exception. For readers drawn further into his site by horror over his Beatles article, this further spectacle might reasonably prompt "What alternate universe have we just stumbled into?" But for those who the Beatles takedown held a certain thrill, nay, perhaps even a turn-on, this list propels out of that former instance of mere negativity into a positive wonderland. Their new-found fondness for perversity will have ample opportunity on which to tests its mettle.

Milton Babbitt, the American serialist composer, once issued a manifesto entitled "Who Cares if You Listen?"3 That quip summarized the movement "serious" music had been undergoing for the last hundred years. By the late fifties, when Babbitt so cannily expressed it, this sentiment had crystallized into a lingua franca amongst artists the world over who felt their domain encroached upon by the ascent of popular culture. Indeed, as the public turned their ears and dollars to the developments of mass culture, those artists struggling to maintain hold resisted by forays into ever-more-extragavant flights towards that elusive ideal of purity, l'art pour l'art. The widening disparity between "art" music and popular culture only confirmed and embittered the prejudices of each competing camp towards the other.

Born in the fifties, Scaruffi came of age amongst that second generation of pop audiences, when the new culture developed sufficient self-awareness to begin to relay those doubts against itself. Beginning in the sixties, and heavily popularized by the Beatles, pop music now being to take upon itself pretensions of art and seriousness. The LP took on a new life as not as just a collection of singles and filler, but as a gestalt, able to transmit feelings and ideas across longer playing times in much the same manner as the symphonies of old. This development corresponded with the rise and rapid cooption of rock criticism. Popular music was becoming at the same time more "art" and more product than ever before. In this topsy-turvy manner, music taking its namesake from "progress" could be kitsch, and one could find God in a three-minute pop song. Everything was suspect. No wonder that the disinterested observer might experience something of a crisis of confidence.

In eras of aesthetic uncertainty and change, a specific reaction of the conservatively-minded is to fall back on the established canon of any given art form. A canon supplies a rich repository of cultural experience, but wielded by reactionaries, can be used to deny as-yet-unheard groups their voice. With rock and roll especially, from the earliest days of its hyper self-awareness, there have been those who would establish some sort of rock "canon". As has been commented on by many, there is a curious irony in such a supposedly revolutionary mass musical movement enshrining itself in such hoary mausoleums as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Interestingly, the period revered most in the rock canon school of history ('60's, '70's, '80's) also coincides with the dawn and (arguably) the highpoint of pop music criticism as an art form in and of itself. At the time, popular music was desperately trying to demonstrate its own worth; pop criticism, in turn, through validating the music was attempting to do the same for itself. The survival of both forms seemed spiritually intertwined in a way. The amazing breakthroughs in criticism and understanding at the time allowed audiences to listen to and think about the music as something more than three minute throwaways. Unfortunately, as the insights that criticism provides become commonplace, the intellectual work of our own (personal or not) past can become an excuse exempting one from any further critical thought. In contrast to the golden age of rock criticism, writers today seem at times to be meekly trailing behind whatever sporadic developments the music industry stumbles upon. Criticism in the age of the implicit canon assumes a merely descriptive role: collecting and organizing new bands and describing them in the light of the past. A little hard work goes a long way toward the closing of the mind.

And though it's certainly far from inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Scaruffi has set about in solitude and contrariness upon the creation of his own alternative canon. And if that gauche museum can be regarded as not a little philistine, Scaruffi's taste should be regarded as more definitely "aristocratic". The wording is his, though not in speaking of himself. He applauding uses the descriptor in detailing Joni Mitchell's stream-of-consciousness folk style, and its apparent superiority from the regular folkie fare of the '60's4. But upon reflection, no other term describes Scaruffi's implicit musical longings in and around the vast archives of his criticism. His tastes betray an avant-garde tendency so expressionistic it becomes in effect indistinguishable from the most profound Romanticism, and a Romanticism so wild and unhinged it can express itself only in the avant-garde. His is a Romanticism that has cast off its outer showings if only because that movement was overtaken by the rabble; a Romanticism that through esoteric groans and wails would have that its Beloved recognize the true nature of its urgent longings.

Propelled by anxiety and morbid curiosity, I sample the unknown pleasures of forbidden sounds; I submerse myself in the impenetrability of these albums like some pact with the devil. But why then, for all the power that the satanic provides, such an empty lonliness? Why then such a muffled pain?

See Part 2 of our Scaruffi article

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