On Sunday, the LA Times published Mark Swed’s review of Nico Muhly’s “A Good Understanding“.
The intro calls Nico “precious” which I suspect he won’t like. I’ll let him explain why.
In the print edition, they got the title of the album wrong.
What bugged me, though, was this sentence:
“A Good Understanding,” its new recording on Decca of choral pieces by Nico Muhly, brings a different degree of prestige. (It is now available as a compressed mp3 download on iTunes but will reach the market as a full-fledged CD in fine sound this month.)
Now, if you’re not Mark Swed, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know that iTunes doesn’t sell MP3s. You’re not the music critic for the LA Times, and you haven’t just casually libeled anybody.
Still, digital downloads have been around for at least a decade. Not knowing that iTunes sells music in the AAC/MP4 format is a bit like a movie critic in 1987 not knowing the difference between VHS and Betamax.
If you really don’t know which format is used by the largest music retailer in the US, you could be accused of being a bit out of touch, but that’s really the worst anybody could say unless you chose to offer uninformed value judgements about technology you clearly don’t understand.
He doesn’t make a direct claim about the imaginary MP3s, but then again he doesn’t need to. He just uses innuendo to slur the product he’s “reviewing” with a tautological reminder that the MP3 is compressed and that the CD sounds good. I place the verb “reviewing” in inverted commas here because it doesn’t seem like he actually bothered to compare the download with the CD. Still, two can play at that game.
Mark Swed works at the LA Times, which also employs several people who aren’t completely out of touch with the way the public consumes music.
See what I did there?
Misinformation is the new Starbucks, popping up on every corner. OH WAIT, misinformation is nothing new!
My guess is that even if he had correctly used the terms AAC or mp4, his editors would have “fixed” it to say mp3. We don’t call our portable mp3 players “mp4 players” and to most people, mp3 is just a generic term for compressed digital music. Also, it’s never a bad idea to remind people that the “stuff” you get on iTunes won’t get you the same sound as a CD. Do you disagree with that?
You wouldn’t point out that a VHS was inferior to a DVD when the film came out on Betamax. It’s sloppy. It means you didn’t check. You’d say “video tape” or something. It’s true that “MP3” is – in some contexts – synonymous with digital downloads, but not in this context, where he’s making judgements about the quality of different formats.
If you’re going to talk about formats as if you know about formats then you have a responsibility to do your research, and this is the sort of basic error that you wouldn’t make if you were an informed commentator on the issue.
We place trust in critics to give us an honest assessment of what they hear, not what they expect they would hear if they bothered to investigate.
I’m actually ltnseniig to Nico’s new album right now, and I’m baffled by the review, mainly because it doesn’t seem to actually be connected to this album. Rather, it reads like a review of one of Nico’s performances of his older stuff. From nowhere on this choral album could you possibly extract the word precious, for instance. (And actually, precious is a decidedly loaded word that gets used a lot by older male reviewers to describe Nico’s music/personality, which leads me to strongly suspect that what many of them actually mean is gay. Which he unmistakably is, but which has nothing to do with most of his music.)Labels like showoff and begging attention also seem more likely a reference to Nico’s decidedly cocky (though adorable) persona on stage. Unless I’m missing something in the texts being sung by the chorus, there’s nothing overtly flashy or edgy about this album. In fact, someone familiar with Nico’s work (as Swed obviously is) might legitimately ask whether Nico is playing it too safe here. But that would require actual music criticism, as opposed to catty swipes at a composer’s personality.(Full disclosure: though it would be a reach for me to call Nico a friend, we have met several times, have many friends in common, and I’m obviously a longtime admirer of his music.)
Daniel Stephen Johnson talks about this review in an interesting post here:
Goodness. Mp3 has gone the way of Xerox and kleenex and google. Are you really so out of touch?
You might use “Xerox” to mean “photocopy” or “photocopier” in a lot of contexts, but not in an article about office equipment.
You wouldn’t say “Kleenex tissues aren’t very absorbent” if you really meant “Supermarket own-brand tissues”.
You wouldn’t say “Google is run by Microsoft” if you were really talking about Bing.
Insults don’t become more relevant (or less insulting) if you frame them as rhetorical questions.
As for Muhly’s music reflecting “a view of the uniserve…centered around NY”, however, I have to debunk that notion . Fair enough. I won’t try to defend Swed any further I think he’s a terrible critic but there seemed to be a little benefit of the doubt that could have gone his way. If not, so be it. As for that New York artist stereotype, I guess I’m a bit curious as to what you mean. I am extrapolating what I’ve seen mostly in the world of theatre and, to a lesser level of acquaintance, painting/sculpture to the area of new music. In those other two regimes, it is difficult for works developed outside of NYC to get much play in that city. This is based on discussions I’ve have with playwrights, actors, and directors. On the flip side, it is quite common to import entire productions or parts of them into LA if they have NY cachet. The assumption is that everyone should know enough about New York neighborhoods, tensions, politics, and/or culture to grasp what’s on offer. Local experiences are small subsets of the great city’s concerns. A lot of these are not up to par with homegrown work and increasingly work from the Spanish-speaking countries but command a lion’s share of whatever resources are available. I could get more specific but I think it gets too far afield from the topic. I wonder how that manifests itself in music? I agree, it might not. I was thinking of the number of concerts we get that are from NY based ensembles and thought there might be similarities with other art forms. I gave new music a try a few years ago but gave up after several painful concerts.
RN, I have to say I was surprised by this riveew because I usually find Swed to be among the more well-informed critics. As for Muhly’s music reflecting a view of the universe centered around NY , however, I have to debunk that notion. Muhly’s major influences are 16th century vocal music (think Byrd and Gibbons), Britten and Philip Glass. I don’t think one would ever characterize his music as being NY-centric, and, really, so much of his work is overseas (and not just composition he’s currently on an international tour he’s a fabulous pianist with Sam Amidon (Vermont) and Valgeir Sigurf0sson (Iceland)) that it makes no sense to imply that his work is somehow regional.As for that New York artist stereotype, I guess I’m a bit curious as to what you mean. Certainly there are those who think NYC is the center of the known universe, but I wonder how that manifests itself in music?