A few days ago, one of my favorite music writers, Jeremy Larson, posted the following thought to Tumblr:
His short post — the screenshot above comprises the whole enchilada — hit me in two waves.
First, identification. I know that exact type of fear he’s talking about, and I don’t think you have to be music writer, or a writer at all, to experience it. It lurks wherever opinions are shared. Maybe you’re an antiquer who’s thinking about buying a rare Chinese urn, wondering how the conversation will go the first time your friends see it displayed in your foyer. Maybe you’re the office food authority (sorry, I can’t type the word “foodie” without it being in a parenthetical statement about not wanting to use it) who’s sitting down to try out a new restaurant. We communicate with one another about the things that we like, and in turn, the things we like communicate something about us. Those two processes are inextricable, I think, no matter how few fucks you give about what people think of you.
The second wave that hit me after reading Larson’s post had to do with his use of the word “ultimate.” This is the part that really knocked me back. The seriousness of that word — ultimate — made me realize how profound this dilemma really is. How deeply it cuts. Understanding why you like the things you like requires faithful collaboration between functions like integrity, memory and self-awareness, and only you can decide if the end result is accurate. People can guess at your motivations, but you’re the only one capable of knowing for sure. You’re the ultimate judge. If you’re someone who’s interested in impressing people, no matter how, this probably sounds awesome. But for someone who’s interested in being honest, both internally and externally, this is a scary proposition.
I can remember this type fear hovering over the 5×5 posts I wrote at the end of 2012, especially when I was writing about Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps album. I’d never connected with a piece of classical music like I did with the quartet’s interpretation of Beethoven’s 131st work, but as I wrote about my favorite songs and albums of the year, a voice in the back of my head kept questioning my motives, repeatedly asking whether I was ranking Brooklyn Rider’s recording highly because I wanted to sound smart. (Trust me, as the sole Ph.D.-less member of my 4-person nuclear family, I’m no stranger to intellectual vanity issues.) Ultimately — there’s that word again — I decided that I had enough evidentiary support to move forward. Seven Steps was clearly top-5 in terms of play count, it had a powerful effect on my attitude towards classical music in general, and I had some really happy memories associated with listening to it. Despite the fact that I’m not particularly happy with the blurb that I ended up writing about the album, I’m more than happy with the decision I made.
I have a feeling that this type of fear is going to accompany my enjoyment of classical music for some time. There’s no doubt you can enjoy Beethoven or Vivaldi without being a classically trained musician, but knowing that doesn’t completely crowd out the insecurity that comes with approaching the genre as an outsider. The best I can do is trust that if I keep listening to a piece, there’s probably a good reason behind it, and that if I think that reason is apparent and interesting enough, I shouldn’t be scared to share it with other people.
In the case of Max Richter’s Recomposed — a creative reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons — I have the luxury of listening with a crystal-clear recollection of how and why the work started worming its way into my heart. Call it Knight in Shining Armor Music. One day back in early January, I had a truly crappy morning. And while I can’t remember what was crappy about it, I can remember the feeling of salvation that came from heeding the advice of someone I follow on Twitter and trying out Richter’s take on The Four Seasons. The link I clicked on took me straight to Spring 1, which, in that moment, sounded brave and defiant, enduring even — a flurry of frenetic activity set off by an undercurrent that seemed stronger and wiser by comparison. Those few minutes changed the course of my day, and I can feel the ghost of that experience each time I relisten to Spring 1. Recomposed was there when I needed it, and I feel fortunate to be able to explore it, poke it, prod it, and use it as a doorway into Vivaldi’s compositions, all with a clear conscience and a tremendous sense of gratitude.
Start your own crisis of integrity by previewing the same excerpt from Recomposed that I started with, click here to snag the rest from iTunes, and click here to check out Jeremy Larson’s recurring “Zoo Story” column, which can be found over at Consequence of Sound.