Somewhat belatedly, I’ve just got round to reading Alex Ross’ fantastic book on 20th Century composition, The Rest Is Noise. A lot to talk about in there, but one quote stuck out yesterday. “Back in 1915,” Ross writes, “the critic Van Wyck Brooks had complained that America was caught in a false dichotomy between ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’, between ‘academic pedantry and pavement slang’. He called for a middle-ground culture that would fuse intellectual substance with communicative power.”
Put like that, it’s a pretty noble ambition, notwithstanding the fact that the ‘middlebrow’, as it came to be known, soon enough turned into a pejorative. Curiously, Brooks’ edict and a lot of Ross’ writing (both here and in The New Yorker) makes me think about rock criticism – how some of it is unsatisfying precisely because it’s either “Academic pedantry” or “pavement slang”.
In many ways, Ross himself posits a path forward, in his hugely engaging and informative mix of contextualisation, biography and musical criticism which is both allusive and technically specific. He understands that most music of ideas is not best served by being discussed in the abstract; that the character of its author and the cultural/political climate are critical to a full understanding of the music itself.
And in many ways, Ross makes me feel rather inadequate as a critic, because he can write about, say, Schoenberg in an incredibly fastidious and technical, musicological fashion without it being remotely arid or alienating to those of us who can’t read music.
I mention this today because I have here a solo album by Ben Reynolds, the guitarist from the excellent British folk-rock band Trembling Bells. Reynolds has a solo instrumental album coming out called “How Day Earnt Its Night” and, since it’s on the Tompkins Square label, you can probably guess that it’s another record that, like Reynolds’ predecessor on the label, James Blackshaw, begins in the folk tradition and then gracefully moves somewhere else entirely.
The point here – and I don’t mean to detract in any way from the quality of this lovely record – is that, as a non-musician, it can be tough to write specifically about this sort of meditative, evanescent, technical music. When James Blackshaw made his unexpected appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme a while back, it was striking how they privileged a discussion of his technique, adding a dimension to the criticism which my immeasurably vaguer descriptions could never hope to match.
Which means that, with Reynolds’ record, I’m left struggling to articulate why he plays with such apparent technical skill without that technique overbearing the emotional and melodic virtues of his music, and why I’m going to have to resort, once again, to a bunch of old reference points.
So the stately steel picking of “Skylark (Scorner Of The Ground!)” and “Risen”, for instance, inevitably recall John Fahey, perhaps specifically Fahey’s lustrous settings of hymns on “Yes! Jesus Loves Me”. Reynolds is at pains to assert a British take on this tradition in the press notes, and there’s a distinct hint of Bert Jansch, the milieu of early ‘60s London clubs, to the likes of “All Gone Wrong Blues” and “Kirstie” here, too.
But it’s when he stretches out that Reynolds really finds his instrumental voice. On the nine-minute “The Virgin Knows”, he turns a slow blues motif into something more abstract and ethereal, a sort of parallel to Blackshaw’s experiments in formal composition. The title track spends 13 minutes mostly working on a repetitive Reichian theme (delayed and looped in the manner of Alexander Tucker, possibly?) that gradually accumulates more and more melodic intricacies. It’s wonderful, but I’m struggling to say how, exactly.