Name: Brian Olewnick
Occupation: Painter, Music Writer
Current Publication: Keith Rowe: The Room Extended on Powerhouse Books
Recommendations: Just two? Hard … impossible. But, for today, we’ll say, ’Six Persimmons’, a 13th century ink painting by Mu Qi Fachang. And Charles Mingus’ ‘Folk Forms No. 1’ from ‘Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus’, Candid, 1960, with Eric Dolphy, Ted Curson and Danny Richmond.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Brian Olewnick, visit his personal blog, Just Outside, for his music writing.
When did you start writing about music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Well, I kind of stumbled into it upon the arrival of the Internet around 1995. I initially joined some news groups and e-lists that were music-centered, like the Zorn-list, a free jazz site and various groups on usenet like rec.music.bluenote or rec.music.classical contemporary. I would simply contribute to discussions; I’d never written “about” music before. One of the salient things I learned from posting on these fora was the need for concision in text, how easy it was to be misunderstood if words weren’t used with precision. As is the case with many activities with which I’ve eventually become involved, I didn’t seek out opportunities. Rather, I received offers to do various writing gigs. Walter Horn, a denizen of the free jazz site, asked me to do liner notes for a release of his on Leo. Later, Joslyn Layne, an editor at All Music Guide and a frequenter of the Zorn-list, asked me to become a reviewer for All Music, which I did for several years. When that dried up, I was contacted by several writers—Jason Bivins, Al Jones, Derek Taylor and Nathaniel Catchpole—who wanted to begin a site that would be largely devoted to, for lack of a better term, electro-acoustic improvisation, something that didn’t exist at the time (about 2003) and thus Bagatellen was born. Eventually, I began my own blog, Just Outside, in 2006.
I don’t know that “passion” was a driving force, though of course I’m passionate about the music. It was more about filling a need, of trying to explicate an area of music that’s often difficult to describe in words. I’m not a musician (I studied painting) but my ears seem to be ok and musicians appreciated someone getting a reasonably accurate verbal picture of their work out into the public. So I thought if I could help, it was worthwhile.
For most, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as a writer and the transition towards your own style? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
There really wasn’t any conscious attempt at emulating a style, though I’m sure various things have seeped in. I had of course read a great deal of music criticism and enjoyed the work of, for example, Robert Palmer, Amiri Baraka, A.B. Spellman, Lester Bangs and many others but it would never have occurred to me to try to write “like” any of them.
What were your main challenges as a writer when starting out and how have they changed over time?
As alluded to above, the hardest part is attempting to describe a music that often offers scarce few hand- or footholds. More often than not, there are no lyrics, so no story or overt meaning to talk about, little in the way of melodies or hooks, etc. A piece might well be over an hour in length so the listener/writer has to hold in his head aural relationships and patterns that cover a long, long time. Additionally, the musician/composer’s intent can be inscrutable; there’s a tendency on their part not to over-explain. Over time, I tend to worry less about that, to simply give the impressions I’ve received. If I’m totally off-base (which happens frequently enough), that’s fine, I’ll come back to it, re-evaluate my stance. Sometimes this results in a wonderful give and take with the musician, as occurred with Olivia Block some years back— we both ended up learning things we didn’t previously know (I had far more to learn, I think) and were able to reconsider intentions and aspects of reception on the part of the audience.
How do you see the role of music journalism in the creative process? Should it amplify public taste, distinguish the good from the bad, inform, promote artists, or, as Howard Mandel put it, “illuminate, educate and entertain” readers?
My main thought is that, in a world that’s reasonably small (how many people worldwide know or care about, for example, AMM? Five thousand? Ten thousand?) once you’ve been around for a while as a public presence, people get a pretty good idea of your tastes. So I think of my writing less as a critical review and more as a kind of signpost for potentially interested listeners. They know my tastes and either generally agree or disagree with them and can use my write-up accordingly. If someone learns something in the process, great.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the readers, the publication you’re writing for?
Certainly the artists first. They’ve put their creation in my hands, so to speak, and I really don’t want to mess it up, to portray it inaccurately. One of the odder comments I’ve received from musicians—and I’ve gotten it a number of times—is that they’re thankful that I actually listen to the music! Well, of course! I thought that was a minimal requirement! Though apparently that’s not a universal approach … I listen until I think I’ve gotten a good picture of what’s going on (I can be wrong, naturally); if I really like it, I’ll listen more for pure enjoyment. But I’m very aware the musicians will likely be reading the review and very much want to do them justice. Making things clear for the reader goes without saying. I’ve written rarely enough for magazines or other websites but when I have, I simply adapt to their general requirements (length, topicality, etc.) and then just write like I always do.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the publishing landscape? How do they affect journalism in general and your own take on writing in particular? What role do social media play for your approach?
I’m removed from the publishing world pretty much, so can’t say anything about that. I am on facebook and enjoy it as a platform (whatever its many issues) and like to post items outside my normal reviewing area, maybe write a little bit about them. But that’s a more social thing, more what I’d do if a few people were over for dinner or drinks. I’m selectively Luddite about recent innovations—don’t tweet, don’t Instagram, indeed only use a cellphone for potential emergencies while on long driving trips, no ipod, etc.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Apart from as mentioned in the previous question, not so much. I’m very old-fashioned in my art, doing mostly watercolors and drawings. I’ve fooled around with digital processes (and will gladly use them to enhance photos I’ve taken) but find it generally too easy to come up with a “good”, that is handsome, presentable, etc. result. I have nothing against them and, of course, some people do great work within that sphere; I’m just not that interested.