Content vs. Context: Group Critique as Mutual Aid

Written by Max Alper

Musicians have a problem with talking about their music.

Whether it be through the conservatory, the DIY scene, or anywhere in between, we are taught repeatedly that our work as composers, performers, and producers ought to speak for itself. That on first listen, your work should convey all its necessary information in a way that prioritizes technical abilities first and foremost. In academic composition programs, there are only so many hours in the day and credits in a Bachelors program. We’re taught to showcase our musical content at the sacrifice of its context. We know how to create certain sounds and motifs that speak to us aesthetically, yet we’re rarely asked to explain why it speaks to us.

When we do talk about it amongst ourselves, it’s more often than not a pissing contest amongst the overeducated and privileged few. It doesn’t matter if it's within the conservatory classroom or in the reply section on Twitter. It becomes a matter of those who have to flex on those who have not. Whether it's the White Knights or the Trolls, most passionate parties involved have a higher education in the arts and are seeking to let everyone else know. Those who have the time to make their score copywriting as clean as it is. Those who can afford to purchase the fancy new pedal or spaceship eurorack modular setup. Those who have the time to make their music as technically complex as possible for the sake of its own complexity.

We can find ourselves diving down internet rabbit holes seeking genuine music advice from like-minded peers, only to come back with a shopping list of what you’ve been pressured to buy based on the gear collection of strangers. All without the slightest inkling as to why you’re seeking these seemingly expensive sonic capabilities to begin with. We live in a global music community saturated with content and very little context.

This contrast of musical content vs. context followed me throughout my own experiences in both the academic and underground experimental music scenes in New York. And while I’m certainly not complaining about the creative liberties I was given to explore technologically-informed composition practices while studying at the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College for both my Bachelors and Masters degrees, I still felt a bit put off by the way we handled critique seminars.

In many ways, forward-thinking electroacoustic music programs simply replace the fetishization of the score with the fetishization of the patch or the gear itself. We need something tangible to talk about in class to assess the merit of the music. To many of my peers, it felt as if the more work they put into their Max/MSP project, the better they thought their music would ultimately be. As if they were equating a final project grade in a creative coding class to that of some universal quality assurance procedure that would determine listenability or merit.

And while at first, I was a bit envious of my fellow computer music peers in their patching prowess, eventually I saw most of them struggle their way through completing their work on time and more specifically having an enjoyable finished product to present at the end of semester recitals that they were truly excited about. A lot of my peers would get so caught up in how they were gonna make this spectacular machine that they forgot to even make original music with it at the end of class. The patch often was the final product to them, the music itself simply a byproduct to avoid an incomplete grade.

By the time I entered graduate school, I felt much more comfortable calling out these practices when I saw them. I was there to make personal sounds with a purpose. I wanted to make and hear music that made me feel good, selfish as it may be. I approached those three years with very intentional ears. If I didn’t hear the personality of my peers within their works in progress, the people I knew they were outside the conservatory, I was always left wondering who exactly I was listening to in seminar. The sounds didn’t speak for themselves, I wanted to hear my peers contextualize their choices thematically, fucking why they thought this sounded dope as hell to them.

Some of the conversations I was having in graduate school critique seminar often consisted of the same rhetoric and general shallowness that I found in the underground DIY music circles in New York as well. Sick set bro was usually the best I could get out of my peers after pouring my heart into a wall of sweaty noise for a half-hour in a Crown Heights basement. It’s as if any conversation about each other’s music, critical or not, sparked some sort of defense mechanism that forced us all to shut down and keep our themes and intentions a secret. We hide what's under the hood. We often immediately go for the attack whenever criticized, as if not being blown away by someone's work means you somehow don't respect them as a person...?

It's understandable why we get so defensive. Skill sharing and opening the floor for constructive feedback beyond the private practice space is an incredibly vulnerable position for musicians to put themselves in. The only critique popularized amongst the scene consists of music journalists giving an album an arbitrary number grade, or popular Youtubers creating video essays that tend to lean on the parasocial popularity of the content creator themselves. The options for getting genuine constructive feedback on your work as an independent musician are limited.

Musicians have a problem talking about their music.

When COVID came around, these problems were put on full display. We all felt the weight of isolation, regardless of our walks of life. We rely on physical social interactions for some sense of normalcy, bullshitters we may be. Us musicians felt it hard in particular. Not only was touring income completely off the table for 18 months, quite possibly the only way for a performing artist to make a living in the 2020s, but our hangs were gone. Our little source of constructive feedback we got from our peers on the dance floor and at the bar was gone.

Some of us found bandmates at these venues and dives. Some of us (me) found our spouses at a Lil B concert. These spaces are our community centers. As toxic as some may be to give so much sway and clout to proprietors and curators of these venues, for many of us they’re all we have. You only realize how good you had it when it's gone.

When COVID forced us all indoors and into the solo practitioner's studio, the rug was swept out from under us. No longer was there the gratification of playing for your group of friends in a tiny gallery or spinning happy hour at the local techno dive. The feeling of instantaneous feedback between the performing artist and audience, one informing the other and vice versa, is a conversation. It’s the same feeling we get in any physical social interaction. Live music, venue hangs: these are social scenarios, these are collaborations, conversations, whether we acknowledge them or not. When it’s just us in a bedroom studio, the physical social practice is simply gone.

As a music teacher forced to move all my classrooms and private students to Zoom sessions, I asked myself: how could we replicate these social practices in the virtual setting?

I started the Group Critique Fight Club workshop series in the La Meme Young Patreon community in the Winter of 2020 as an experiment. I wanted to see how folks would react if we just put ourselves in the vulnerable and uncomfortable position of having to share work in progress compositions and recordings and genuinely seek advice or means of improvement from their peers.

On day one in class, I addressed the elephant in the room. It’s weird. It feels like a show and tell. Most of us aren’t used to having to let our guard down and explain our artistic process, especially with something as unrefined or incomplete as a demo or compositional sketch. We are all on the same page here, myself included. These social scenarios are difficult for everyone at first, this is something new for everyone in the group, regardless of music education or formal background.

Once I got that out of the way, once folks understood that we were approaching critique from the perspective of uplifting one another first and foremost, a genuine safe space was created. And it's not an unwritten rule, I am happy to enforce it. I'm not gonna tolerate a bullshit bad faith argument, we're on Zoom, this isn't the comments section on Instagram. When we remove the anonymity of the internet, we can actually engage in constructive debate. The stakes are low, this is a space to chill.

We would meet weekly to discuss each other's works and give pointers. Constructive criticism was not only encouraged but required, like any good teacher I would coax the quiet lurkers to speak their minds when they had something to say and not just hang back. The structure only works if we’re all willing to participate. When it’s clear no one is gonna get hurt, no pissing contest will be had, most of the initial intimidation is gone by the first session.

As the online class community grew, so did the group critique schedule. We began a monthly and weekly project series, similar to the Klang seasonal compilation project in The Zone, where everyone would be given the same scheduled text prompt to make a specific music or sonic arts composition. We also began a weekly performance workshop, where rather than present a work in progress recording, participants are asked to plug their setup directly into the Zoom call and perform live on the air for five minutes each, following a group discussion.

I asked some participants in the online class community to write out their thoughts on our group critique sessions. One participant, Giuliana, acknowledged having to overcome the fight or flight instinct when having to discuss their work with a group of strangers, likeminded or otherwise:

“As much as I sometimes want to poke my eyes out with forks during crits they are pretty helpful when the time is right. Also, I've noticed that they are super helpful as we all share skillsets and similar interests in sound (generally 'crit' or sharing sessions with other sound people, or folks really into that stuff go into more interesting places... On the other hand, it can be helpful to get fresh ears from people who are totally new to it all as well depending on what the concept of the project is…Leading with humor really helps defray/dispel trepidation, it creates a supportive and playful environment.”

Another participant, Peter, responded in words that truly warmed my heart. It’s one thing to see in action the benefits of these weekly programs, it’s another to hear about it directly from those I’m seeking to help.

“So often people talk about how words are inferior to art, or that music is inherently or necessarily beyond words. I think this is bullshit. A major part of the critiques’ value for me is using words (mine and others) to make music less sacred, less mythical, something you can describe and evaluate and make decisions on rather than a muse or a mystery. The opportunity for a captive, knowledgeable audience drew me to the critiques, but the actual reason they help me and keep me working is that they help reframe my practice as work rather than magic.”

While I may have set out to create some sort of “class”, what we ended up doing was closer to a community arts center with programming multiple times a week. When we remove the anonymity of the internet’s music circles, we are forced to have actual conversations face to face with one another, regardless of where we are in the world. The vulnerability inherent in talking about your artistic process, both its technical content and its personal context, is universal.

This leveling of the playing field acts as a fresh start towards what we can envision music and arts learning communities to be, both online and in the physical spaces we inhabit. We can all benefit mutually as artists from acknowledging this vulnerability and tapping into it further. Tell us why you make the art you make. Show us the whole story. We’re all friends here.

Max Alper aka @la_meme_young is a composer, educator, and writer, and is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Klang Magazine.