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An Interview with Despite the Downturn’s Marc Weidenbaum

by Max Willens on May 10, 2010 · 3 comments

When we discovered Despite the Downturn last week, a compilation of musical responses to Megan McArdle’s recent Atlantic article, “The Freeloaders,” we found the whole thing so fascinating and exciting that we felt compelled to find out more about its editor, Marc Weidenbaum.

So we reached out to Marc, the founder and editor of Disquiet, a zine about ambient electronic music, with a couple questions about his career and his thoughts on where music’s at right now, and the responses are pretty incredible. Below is the first part of an interview that touches on everything from Despite the Downturn to the false binary relationship between consumer and entertainer that the recording industry is trying to maintain. Turn your thinking caps on before you start reading.

WAMM: First of all, just reiterate why you wanted to make this album. What itch does Despite the Downturn scratch that your two text responses failed to reach?

MW: The compilation was the most natural next step in an unintended series of responses to what I saw as a uniquely uninformed article. When I write about something, whether it’s music or anything else, I wrestle with the ideas inherent in it. Usually once I write about something, I’m done with it. This all came together quickly. On April 23, I read the McArdle article, “The Freeloaders,” in the May 2010 issue of The Atlantic, and I wrote a reply at Disquiet.com, my website. On Saturday morning, April 24, I woke to the unfamiliar sensation that the subject remained open, so I looked back at the article, and wrote a second response.

But even after publishing that second response, I sensed I still hadn’t closed the loop. When I’d looked back at the article that second time, I had focused on the illustration. I’ve assigned my share of editorial illustrations, and follow them closely — my personal heroes include people like Christoph Niemann and Laurent Cilluffo, who express editorial ideas through pictures; with all due respect to Edward Tufte, I’m very interested in the visual display of qualitative information. And when I looked at the Atlantic illustration, which is by the talented Jeremy Traum, I thought that it resembled a meeting of Istvan Banyai, the great editorial illustrator, and Stephen Vitiello, the great sound artist and musician. After a little thought, I got in touch with Vitiello, and he immediately expressed enthusiasm for the project — the idea of interpreting Traum’s illustration as a score — though eventually an imminent trip made it impossible for him to participate. He was the first musician I contacted, and his enthusiasm fed my own, and then I just started getting in touch with people.

That’s the specific itch. Here’s the more general one: Curating music projects like this is an itch I very much like to scratch. I’ve done one of these compilations before, based on the music of Brian Eno and David Byrne. It’s titled Our Lives in the Bush of Disquiet, and it’s also housed at archive.org. And I’m working on several others — one about a poet, one that has a jazz standard as its source material, and one that works with a classical warhorse. Despite the Downturn: An Answer Album came together quickly because it had to. It had to be timely in order to work within the brief window when the magazine to which it is responding was still on newsstands.

I have been an editor for most of my professional life — with Tower Records on its music mags, then online, then at a manga publisher — and I love working with creative people, and working with them to shape their work. Editing comics was something I did for ten years straight at Pulse!, and working with musicians on these projects reminds me of that process. It’s one thing for me to edit writing, because I have aptitude in writing, and another to edit and curate drawings and music, which are things I admire greatly but have absolutely no aptitude in. I like learning to communicate across that divide, bringing the conceptual and tactical skills of editing to work in music. I guess the simplest way to say this is that I really admire people like Hal Willner and Rick Rubin, whose production work is more a matter of setting up situations than it is of writing charts or laying down beats. When I write about music, I listen to it very closely, to how it works — and when I assign a project to a musician, I like to think that I’m doing so with an understanding of why the project and musician are appropriate to each other.

As you pointed out in the introduction you wrote for the Archive board, musicians have a long history of taking inspiration and cues from other artists’ works. Talk a bit about the range of things the compilation’s artists used to create their pieces, and what you think it says about how this process of using other artists’ works has evolved.

MW: I’m a firm believer that constraints are essential to the development of art. I think that formal constraints — whether broad, like a mythic storyline that might inform the overall structure of a classical symphony, or specific, like the chance-based rule systems of John Cage or Brian Eno — are inherent in artistic practice. What made this project so natural was that the illustration by Jeremy Traum suggested itself as a score because it had a score in it. Some of the musicians on Despite the Downturn interpreted the music in the score literally, especially Tom Moody, who fed the notes into MIDI and took it from there — the result to me sounds like Scott Joplin and Conlon Nancarrow getting along quite nicely. Others used the score as a canvas that only by coincidence had notes in it; they took it as a narrative, the way C. Reider has the hip-hop appear at the end, an aural symbol of the urchins that is, compositionally, like something Paul Dukas might have done if The Sorcerer’s Apprentice — perhaps the great work of narrative music about the unintended consequences of systems — had been about filesharing.

I have way too much to say about the way that graphic scores have become more sophisticated.

Disquiet's Twitter background; illustration by Brian Biggs

I think the thing that most excites me about Despite the Downturn is the fact that it forces artists to confront the massive uncertainties facing both their art and, possibly, their livelihoods. Was that something you intended to do with this project? Do you see artists addressing these questions in their art? Why or why not?

Thanks. I’m really glad that you connected to it in that way. I think most artists address these exact questions, sometimes consciously, often unconsciously — and when consciously, sometimes to their own detriment. In the visual arts, I’m always astonished by how much contemporary art that hangs in galleries and museums is about the business of art, about money, and networking, and representation, about political identity as cultural capital. The art world has long since become a closed system that feeds on its own gossip — that isn’t to say that nothing good comes out of it, quite the contrary. It’s just that a lot of art ends up being solipsistic, a special kind of solipsism that isn’t navel-gazing on the part of the artist, but a kind of systems-gazing, pondering the inadequacies of the art industry.

Similarly, while the decline of the record industry has made a lot of people who aren’t musicians think about the livelihoods of musicians, I think musicians are, generally speaking, all too familiar with the fragile relationship between producing art and eating a full meal, and have been for a long time, long before the arrival of MP3 players and Rapidshare. All the musicians I contacted initially for Despite the Downturn were ones who are already very much at home with music being something that one might give away for free — that is, give away the opportunity to listen to it, and to have it in a form, a DRM-free audio file, that allows the audience to listen to it when and where they choose.

That’s an interesting question about whether or not these artists address these questions in their art — by which I mean, I’m not sure I have an answer. I think that all these musicians actively engage with every aspect of their art, from its conception to its performance to its distribution. I can tell you that many of them when responding via email to agree to participate in the compilation wrote some retorts to McArdle’s article that were better written and far less polite than what I have written. I didn’t introduce these concerns to them. I just gave them an opportunity to vent non-verbally, to commiserate sonically.

Click here to read part two.

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