For those unfamiliar, Piero Scaruffi is a well-known (and, to some extent, notorious) figure in online music journalism. He runs an eponymous website/database, scaruffi.com, and his opinions regularly stir up controversy among musicians, music labels, and fans. His infamous Beatles article is still routinely copypasta’d (read: here) and gained him a spike in popularity amidst the music community for being a well-argued (albeit often argued against) analysis of their career, and a contrarian stance to the music community in general.
But, beyond that, his database is expansive, covering 7000+ artists, as well as commentary on politics, science, travel, cinema, technology, and multiple lengthy essays pertaining to the histories of music genres.
Scaruffi is a significant figure for me because, back in, about, 2006, I was just getting interested in music journalism, and stumbled upon him via discussions on listology.com, where he is/was regarded pretty highly by users, many of whom would make “favourite album lists” that more or less copied his choices. Of any singular person, his opinions did more to influence my developing interest in music, and, in some indirect way, probably inspired me to start reviewing. I recently contacted him and he agreed to answer a handful of questions.
Tristan: To what extent is musical history important in analyzing music? Can a reviewer cover a genre alien to him/her and deliver a worthwhile think piece? This is a relatively general question, but feel free to go on whatever tangent you’d like.
Piero: If you are “analyzing” music, then i think it’s important to have studied what came before. An analysis that doesn’t tell me how this piece of music relates to the rest of music is not an analysis. I don’t really care to be told how many times the song uses the “C” note, but i do care to hear how that sequence of chords has been used since the 1950s in so many songs. Then again some always argue “who cares about analyses”, which is perfectly fine. You don’t have to analyze if you don’t want to; but if you want to analyze, then ignorance of the past is not a good way to analyze the present (it is a good way to embarrass yourself writing something that you will regret the day you study the past). Incidentally, my personal experience (being someone whose opinions have almost always created controversy) is that opinions tend to converge rather than diverge when different people with different taste (and maybe different ideologies) study the past. The more we listen to, the more likely that we reach the same conclusion on a new piece of music. This is true in every discipline, and popular music is simply a more complicated affair because of the huge amount of money spent by the music industry to publicize their music. If they spent the same amount of money publicizing theories of Quantum Mechanics, the field of Quantum Mechanics would have the same problem telling genius from junk.
The second part of your question is actually more interesting: should i write about Hitler if i am not a practicing Nazist? should i write about the Holocaust if i have not gassed a few thousand Jews? The answer is obvious, right? But surprisingly so many people criticize the critic who a) does not play/read music (i can’t even tell a C note from an E) and b) does not like what s/he is reviewing (and, alas, i don’t like 95% of what i hear in popular music), as if only someone who can play that piece of music and actually likes it should be allowed to discuss it. That’s actually a fair objection: what does it mean that you “understand” a piece of music? If you cannot play it yourself, how can you claim that you understand it? If you don’t like it, and maybe you don’t like the entire
style/movement, isn’t that a definition of “not understanding it”?
Let’s take a different discipline so we don’t yell at each other. Let’s take the visual arts. An art critic who writes a history of art is most likely going to write the same history that previous art critics have written. He will simply add a few trivia that came out from scholarly research, but it will fundamentally be the same story. If a scientist writes a history of art, s/he will come up with a completely different story. The scientist didn’t spend 10-20-30 years studying and listening to other art critics. The scientist literally doesn’t know what s/he is supposed to write, hence most likely s/he will not write it. In particular, the scientist will NOT be influenced by the museums, the art galleries and the art magazines that pretty much define what has to be considered “art”. Art critics will deride the scientist as not “competent”, but “competent” often means “very influenced by the establishment”, “very brainwashed to repeat like a parrot what the establishment wants you to say”, etc.
I personally love to read what “incompetent” people have to say about art. In some cases it simply betrays real incompetence (e.g. the dude has no idea that there are lots of artists doing what he thinks artists are not doing) but in many cases the “incompetent” says something important that no professional critic was saying, simply because s/he doesn’t have to fear retribution from the establishment. His income comes from his scientific institution, not from the museums, art galleries and art magazines that decide what is art. In rock music this problem is even bigger. Exponentially bigger. So you do want “outsiders” to write about rock music. If you are professional rock critic, you will never dare write that most (all?) rock stars are pathetic garbage. If you are not a professional rock critic, that’s the first thing you notice about rock music.
You wrote an essay pertaining to “bridging the gap between art and science.” While this seems more geared towards visual arts (and, bearing in mind, you adopt a fairly liberal definition of art in this essay), are there any notable recent examples that might include music in the equation?
Since music depends so much on technology (no piano, no piano sonatas; no electronic keyboards, no cosmic music; no drum-machine, no disco; etc), music is one discipline that borders on technology. My friend Curt Frank at Stanford studies the materials used by visual artists over the centuries and hopefully someday will publish a history of the visual arts from the point of view of a chemical engineer. This is more so in the music of the 20th century, where electrical and electronic instruments have created entire genres of music. One could argue that rock music was invented by the electrical guitar, not by Chuck Berry, and so forth. There is hardly a style of music that we don’t identify with the specific sound generated by a specific instrument, even the humblest styles. If you want to play reggae, you don’t buy a violin, right? But you could, and it would be very interesting, except that reggae was born with that Fender jazz bass, so that’s probably the first thing you want to have in your reggae band. I’ve seen a history of jazz in which each chapter is titled with the name of an instrument: trumpet, saxophone, piano, guitar…
In general, music was the first art to be closely associated with mathematics (think Pythagoras) and in the 20th century there have been even too many attempts to “serialize” music. It is also the one discipline that has been studied extensively by neuroscientists (Stanford has a yearly conference on “Music and Brain”). Bartok was fascinated by the mathematical patterns generated by the “golden mean” (the same mathematical formula that generates the spirals of snail shells) and used it to compose “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”. A list of recent music inspired by science would take several pages. Just some personal favorites:
Iannis Xenakis’ Metastasis (1955),
Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (1975),
Steve Reich’ Three Tales (2002),
John Adams’ Doctor Atomic (2005).
The influence also goes the other way, from music to science. Einstein said if he wasn’t a scientist, he would be a musician (he was an excellent violinist). Galileo’s father (Vincenzo Galilei) was a Renaissance lutist and it makes you wonder if how Renaissance music influenced the future scientific genius. The 19th century astronomer William Herschel, who discovered several stars and moons, composed 24 symphonies. And so on. I co-organize the “Scientific Delirium Madness” program at the Djerassi Artist in Residence Program, a center incidentally founded by a scientist, Carl Djerassi, for artists, and every year we pick at least one composer who works with science. Every year it’s difficult to pick just one.
I get the impression that you’re particular about musicians you choose to review. Your choices don’t really seem to be based around album promotion. You’ve described yourself as being a historian above being a “fan”.
I get way too much music to listen to, and it’s mostly garbage, even when it’s recommended by trusted friends (and sometimes even when metacritic will show an average rating of 9/10). Hence i get very upset that those labels and musicians have wasted hours of my time, and i tend to be more critical than i should be. After all, most of these musicians are just kids, and some of them honestly spent months rehearsing and dreaming. Nonetheless, it is upsetting to read all these reviews that hail every kid as a new Mozart or Beethoven. It is also upsetting that so many people want a review “right now” of the new album. If it’s a good album, it will still be good ten years from now, right? Why do you need to listen to it “right now”? If you ask me for the review of a new album, you already told me that you are not interested in good music but in what gets promoted by the music industry. If you are interested in good music, check my lists of best albums of the 1960s, 70s, 80s,… of jazz… of classical music… There’s plenty to listen to.
The albums of the last few years are probably the ones you shouldn’t listen to. Let good music shape your brain, not promotional campaigns shape your brain. (Incidentally, the same is true of cinema: i find that Hollywood has declined so precipitously that virtually no Hollywood film of the last 5 years deserves to be watched…why in heaven would anyone waste 2 hours to watch “Spiderman Chapter 623” or “Star Wars Episode #welostcount – The Return of the Return of the Return” when there are so many good films made in the previous 100 years that people haven’t seen yet? The last sequel that was worth watching was Godfather 2, 42 years ago, or the Road Warrior, 35 years ago). If we thought more highly of ourselves, we would not watch bad films and listened to bad music just because they are publicized.
When we first spoke via email, you mentioned you were in China. What are your favourite musical experiences while travelling out of country? Any music scenes you’d endorse and recommend stumbling upon?
Honestly, these days everybody listens to Western music, no matter what they tell you. And it’s usually a bad imitation of Western pop. I get the feeling that the only national tradition that is surviving and still thriving is Indian classical music.
In your review for the most recent My Bloody Valentine album, you claimed it was “heralded as a masterpiece by pretty much all the publications that has ignored their real masterpieces.” Are there any recent artists you predict might get the same retrospective treatment in a couple decades from now?
In a couple of decades, “publications” will not exist anymore, so it’s hard to predict what “all the publications” will mean in 2036. And the format of music will be different. The music industry is keeping alive the obsolete concepts of “single” and “album” because that’s the way they structure their business plans, but sooner or later common sense will prevail. It’s ironic that the music industry still sells “albums” but in some places there are no record stores where to buy them. What they are really selling to us is digital files, that cost $0 to make.
Your site has been a bit quiet in terms of musical coverage this year. I assume you’re busy with travelling and getting involved with Silicon Valley technology, but are there any artists catching your interest this year?
Not yet. I have more than 1,000 albums sitting on my hard-disk. But when i find the time, i would like to go back and re-listen to albums of the 2000s and 1990s. So my priority is NOT to listen to the albums of the last few years. And i have lots of classical music to listen and re-listen to. And jazz. Life is too short.
You’ve allegedly changed your mind on certain albums you’ve reviewed. While I’ve seen your scores change slightly, have there been some albums you’ve done a complete 180 on?
I keep hearing this, but which albums are you talking about? Slight changes in the ratings happen all the time because i need to balance one band’s ratings with all the others, but i can’t remember a major recording where i changed my mind (“garbage” to “masterpiece” or viceversa). I certainly changed my mind on the degree of influence, e.g. i never imagined that Black Sabbath or Radiohead would become so influential (i still don’t particularly like either, btw). Unfortunately, it happens only for the very famous albums that people ask me to re-listen and re-listen (often with the result that i get more and more convinced of my initial opinion, eg Revolver, one of the worst albums i’ve ever heard no matter how many times i re-listen to it).
I wish that people prompted me to re-listen to obscure recordings by obscure musicians, and that’s probably where i would change my mind. It is unlikely that i have not listened carefully to a wildly popular piece of music: i heard it more than once even if i didn’t want to. Very likely that i only listened once to a piece of music that nobody talked about, and so the chances that i screwed up are much higher.