CT.com Interview: Ben Ratliff, New York Times Music Critic

Ben Ratliff, jazz and pop critic for The New York Times since 1996 and the author of three books of jazz criticism, has the rare ability to write about avant-garde jazz, doom-metal, indie rock, hip-hop, and probably a dozen or so other musical genres with clarity and insight. He reviews hundreds of concerts and new releases a year. And even though Ratliff writes for a general readership, most of whom are not fluent in the technical languages of music analysis, he does so without ever dumbing anything down.

On Nov. 14, Ratliff speaks at Wesleyan University on Nov. 14 as part of the school’s Music and Public Life series, a year-long, cross-disciplinary exploration engineered to engage Greater Middletown with concerts, lectures and workshops. Ratliff spoke to the Advocate from his home in Manhattan about his speaking engagement, the struggles he faces as a music critic, and how he crafts his reviews. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Q: How did the invitation to speak at Wesleyan come about? Did they give you a sense of what they want you to talk about?

A: I was invited by [music professor] Mark Slobin. They’re doing a series jointly with the writing program, which is something headed by [director] Anne Greene. It’s a campus-wide program called “Music in Public Life.” I guess the focus of the entire thing is how musical events and music and musicians, etc. are brought to public attention, and how do we share music the public, and how do we make it part of everyday life.

Basically what they want me to do is to talk about my role as somebody who writes about a lot of different kinds of music for a general interest newspaper and how I have to shape my writing and my reflections on various musical experiences to that end, as opposed to, say, academic music criticism, or various kinds of, for lack of a better term, pop journalism, maybe the kind of thing where it’s assumed the reader knows everything I’m talking about, it’s assumed reader will get all the references, and all that. I’m talking to a totally generalized but fairly intelligent reader.

Q: At a place like Wesleyan, where there’s expected to be a pretty high level of musical competence, is there the temptation to get a little geeky, a little more inside the music. But it sounds like this is a general audience you’ll be speaking to.

A: Absolutely. I really try not to get geeky in terms of theory, ever, because I feel like that’s not who I’m talking to. But I definitely do want to talk about what the goal of being a general popular music critic is: why we do it, what we hope to achieve, what the point of it all is, especially as the whole landscape is changing for how we consume music and how we consume journalism.

Q: How much do people look to you to predict the future of music, either from a music business standpoint or stylistic trends? As someone who writes about music for the general public, is there this pressure on you to tell people where it’s all heading?

A: I think some of us take on that responsibility and are well-suited to it. It’s not my strength in particular. I think what people are really interested in knowing about, usually, is business and/or technology issues, like stuff about the cloud, or the availability of certain things on iTunes, the mergers of giant record companies, will the industry come crashing down, or whatever. Since I’m not a music business reporter, and we have one of those at the Times, I’m really dealing with music. I’m dealing with concerts, CDs and writing about particular artists. I’m mostly dealing with the present, and sometimes with the past, and I have to say, very little with the future.

Just purely in musical terms, sometimes I pick up upon something that’s in the air that’s going on, something shared by a whole bunch of musicians, something musical, and maybe I can make some sort of prediction about the future, but it’s usually only half-true. So I guess I’m saying that’s really a question for music business reporters.

Q: I imagine it can be a real challenge to open yourself up to something new — a new release, an artist that’s unfamiliar, a genre you know nothing about — rather than fall back into your listening comfort zone. Do you experience those competing forces, and if so how do you deal with it?

A: I think there’s also a factor here: you feel differently the older you get. I can remember being a music critic in my late 20s. I was very clear on the notion that the whole point of this job is to keep moving forward and to stay away from the music that meant a lot to you when you were 19, and that if you want to go back to it, you had to do it very carefully, and not sink into sentimentality about it. Otherwise, you’d get stuck. And getting stuck is the opposite of what this job’s about. You’re supposed to write out of perpetual curiosity for things that you don’t know enough about, you know?

I do find that as I get older, I’m more and more tempted to go back and listen to things that interested me when I was 19, if only to say to myself, “There must have been something to that. What was it? Why was that so good?” And maybe to figure out if there’s a new vocabulary that I can use about it. It also comes up naturally because so many bands are reuniting. That’s, like, a business model now. It didn’t exist, really, 10 years ago. So, I think it’s only necessary that once in awhile we have to revisit things we were fond of back then. But I think in general it’s just really good and healthy for any listener — whether you’re a critic or just a casual listener — to keep trying to figure out what’s going on and what they don’t really know about, to come to terms with it. It’s fine if it turns out you don’t like it. If you stay within your own musical tastes, then there’s so much else you get stuck in as well. Music is like a portal into so much of what’s current in life.

Q: When you are pushed to listen to new things and discover new things, your knowledge and comfort levels are diminished because they are unfamiliar, and yet you’re still asked to write about them from a position of competence and authority. It seems like there’s another struggle built in there. But at some point, you must know you are trusted by your readers and yourself. Is that fair to say?

A: Yes. The first thing you try to do is learn everything you can. You try to totally immerse yourself in context. You learn everything there is to know around whatever it is you are writing about. If it’s a new album, everything that came before by that artist, or everything that’s related to it, just so you have a sense of what kind of language to use and what the standards are. But I think also sometimes it’s okay to represent that you are puzzled, or that you don’t quite know what’s going on, that you are surprised. I think in some situations it is really okay to reflect that, because often you’re in the same boat with the listener.

Q: You’ve been asked a lot, I imagine, about the fact that you write about rock, jazz and whatever else interests you. I think that freaks out a lot of writers who do not feel that they could ever cover both. As time goes on, is that distinction between jazz and rock, is it imaginary in a way? Does the distinction still exist for you?

A: Yes, sort of. Not so much genre, as in the way things are filed in iTunes, or whatever, but in terms of distinct languages. I do have a separation in my brain between what are the best examples of different languages, whether that means 19th-century European classical music or jazz from the middle of the 20th century, whatever. But at the same time, when it comes to the point of writing, trying to write something creative as a critic, I try to go dumb. I do try to listen as if I had no idea, really, what the differences are between anything and anything else. And what you’re listening for in that state, you’re listening for really surprising things that happen in the music.

You’re listening for, or at least in my case, some kind of integrity of sound or projection or something in the music that sounds like it had to be there, and it had to happen that way. That’s really where I start writing from. I make a little note somewhere and try to describe it on a piece of paper and later put it in a review. Ultimately, you are writing out of a sense-memory, the way something feels in your ear. I just think that’s the best way to start, no matter what it is you’re writing about. And then, from there, you can back up and tell the reader some of the details of context: what language it’s a part of, what it has to do with, and so on.

Q: Let’s say you’re at a concert or listening to a CD, and you hear that thing, and you know, Okay, this is where I’m going to start from. Then you have the rest of the concert or recording to sit through. Have you ever felt as though that thing has blocked out something else that you’ve later come to appreciate?

A: Not really. There are so many things to consider that if you get a really bright idea of a way to start a piece, it’s only a gift. There’s so much regret involved in the process of journalism, as I’m sure you know, that if something goes your way, and you’re like, “Yeah, this is a great way to begin,” then, no. Also, you aren’t going to be in trouble of ignoring other good parts. Because if they’re true and good, they’ll get to you. You have to trust yourself, really.


A Talk by Ben Ratliff of The New York Times, Nov. 14, 4:15 p.m., free, Wesleyan University, Daltry Room (Music Rehearsal Hall 003), 50 Wyllys Avenue, Middletown, wesleyan.edu/cfa.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times