An interview with Taylor Davis-Van Atta, founder and editor of Music & Literature, by Audun Lindholm, chief editor of the Norwegian critical magazine Vagant. This interview also appears in the Norwegian in Vagant issue 2/2012.
Audun Lindholm: With the recent launch of Los Angeles Review of Books and the upscaling of BookForum, there seems – from the outside – to be a revival of ambitious review-based literary journalism in the US, after the demise of the Sunday book sections. But in your declaration of intent, you say that Music & Literature Magazine sees itself in “the tradition of ambitious critical publishing that in recent years has fallen out of fashion.” What separates your magazine from the review-based journals, and what is your view on the current critical situation in the US?
Taylor Davis-Van Atta: There has been, over the past 40 years, a shift in art as well as musical and literary criticism in the US toward conservatism, a shift that has mirrored our political tendencies. Broadly speaking, art today is marginalized in US culture nearly to a point of irrelevance, in that it is nearly impossible for a work of art, regardless of its medium, to enter into public discourse. The US has moved from a culture with rather harsh art censorship laws (in the 1950s and 60s) to one that engages in a form of self-censorship that might do art an even greater disservice. We live in a time of absolute saturation in terms of the amount of literature and art being produced (David Foster Wallace referred to this as “total noise”), and there exists no organized critical apparatus that readers and art enthusiasts can use to isolate and discuss the great works. As a result, US public awareness of so-called “difficult,ˮ “experimental,ˮ “modernistˮ music and literature is exceptionally low. I believe the audience for this type of work is shrinking and has been shrinking since the 1970s, and that this trend is due in part to the disappearance of critical outlets and the increasingly conservative nature of what critical literature is published.
On top of this, Americans seem to have contracted a case of cultural amnesia. Books, in particular, are generally treated much as any other commercial good: as objects with no history, objects that are expected to arrive and disappear as do any other bit of disposable culture. It seems to be a bygone notion that great art can stay with us, can remain as relevant to our lives and our time in very essential ways, sometimes even more so than when it first appeared.
Music & Literature is an effort to oppose both of these trends at once, to make great living artists relevant and accessible to large audiences, while also “reintroducingˮ artists whose work appeared and was somehow lost, like the novels of Hubert Selby, Jr. The other critical outlets you mention, along with a handful of others, including The Quarterly Conversation and the Review of Contemporary Fiction, are indeed doing very good work and are, collectively, trying to come up with new ways of approaching this landslide of new literature and art in such a way that we might be able to inject the best artistic endeavours back into public discourse, or at least identify and highlight the best of what is being produced. Perhaps in this way there is something of a revival going on in terms of critical literature and I certainly hope Music & Literature will be part of that.
Regardless, Music & Literature is a very personal project and the fact remains that very few places give considered attention to artists I like: Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Stig Sæterbakken, László Krasznahorkai, Arvo Pärt, Vladimir Godár, Avet Terterian, and so forth. Rather than covering new books and music as they are released, M&L will, over the years, offer its own canon, its own peculiar taste in art. It is an attempt to make as strong a case as we can for the recognition and appreciation of certain artists, over a period of years. Unlike most critical outlets, we are not dedicated only to the newest books or music, nor do we publish articles on current affairs or politics; in fact, often our featured artists have long fallen from public memory (their books are out-of-print, their music no longer performed, etc.) and we see it as our obligation to help reintroduce their work to the public.
AL: To my mind, American critical essays surprisingly often follow a certain formula. Formally, much of what’s published is very similiar to the factually oriented, quite neutral writing found in The New York Review of Books – often eloquent and always well-informed, but seldomly stylistically flamboyant or digressive, as essayistic writing tends to be in Europe, or at least in Norway. Exceptions to this rule seem to be Charles Bernstein, Carla Harryman, and a few others. Am I right in my supposition – probably a prejudice – that there isn’t, despite your Emersonian heritage, a strong experimental essayistic vein in current US essay writing?
TDVA: I can’t speak to the American personal essayistic tradition, but in terms of the critical essays and reviews of art that are produced in the US, I think there’s a lot of truth in your observation. Often our critical literature lacks any critical element. Literary reviews are, as you suggest, largely neutral, merely a passive summation of a book, which of course makes it all the more difficult, as a reader and consumer of art, to know what one should go out and read or experience. Reviewers seem to bend over backwards to appear objective in their writing, and there is little or no passion or enthusiasm for the work they’re reviewing. Sometimes one can’t even tell if the reviewer enjoyed the book or hated it, much less why! So, yes, I think there is a pervasive timidness within the whole US book culture. There are certainly many exceptions, but reviewers are often too afraid to take a stand, to support an opinion or form one of their own. The result is that their language itself is timid, conservative, sterile, which eliminates the possibility of taking stylistic chances.
AL: Quite contrary to Horace Engdahl's widely publicized and much criticized statement about US literature being isolated and not in dialogue with the rest of the world, you’ve made a very international selection of writers for M&L’s first issue. Have you done this as a self-conscious pro-cosmopolitan gesture, or is this just the way you see literary influence and critical discussion taking place in general?
TDVA: Music & Literature is a natural extention of my own views on this subject and my own habits as a consumer of art. Personally, I don’t care where, geographically, a book or opera or film comes from; I care about its artistry and the artistic lineage out of which it is borne. It’s true that there is some chatter in US literary circles about “translated literature,ˮ almost as if it were a different form of art altogether, segregated from all other types of writing. This is, of course, ridiculous. I don’t think there’s any doubt that literature is an international art form and that the discussion of literature and art ought to be an international activity. One only has to read something like Watt by Beckett and wonder what Beckett was reading at the time to be introduced to the whole of great comic world literature. And reading this literature will inform and heighten one’s appreciation of Beckett’s novel.
But I can’t say that, at this point, the Magazine’s focus on international art is at all political. My taste in music and literature—and therefore the aesthetic of M&L—is international only because the great majority of the art I love is created overseas. As Dalkey Archive founder John O’Brien once said to me, “With music or painting, one doesn’t say, ‘Oh, Bach is German, how can I possibly listen to him since I’m an American?’ˮ And yet there does exist this persistent and inexplicable stigma or distrust in the US around “foreignˮ art, and particularly around contemporary “foreignˮ literature.
AL: You worked for Dalkey Archive for some time. Any thoughts you'd like to share about what you learned during your time at the press?
TDVA: Only that everything I know about publishing I learned from my time at Dalkey, and there’s no way I could start something like Music & Literature without having had that experience. I’m quite grateful for it. Dalkey Archive is one of a handful of small literary presses in the US whose mission it is to publish the masterworks of contemporary world literature, and their taste is exquisite.
AL: Why do you think N+1 gained such momentum? How did their magazine succeed in becoming so widely discussed and referenced? A few years ago, I spoke to a small press publisher in NYC who was not very impressed by their work nor pleased with the image propagated by the mainstream media of N+1 as “the alternative voiceˮ of their literary generation...
TDVA: It does seem true that N+1 has successfully generated or tapped into its audience with surprising efficiency and quickness. I have to admit that I was so turned off by the work they were publishing early on (in their first year) that I have not read them recently. They certainly put forth opinions, which I appreciate, but I remember the publication having a divisive tone, rather than one that is inviting and nourishing. I know that they are a rather broad cultural magazine, which heightens their appeal, and they picked up some powerful endorsements. In any case, I certainly don’t think of N+1 as speaking for me or my generation. American culture is so vast and diffuse that I think it would be impossible for one publication to «speak» for even a small portion of it.
AL: Your way of thinking about each individual issue of M & L seems in some respects to be similar to an academic anthology, which tries to cover a lot of aspects of a writer, from different angles. But you’ve also chosen to include interviews with each of the featured artists. These more subjective texts wouldn’t normally be part of an academic publication. How do you see the journal’s role in relation to academic criticism?
TDVA: I don’t see a relationship between Music & Literature and academic publications, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities. The Magazine is, first and foremost, a forum for artists and critics, rather than academics. I am very open to publishing critical literature of any style, so long as it conveys something insightful and interesting and new about the work of the artist in question. Actually, our first issue finds contributions from two Arvo Pärt academics and their essays are clear, accessible, and interesting, though their approaches to Pärt’s music differ radically.
Much depends on knowing who your audience is. Academic journals tend to publish academics who are writing for other academics in their own encoded language, which, generally speaking, doesn’t appeal to the average arts lover. These journals do, at times, feature very good artists, but the literature produced on those artists can be quite inaccessible, impenetrable to most of us. This relates to another difference, which is that Music & Literature is marketed toward the “averageˮ or “generalˮ art lover. My intent is that a reader of M&L does not necessarily need to have read or even heard of an artist featured in one of our issues in order to enjoy the work we publish, and that they leave one of our issues with the desire to go out and experience these artists firsthand.
AL: Why was Arvo Pärt chosen as the featured composer for the debut issue? In your next issue you’ve picked Górecki as the composer to be focused on – am I right to infer a certain preference for the more “humanisticˮ or “emotionalˮ European modernist composers in these choices?
TDVA: You’re right that European modernism does seem to be the artistic vein we’re mining, at least with these first few issues. I’ve been listening to Pärt’s music for many years, and the choice to focus on him came mainly out of my passion for his work, but there were other factors as well. Several years ago Pärt was commissioned to write a symphony for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I was very excited about this. I thought this event would finally launch his reputation in the US and push his music closer to “mainstream” acceptability. This work, his fourth symphony (entitled “Los Angeles”), debuted in January 2009. But it was met with a dispiriting level of coverage, both in terms of quantity and quality, and Pärt remains a world-famous composer who is ignored by my country. His work is not often performed and, outside of musical academia, very little has been written on his music. On a more practical level, I was also able to collaborate with the International Arvo Pärt Centre, which granted me access to Pärt’s personal archives and connected me with many of the best European scholars and artists who ended up contributing work to the issue. This was also a factor in deciding on Pärt as our debut composer.
It is true that we will feature Górecki at some point, but forthcoming issues will actually feature Avet Terterian and Tigran Mansurian (issue two), and Vladímír Godár and Ivá Bittová (issue three). These composers all fall within the vein of European modernists. Their music is at once intensely emotional as well as formally and stylistically innovative. Like Pärt, they have each managed to invent their own methods of composition that only they can master and employ. Their methods intrigue me as much as their work does, and the same can be said of the authors we cover.
AL: Your excellent reading of the Serbian novelist Svetislav Basara at Numéro Cinq suggests that you, as an essayist and reviewer, have an intimate relationship with the European existentialist tradition – Ionesco, Beckett, Kafka, Bernhard, Krasznahorhai – to the extent that you are mildly critical towards Chinese Letter's use of “now-tired tropes of the existentialist novel.ˮ But you also say that with CL, Basara “has tapped into the most powerful fictional engine: a self-observing observer who is riddled by doubt.ˮ On a personal note, it struck me while reading this sentence that, to see these words in this exact order, as a poetological micro-statement, was almost like hearing Stig Sæterbakken speak… Did you and Stig find each other in this existentialist view on the novel?
TDVA: I don’t believe Stig and I ever spoke explicitly about Basara or existentialism, but we certainly shared an affinity for self-conscious literature. I recently read Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, which was finally published in English earlier this year (to my mind one of the major events in US publishing over the past 5 years). In a way, Krasznahorkai reminds me of Stig’s work, in its darkness, its intensity and nearly intolerable realism. In fact, it is Krasznahorkai’s own observation on his ideal literature—that it should be “reality examined to the point of madness”—that I instantly relate to Stig’s fiction.
In the end, I am simply interested in language. One of America’s best literary reviewers, Steven Moore, recently wrote that “literature is a rhetorical performance,” which immediately resonated with me. The artistry of fiction, how a story is conveyed, interests me much more than the story itself, and more than any particular vein or tradition of literature. I’ll admit that I am a bit wary of “existentialist” art at this point, only because it has already been executed so well by others that most of what I’ve read since is a pale imitation of the greats, with too little variation to reinvent or make new the form. I am not putting Basara in this league, I think he is a powerful and very interesting writer, but only giving my general observation of existentialist writing today.
AL: How did you get in touch with Stig? Why did you choose to translate his essay about his habit of listening to sad music in your debut issue?
TDVA: Oddly I was not in touch with Stig until after I left Dalkey, which as you know is his American publisher. A huge admirer of Siamese (which is his only work to be brought into English so far), I wrote to Stig about a year ago, last spring, after I came across an article he’d written more than a decade ago entitled “Alt jeg behoever aa vite: 4 notater under innflytelse av Arvo Pärt's musikk” (“All I need to know: 4 notes under the influence of Arvo Pärt’s music”). I approached him about translating this essay into English, as it seemed a natural selection for our debut issue on Pärt. He wrote back to say that this particular essay was “a sin of youth” that he was not interested in having translated. But he did have another essay, “Why I always listen to such sad music,” that he thought might fit, given that the musical reference in it is to Pärt’s De Profundis. I accepted “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music” and we began talking about the Slovakian composer Vladímír Godár, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra, Béla Tarr…. In every artistic realm, it seemed, we shared similar tastes and appreciations. He was very supportive of M&L from early in its conception, which was when I really needed such moral support, and I’m forever grateful to him for his kindness and generosity. We have dedicated the first issue to his memory.