Virginia Woolf To Howlin’ Wolf: Author Peter Guralnick On Algorithm-Defeating Art, Expression Of Emotion [INTERVIEW]
Here George Howard shares his recent experience speaking with Peter Guralnick, an author noted for his use of music as a tool through which to explore socio-political and cultural issues. The two discussed their shared concern of an increasingly algorithm-based culture of music consumption, and if we have reached peak curation.
Peter Guralnick exists in a rarified realm of those who write immensely entertaining books about music that are also appropriately classified as scholarly and definitive. Closer to a David McCullough than to those typically associated with writing about popular music, Guralnick’s works use music as a lens to examine large socio-political and cultural issues. Perhaps nowhere in Guralnick’s body of work is this more evident than in his definitive two-volume biography of Elvis Presley: Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmasking of Elvis Presley.
I had the pleasure to speak with Guralnick on the eve of him speaking at Berklee College of Music’s Elvis Legacy Week: Music Makes an Artist, Style Makes an Icon. For full disclosure, I am an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music. You can listen to the entire conversation below:
What struck me about our conversation, both while it occurred and even more so as I reflected on it in the days that followed, was the precarious place we find ourselves in 2017 with respect to the quest for discovery in an increasingly algorithmically-tuned world.
I've written at some length on the idea that we may have reached a state of “peak curation,” The idea is that algorithms have become so finely tuned that recommendation engines often simply offer up "recommendations" that are so close to our existent taste that it renders the possibility of discovery close to non-existent.
"Writers like Alice Munro or Grace Paley, what makes them so extraordinary is that they’re not subject to the algorithm." Guralnick says of the topic. "You can diagram their stories all you want, but you could never write a story as oddball or off-center as the stories that they write. There’s no formula that creates those stories. And that’s what I value most in art of every kind. What thrills me is the naked expression of emotion.”
What Guralnick and I both desire is less curation and more collisions. As he says: “Imagine everyone from Cervantes to Virginia Woolf in one room having an animated conversation. The continuum of art– Merle Haggard talking to JD Salinger; Sam Cooke talking to Malcolm X. The particular appurtenances of the art don’t matter. There are no divisions; there are no social divisions in music. It’s not a question of age, generation, or form. Familiarity doesn’t foreclose ongoing exploration."
And perhaps that's the key: ongoing exploration….or the lack thereof. As the algorithms seek to keep us on a specific website in order for more ads to be seen, the possibility for true exploration becomes remote. We're like the online version of the carefully monitored child who never leaves the confines of his fenced in backyard; a closed in and narrow landscape.
What makes Guralnick's work offers expansive landscapes. This is due to Guralnick's focus on characters who are sui generis; those about whom William Carlos Willams is referring when he said “The pure products of America Go Crazy”:
“I saw Elvis and Sam Cooke and Sam Phillips as novelistic in a sense. They offer broad landscapes, sweeping themes, great characters, great dimension. There is a potential for epic grandeur, comedy and tragedy…vast novelistic landscapes. The vastness of America; the clash of so many of its cultural aspects; the sense of the immigrant and racial background; the contribution of African Americans and hyphenated Americans of all sorts. There are social concerns underlying all of the books I’ve written. What I’m looking for is the microcosm that becomes the greater picture…in every field.”
I asked Guralnick to expand upon these “social concerns” vis-à-vis issues of race and culture that seem as profoundly present today as they were during the times the subjects of his works were living.
“I think, and I know this is not a fashionable view,” Guralnick began, “and it in no way undercuts my belief that there has never been social justice in this country — and there is no more social justice today than there was fifty years ago, and sometimes less — but I think music is one of the few places where this idea of appropriation doesn’t apply. I don’t mean in any way to take away from all the injustices that have been perpetuated, and all the racial injustices that have been the bedrock for so much of the social injustice in this country, but if you’re talking about the music business or the transmission of music, it operates in a different way. I would say that musicians in my experience are the most color-blind people I’ve ever met. You simply won’t find in a great musician the categorization gene that exists in so many critics, at least not with respect to the music.”