As a performer working my first job as a music writer, I’ve asked myself a lot of questions about what it is I’m doing. What’s the role of the writer—or, more ominously, the critic—in today’s musical ecosystem? Does anyone even read concert reviews anymore? How much critical distance is too much or, in my own case, too little? In this series of interviews, I’m going straight to the source—music critics themselves—to find out why they do what they do.
My first conversation is with Peter Margasak, whose eclectic taste and thoughtful writing have been mainstays of the Chicago Reader music pages for almost twenty years. Margasak’s newest venture, as curator of the Frequency Series at Constellation, puts him in closer relationship to Chicago’s contemporary music scene than ever before. The series will place Chicago’s new music ensembles alongside improvisers, electronic musicians, instrument inventors, and world music groups drawn from the diverse musical communities that Margasak covers. Our conversation revealed Peter as a down-to-earth, curious, constantly self-educating music journalist with a growing interest in advocacy.
Ellen McSweeney: Are you a musician? How did you get started as a music writer?
Peter Margasak: I’m not a musician. My parents just always had records. Neither one was really a musician, but they’d have records and I’d always listen. I remember getting a little toy record player when I was five or six. I was getting really into Top 40 by third grade, and my dad would tell me to listen to actual albums!
The thing that really put it into overdrive was getting into punk rock. I got into it largely for superficial reasons—because it was a weird thing to do—but then I listened long enough that it stopped being a social marker for me. I started listening to jazz records—the kids didn’t think that was cool.
I started a ‘zine called Butt Rag, and I did nine issues. By the end, they were 100 pages long and I was getting printed on newsprint. And that’s how The Reader found me. They used to have a column called Spot Check, and they had seen Butt Rag, which was very snotty. And they said, you need to do that here.
EM: What do you think about this idea that the critic needs to be an expert?
PM: The older I’ve gotten, the more cautious I am. When I was younger, I had no problem writing about music I had no idea about. Now I try to be really careful when I write about stuff, because I’m admittedly kind of a novice with [contemporary classical] music. I know there’s people that read it who are probably like, “Who is this guy??”
Older jazz musicians will come to me and say, “Are you a musician? No? Well, how can you write about music then?” My response is, “If you’re not a musician, how can you listen to music?” I don’t analyze stuff musicologically for people. I don’t think people that read The Reader want that. You don’t want to alienate people when they open it up.
I think a lot of the music I’ve been taken by and written about can be appreciated on different levels. Like [Ensemble Dal Niente’s performance of Georg Friedrich] Haas—all that weird psychoacoustic stuff in there. It makes me think of La Monte Young, something about the physicality of it. I don’t have to know everything about Beethoven to appreciate Haas.
EM: What draws you to contemporary classical music?
PM: What draws me is that it’s not, unlike the rest of classical music, built around the 5,000th recording of a piece. I mean, I want to know what the best recordings are, but with newer music, sometimes only one recording exists. That’s “the record.” The composer is not this precious historic figure; he’s this person that’s in the room. That’s what I see happening here. The Marcos Balter stuff with Deerhoof—it’s really exciting to see that. Musicians have this shared sensibility where that collaboration isn’t crass or artificial. It makes sense now—they can work together. The media tries to sort musicians into neat categories. The reality has never been that simple.
EM: Is there any negative baggage for you around the term “music critic”? Is “music writer” better?
PM: Working at The Reader, one of the things I had to actually learn was how to be a journalist. “Music critic” isn’t satisfactory to me. I’ve learned to do reporting, to do research. It’s not about saying, “This music makes me feel this way!” The context and the story behind it are often just as rewarding, and are crucial to understanding the actual music.
When I wrote about Katinka Kleijn collaborating with Dan Dehaan and Ryan Ingebritsen, it took a lot of back-and-forth for me to understand what they were doing. I can’t tell you how many emails I had with Daniel, learning how the technical side works. I need to understand it if I’m going to tell someone else how it’s used. I want to not just put out my opinion, but also inform people.
When people ask what I do, I just say music journalist. Criticism is part of that. I have no problem with music criticism; I think it’s just not an adequate description of what I do.
EM: How do you decide what to cover? What guides you internally as you decide what concerts to go to and what deserves coverage?
PM: Some weeks, when there’s been a lot of touring stuff going on, I have a list of 20 things I could cover. But maybe I can only do six. It’s a combination of writing about things that are underexposed and deserve to be heard, but also things that I feel like I have something to say about. I don’t want to just write about something where there’s no need for me to chime in. I want to choose something where I can add something to the conversation. I don’t write about stuff that I hate. At The Reader, we like to focus on things that are going to be positive. There’s already not enough space; why waste it on being negative about something?
For me, it’s tricky because i’m interested in so many different kinds of music. It’s maddening trying to keep up with all of it. My wife could tell you how maddening. She has to live with all the detritus.
EM: What do you think is the ideal role of a music journalist?
PM: I think the role is to lead to discovery, to inform, to filter. That’s one thing you hear about with the internet. We don’t need critics anymore because everyone can share their opinion. But when everyone does that, then who do you trust? You have to build a relationship with a writer. Sometimes if a certain writer likes something, I know I’m not going to like it, or vice versa.
A music writer is a storyteller. That was one thing I learned at The Reader: you tell a story. The other stuff, like educating, is happenstance. You don’t try to be a teacher, dictating what people need to know. If you tell it as a story, people absorb it in a much more natural, meaningful way.
I think because of my broad interests, I can connect things: classical music to jazz, or to noise. There are these through-lines that a lot of people don’t really think about. I just wrote about Takehisa Kosugi—kind of a relentlessly experimental musician, part of the Japanese Fluxus movement, one of the main composers for Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe. [On] one of the performances he did (when he recorded for Cunningham), Sonic Youth, and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin played with him. At The Reader, that might help draw people in. That’s not my main job, but when I see the opportunity to draw that kind of connection that will help people, or make them curious, I take it. I think seeking that connection is the way I’m wired.
EM: [clickety clack clickety clack type type type type type]
PM: You’re a really fast typer. I wish I could do that. I hate transcribing more than anything.