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10 May 2010

Obits: Alan Rich, classical music critic

A few weeks ago the august and (by some accounts) curmudgeonly classical music critic Alan Rich passed away.

As is my way, I’m not so good at the blog-paced instant response. I made a terrible journalist when I was in that field, but I did get to know some quite good ones while I toiled among them, Alan Rich being one of them. Let me log some remembrances.

ONE: he invited me to one of my first concerts at the Hollywood Bowl — the LA Philharmonic playing Beethoven if memory serves. The music fell upon deaf ears almost literally (I kept nodding off during the concert) but his abiding passion for music so deep into his life — he was in his late 70s at that point — left an impression on me. I remember him driving well below the speed limit in the slow lane of LA highway traffic, unmoved by the drivers zooming around him on every side, so blissed out was he to the music of a tricked out portable player piped through his car’s stereo via a charmingly fragile, jerry-rigged connection.

TWO: I’d bump into him occasionally around the halls of the LA Weekly where, from my understanding, he would stop by every few weeks to make the rounds, much as I did, albeit on a somewhat less frequent orbit.

One of those times I was working on a cover story for the paper about a band called The Locust — sometimes categorized as hardcore punk, but which I thought of in more revolutionary terms. They considered what they did to be anti-music; I imagined them as an almost Cage-ian art-prank that deserved space in a venue such as LA Weekly & might expand the boundaries of what music could be. (More on that later.)

I doubt Alan ever listened to the band but I do recall his one query to me about the writing of the article: “Do they deserve to be written about at such length?” I’d guess they wouldn’t past muster by his system of musical judgment — one which, I can only imagine, was grounded in his deep listening to the Western canon — but it certainly passed muster in mine.

What was important in his comment was that he made me imagine the responsibility of the writer to a larger public. More broadly, I think he was speaking to the responsibility of anyone making a living in the arts — presenters, musicians, critics — to consider the importance of what they were making beyond just the meaning it has to the self. He was speaking of our responsibility to an audience and the artistic lineage of which we are a part.

THREE: I introduced Alan to Clogs in advance of one of the trips they made out to Los Angeles. He accepted one of their early CDs, listened attentively and then went that extra mile: Though he responded somewhat quizzically in print (“Okay, so here is a quartet of excellently proficient, classical-trained musicians who create a repertory not quite like anything already out there”), he also turned up to a show they played in Santa Monica, and later invited them & I to his home for a awkward but tender pasta lunch.

I still recall how he shared a few wings of that modest but respectable home with a few young boarders — if I recall correctly there was a student composer and a participant in Los Angeles’s country-rock scene. Most likely the fact that he was a 70 year old man with housemates was a reflection of the difficulty of making it as a music critic in a world increasingly hostile to arts journalism (I imagine the rent they paid made finances a bit easier) but, more hopefully, I think it also revealed Alan’s desire to surround himself with a young energy that might not jibe with his love of a very old form of music, but which would certainly challenge & engage his understanding of that music’s place in his life.

Some other people’s remembrances, below:

John Rockwell

John Payne / LA Weekly

Allan Kozinn / NY Times

Keith Thursby / LA Times

There is a memorial service for him on May 25th in downtown Los Angeles. If I lived in LA, I’d be there to pay my respects.

UPDATED MAY 11, 2010: Here’s the later which I promised…

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. On 2010-5-10 k-sky said:

    Thanks for putting this up. I got to know Alan ever so slightly — when I was in Eric’s office, we heard about his 80th birthday and through Tom Christie initiated a City Hall presentation honoring his work in Los Angeles.

    I dropped the ball on it, but a couple of years later Captain Automatic recorded its EP at Rockets Redglare (the studio set up in his back house by the country-rock scenester you mentioned). I asked for an introduction and reminded him of the presentation and he said, “My bag is by the door.” He came in to Council Chambers a few weeks later — instead of his birthday, we pegged the visit to the release of his book — and seemed roundly bemused but tickled by it all.

    (There are photos from the presentation somewhere in LA Weekly’s website, but fuck if I can find them.)

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