Name: Thomas Burkhalter
Occupation: ethnomusicologist / music journalist / cultural producer
Current Project: Contradict film, Norient - Norient Space Launch event: On Music: Life after music magazines – The Norient way, on 5th March, 19:00 at Weltwirtschaft am HKW.
Recommendations: Popular Music, Digital Technology and Society by Nick Prior / Technic and Magic - “The Reconstruction of Reality by Federico Campagna
When did you start writing about music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing about music in 1997. At the time I was playing saxophone, and studied at the Swiss Jazz School in Bern. My influences back then were people like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, but many others too – I grew up listening to a lot of different styles of music. I was, and I am, in love with music, sound, noise, and artistic expressions. And I’m very interested in musicians as human beings, and the meanings of music for people and societies. So, it was quite natural that besides playing music, I also read about it, went to concerts and was generally fascinated by the power music has.
For most, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as a writer and the transition towards your own style? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Writing is a creative process, similar to composing music. I can fall in love with a sentence, with a text, and read it again and again, because I like how it flows, or how precise it is. Writing, to me, is also learning by doing. If I copied, I tried to learn from great authors, novelists, and not from music journalism. I have never been a big reader of music magazines myself. I have always been more interested in academic books about music. After some years in music journalism I decided to write a PHD about alternative music in Beirut. I started visiting conferences in popular music studies, ethnomusicology and sound studies. I learned a lot from there. About describing my style in writing, I would say that I try to get as close as possible to the music and the sound. I try to learn as much as possible about the production of this music, the intentions of the artists, the meanings of this music for different people, and from these elements I create my own, personal story.
What were your main challenges as a writer when starting out and how have they changed over time?
The main challenges were (and are) to get close to a phenomenon, to understand on several layers what is really going on to go deep in your article, or argument, and not to write a superficial text. Other challenges include doing a reportage, meeting the artists and the people part of a scene, and then write your story about it: with this I mean being close and staying honest to the scene, but also taking your own standpoint which, at times, can be critical of certain aspects. I see this "being close and staying critical" as kind of a challenge. Also, I think it is important that an article brings a well-researched, yet personal standpoint and argument, but it should still be about the music, the people, and not about the writer. Journalism should be about the phenomena, and not about the journalist.
How do you see the role of music journalism in the creative process? Should it amplify public taste, distinguish the good from the bad, inform, promote artists, or, as Howard Mandel put it, “illuminate, educate and entertain” readers?
I think music journalism can take on many roles. To me it is important to give music and musicians I find important a platform; to develop reflections on music and the phenomenon of music; to tell the world how important sounds are and how much you can learn about our time through them.
I have never really cared much about the music market. In fact, I think a good music journalist hears things earlier than the market does – but that’s a personal opinion. It’s a risk to write about an artist before everyone celebrates them.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the readers, the publication you're writing for?
I feel mostly an obligation toward the music, listening to it properly, to know how it is produced. Then I feel an obligation to the artist, to spread correct information, to get close, not to spread superficial sentences, to be fair if I take a critical standpoint. I feel an obligation to the reader in writing in a clear and understandable language, and not showing off with the insider style and tone.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the publishing landscape? How do they affect journalism in general and your own take on writing in particular? What role do social media play for your approach?
It is very difficult for young music journalists to do what I did. The fees were still ok at the end of the 1990s, and I could spend three months in London, writing articles, selling them to newspapers and radio stations in Switzerland and Germany, get a small but ok income. Today, everything is almost for free – and we need to try to change this around. That’s why we created a crowdfunding campaign with our platform, Norient.com.
Social media helps us only if we, people who write and care about music, feel we are a network of like-minded individuals, by showing appreciation and commenting the posts of others, by retweeting them; by feeling happy that someone else wrote an amazing reportage about a music scene somewhere, and helping to spread the word about it. We have no chance if everyone only cares for themselves. Music Journalism is not about being cool, or celebrating your own ego. Music journalism has two roles: to reflect and introduce new work.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
At the human level, the most important thing we can do is to take time to listen to the music properly, speak to the artists and the people part of a scene, spend time at concerts, research deeply (online and off line), and then, sit down and take time to reflect, write and produce.