Ronen Givony Interview

Ronen Givony is a key figure in bringing the classical music world closer together with contemporary (electronic/ambient/post-rock) artists through his Wordless Music series. If you simply looked at the subjects of his books, however, you’d never know. He’s written a 33 1/3 on Jawbreaker’s 24 Hour Revenge Therapy and has a new book about Pearl Jam out imminently.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally?

I've had a fairly circuitous, privileged, serendipitous route through the music industry. After graduating from college, my first few jobs were in nonprofit grant writing—for the New World Symphony, in Miami Beach, and then for Lincoln Center—which was more or less my introduction to the world of classical music. I started listening to lots of chamber music—string quartets, piano trios, solo recitals—and got to wondering why this was any different from, say, Andrew Bird, or Godspeed You Black Emperor. 

In 2006, somewhat by accident, I started producing a small series of concerts, and eventually an orchestra, Wordless Music, which was a hybrid of classical and contemporary (electronic/ambient/post-rock) artists, in sort-of offbeat settings: churches, museums, and so on. This led to a few years of programming classical (and other) music for a handful of concert venues in New York, and with partners around the country. In 2015, I submitted a proposal (my second!) to Bloomsbury for their 33 1/3 series, and, somewhat to my surprise/horror, found out it had been accepted. This was published in 2018 as 24 Hour Revenge Therapy (or, The Strange Death of Selling Out).

How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?

Speaking as a child of the '90s: I grew up, as many did, listening to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and their peers. Unlikely and embarrassing as it now sounds, my worldview was very much shaped by watching MTV in the early '90s, and seeing Eddie Vedder, writing "PRO-CHOICE!!!" on his arm, during MTV Unplugged; performing "Rockin' in the Free World" with Neil Young, on the Video Music Awards; or offering, perversely, "Not for You," on Saturday Night Live, with a K on his t-shirt, in 1994.

It always seemed a bit unusual to me that there were something like fifteen different books about Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and a dozen or so books about Metallica, and even a handful about Green Day, and Jane's Addiction—but, aside from a controversial biography from the late '90s, and a coffee table book, from 2011, there was next to nothing about Pearl Jam, and their unique contribution to history over the last thirty years.

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.

Quite honestly—given the choice between writing another 100,000 words from scratch, or subjecting myself to the proposal process once more—I would happily choose the former. Suffice it to say that, as I learned, repeatedly, it's two completely different projects—the proposal, and the book itself—and, in my case, there were literally dozens of rejections before a publisher would take on a book about Pearl Jam, and one that wasn't an authorized biography. 

Part of it, I think, has to do with the subject—a rock band, in the year 2020—and the inherent skepticism people bring to a group like Pearl Jam—i.e., a functioning anachronism—which is something I try to address in the book. Part of it, I'm sure, was simply me being naive about the publishing world. 

Going into the process, I thought: surely, it's one thing, to write about a band like Jawbreaker, who never sold more than 40,000 copies of an album, and another to write about Pearl Jam, which could sell out a week at Madison Square Garden in a matter of minutes. As I found out: you would be surprised!

 What did the research process look like?

Something else I learned during the writing of this book is that, by and large, the history of the '90s in America—as opposed to the Reagan years, or post-September 11—is still largely and mysteriously unwritten. It's a huge opportunity that people who write about culture and music especially should address. Part of it has to do with the Internet, magazines, and publishing, and the way that the early-to-mid '90s almost tend to fall through a weird chronological crack; part of it too is how much the interpretation and meaning of the Clinton era is still up for grabs.

How did you go about writing the actual book? 

"Numerous outlines" is a generous way of putting it. At first, I envisioned a purely chronological treatment—starting with the band's debut, thirty years ago, and ending in the present, or equal weight given to each intervening decade—and spent at least a year or more writing in this fashion. It was in writing about the year 1995, specifically, and the four-hour radio broadcast that Pearl Jam offered in January of that year that made me realize it could be something more. I eventually arrived at a "scenes from a marriage"-type structure, which attempts to tell the band's story in thirty short(ish) chapters. My advice: don't do what I did!  

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?

For the most part, I think the 1996 documentary Hype! still holds up. Other good books about '90s music and culture: John F. Harris, The Survivor; J. Hoberman, The Magic Hour: Film at Fin De Siecle; Craig Schuftan, Entertain Us.

Did you have any mentors along the way? What did they teach you?

Less in terms of writing, per se, and more in terms of professional ethics—I was fortunate to work for a few years at Nonesuch Records, for Bob Hurwitz and David Bither. It would be hard to forget: on my first day at work, the former told me his philosophy of A&R, quoting the libretto of Nixon in China: "Pay a fair price for all that you buy."

What's one tip that you'd give someone looking to write a music book right now?

Read! Read everything—criticism, biography, history, journalism—and especially, in the subjects you're least fluent in. Read Parul Sehgal, on recent books; Gerald Early, on pretty much anything; Gary Giddins, on jazz; Susan Howe, on poetry; Joan Acocella, on dance; Vincent Scully, on art history; Ralph Ellison, on the blues; J. Hoberman, on film; and Martin Amis, on the novel. You would be surprised—how often a piece of writing about (say) architecture, or painting, can illuminate a point you're trying to make about music.  

What's next for you?

Working on a book that (happily) has nothing whatsoever to do with grunge.

Anything you want to plug?

For anyone needing some glorious, meditative, purely instrumental music: the violinist Pauline Kim Harris released an incredible album late last year, Heroine, with "ambient" arrangements of J.S. Bach and the Renaissance composer Ockeghem.