“All good things come to an end,” the old saying goes. Personally, I’ve always viewed that phrase as pessimistic nonsense: plenty of good things endure, not least ideals and aspirations.
There’s no reason to mince words: National Sawdust Log, the web publication National Sawdust co-founder Paola Prestini and I conceived some seven-odd years ago and launched in September 2016, ceases publication today. Drastic times and unthinkable circumstances have necessitated extraordinarily difficult and painful choices for individuals and institutions worldwide during recent weeks and months, and National Sawdust has been no exception.
But the dreams and visions that prompted us to conceive and create a new kind of arts journal, integrated into the very fabric of a venue – an undertaking Paola and I discussed at length in one of the earliest articles published on what initially was called The Log Journal – remain very much alive at National Sawdust. The idea that diligent journalism and constructive criticism are fundamental parts of a healthy cultural ecosystem remains intact—suspended, perhaps, in the face of forces beyond anyone’s control, but still very much a part of the institution’s guiding philosophy.
I am profoundly grateful to Paola for inviting me to hatch bold schemes with her, and then seek to make them into reality over the last three and a half years. If ultimately we fell short of our wildly ambitious initial intent, we still managed to prove that our idea was sound—and, in so doing, we put a great deal of excellent writing out into the world.
I’m grateful to the National Sawdust board members who supported our unconventional aspirations and underwrote our labors, and to staff members past and present for their insights, contributions, and general support. In specific, Caleb Custer got our Log off the ground in style, and Courtenay Casey provided wise counsel week in and week out. More recently, Zan Emerson has bolstered efforts and buoyed spirits with patient guidance and endless generosity. And I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, which has provided welcome recognition and financial support for our work.
National Sawdust, exterior, 2016
Photograph: Steve Smith
Last but certainly not least, I want to thank each and every writer who contributed to National Sawdust Log since its inception. I had the privilege and pleasure of working with professional and avocational writers, veterans as well as newcomers, artists alongside scholars. Some wrote just once; others became valued regulars. All were appreciated for their ideas, their craft, and their patience and forbearance.
Together, we covered creators and performances and ideas and events and trends: at National Sawdust, throughout New York City, across the country, and around the globe.
Here they all are:
As the editor, lead writer, and sole employee of National Sawdust Log, I’m tremendously proud of what our little operation managed to achieve. We’ve got a deep, deep back catalog of lively reporting and thoughtful criticism, and the plan now is to preserve it.
I’m won’t play favorites, though I’ll stick my neck out far enough to say I think the three-part series Making Art in Today’s Social Climate, by Annika Socolofsky – a composer and performer with a knack for writing – is some of the most significant work we ever put out into the world. I have particularly fond memories of my extensive interviews with New York Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert, New York Times classical music editor Zachary Woolfe, and then-Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette.
But in case you’re curious, here are the 10 top-performing articles published by the Log since its inception in September 2016, in descending order:
William Robin, What Controversial Changes at Harvard Mean for Music in the University, April 25, 2017
Lara Pellegrinelli, Women in Jazz: Blues and the Objectifying Truth, December 12, 2017
William Robin, Linda Shaver-Gleason: Exit Interview with a Public Musicologist, December 31, 2019
Steve Smith, Dave Holland: A Seasoned Explorer Sails Into Uncharted Territories, May 3, 2018
John Hong, Classical Music, Abuse, and Harassment: Reckoning and Response, December 4, 2017
Steve Smith, Best of 2017: Noteworthy Recordings, December 29, 2017
John Hong, A Classical Musician’s Case for Mozart in the Jungle, February 16, 2018
John Hong, You Should Be Following: Wynton Grant, January 17, 2018
John Hong, You Should Be Following: Isabel Hagen, December 21, 2018
John Hong, Shelley Washington and Gemma Peacocke: Confronting Sexism from Male Allies, July 12, 2018
One thing this list proves overwhelmingly is that John Hong – a former National Sawdust copywriter and, with me, the co-founder of our recently retired National Sawdust Log Newsletter – had his thumb square on the pulse of what moves a broad general public to open up a story. Take a bow, John.
As an editor, it’s not lost on me that none of these 10 articles is a concert review. As a reader, and as a student of history, that fact in no way convinces me that concert reviews are unpopular or useless—and in fact, in my view they remain imperative, not only for relating news and perspectives concerning creative events in the here and now, but also for providing documentation vital to future authors and scholars.
National Sawdust Log, March 2020
Platitudes and promises don’t seem to hold much weight in the face of what confronts us in this larger present moment. None of us knows what to anticipate or to prepare for, and even the most resolute optimist surely must feel challenged to carry on. I don’t pretend to have answers, but this powerful passage the historian and activist Howard Zinn wrote in his 2002 memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, has provided me with some much-needed assurance:
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
I have no doubt at all that, in time – not soon, but eventually – National Sawdust will reaffirm the fundamental belief that brought Paola and me together in the first place. An alliance between creators, performers, producers, and writers still feels like a vital and necessary undertaking, and I have no doubt that such collaborations will flourish here again. Trust me, I’ll be watching what unfolds as keenly as anyone.
As for me? The world has changed dramatically, and what awaits on the other side of the present crisis is certain to represent still more change. What hasn’t changed is my fundamental belief in the necessity of documenting and contextualizing the work that artists make and do in our communities. When the dust all clears, that mission will remain.
I’ll be seeing you.