Postclassic: Peeping Over the Genre Fences

October 14, 2004

By Kyle Gann

My criticism class got lively today. There are a couple of jazz players in the class, a smattering of classical musicians, and the rest are all destined for the Village Voice, if not worse. I use anthologies by Virgil Thomson, Gary Giddins, and Lester Bangs as my textbooks. And one of the things I'm most interested in exploring is the differences in persona, tone, and expectations among jazz, classical, and pop writing. The students agreed that it can be hip, nonchalant, to profess ignorance in a pop review, but to express ignorance in a classical review would be like admitting a mistake after invading Iraq - you'd be dead meat. A classical critic, as one grindcore fan put it (and I just learned that word today), is supposed to come off as a well-educated, middle-aged, upper class white guy who's heard everything and has exceedingly hard-to-please taste. The classical critic rarely reveals anything about his personal life (save for his exasperating problems of CD storage). The pop critic, by contrast, is supposed to be living on the edge, going to clubs at ungodly hours, inhaling substances, living the whole rock 'n' roll life. The essence of rock, they claimed, is attitude. Pop critics (except in the Times) frequently write about where they've been, who they saw hanging there, what they were doing, and who got arrested. Pop reviews are more often about action and worldview than music.

Relationship to the "canon," if any, is different. Jazz critics have a vast and mandatory repertoire of specific recordings they have to have heard. Imagine being a jazz critic and knowing every Coltrane disc except one: you'd be crucified. For classical critics, the canon of works is pretty fixed, though subject to ongoing debate among experts. You can get away with not knowing the Wilhelm Stenhammar piano concerti, but you'd better be able to identify every last Chopin nocturne as such. The idea of a rock canon is not entirely nonsensical, but far more personal. Everyone agreed that to be unfamiliar with Velvet Underground and Nico would generally be humiliating, though if your obsessive specialty was death metal, they said, you might get away with it. The main difference between pop versus jazz and classical seems to be that pop music is far more Balkanized into a few hundred subgenres, so that hiphop, jungle, Mbase, and grindcore fans (love the word) might possess fanatical expertise without overlapping much. With all those subgenres, pop critics also make a fetish of detailing stylistic family trees.

The relations to the people written about are very different. What's always impressed me about jazz criticism is its underlying assumption that every figure written about is a legend, somehow larger than human in both talent and suffering. Critics write not just about Billie Holiday's singing and recordings but about her hard life, and how the pain of her youth comes through her interpretations. I've read few negative jazz reviews in my life; Miles Davis may have a bad day and a rocky session, but it's not that he's faltering (as a classical maven would allege) - he's wrestling with inner demons, and every setback forecasts greater glories to come. Classical critics maintain both more reverent and more condescending attitudes toward their charges. Mozart was a divine genius, not to be questioned, but Beethoven's astounding Missa solemnis is "a profound, though deeply flawed work." The life of a classical musician is kept scrupulously separate from his or her music, except in selected cases marked by a whiff of scandal: Wagner's anti-semitism, Schubert's alleged homosexuality, Strauss's Nazi connections. Classical critics make a reputation by seeming impossible to please (why I'm in academia instead of at the Times - I'm impolitic enough to show enthusiasm). A totally positive classical review, at least in a high-class uptown paper, is about as rare as a negative jazz one.

Some of the older classical critics, in fact, like to talk about themselves as "gatekeepers" - the idea being that they should discourage every newcomer as much as possible, and if a composer succeeds in leaping over their wall of disapproval, that person has proved himself worthy of entering the canon. I consider this a stupid, pompous, anachronistic view of the critic's role, analogous to George W. Bush's sense of macho entitlement. And pop reviews treat their subjects as giants and targets at once, fated symbols for one part of the culture or another, but also media creations not to be taken too seriously. When John Lennon was shot, Lester Bangs wrote, "I don't know the guy. But I do know that when all was said and done, that's all he was - a guy." No jazz critic would have said that about Charlie Parker. No classical critic would have said that about Mozart. But it would have been no more or less true in either case. Jazz critics, I think one could say, view the musicians they write about from below; classicals from above; pop critics as parallel equals.

Pop musicians have to be discovered young, and fare better when they die out young, too. Jazz musicians seem to get to mature at a slower rate: you see Coltrane's name first as sideman on a Charlie Parker disc, then as equal with Miles Davis, and later fronting his own albums, sort of the way you see Marilyn Monroe do a bit part in All About Eve before she's the star of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Classical composers follow one of two invariable career trajectories: they either get scooped up by the establishment at 28 or 30 and made famous, whether anyone continues liking their music or not; or they're ignored until they're 60 or so and suddenly discovered as undersung geniuses. (I'm working, I reassured the students, on the latter plan.)

That's one reason I wanted to teach this class. I think musicians in all genres buy into a whole complex set of interlocking myths invisibly woven into the genre. Why, when a composer gets lionized at 28, does he remain lionized at 45 even if his music hasn't improved? Many composers mature and find their own voice at around age 40 or a little after; why do you never hear of 40-something composers becoming famous? What would happen if you reviewed classical music the way pop reviewers write?: talk about the scene, admit ignorance or indifference or antipathy to certain repertoires? What would happen if you wrote about pop as though it were classical?: talk about harmonic structure, compare melodies from one song to another? What if we could approach the irreverent Haydn irreverently ourselves? Viewing art forms through each other's lenses, I think, could reveal much about our unacknowledged, even unconscious assumptions, and maybe begin to free up some of the malaise that fans of each seem to agree infect all three genres.

Copyright 2004 by Kyle Gann

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