Criticism, Composers, and Objectivity

March 28, 2005

By Kyle Gann

Pauline Oliveros wants to start a blog for composers to write about new music. She deplores the current trend of newspapers refusing to hire composers as critics. So a week ago Sunday she put together a panel on the subject at her Deep Listening Space in Kingston, consisting of Sarah Cahill, Beth Anderson, Al Margolis, and myself. Virgil Thomson was the ghost of honor, and Pauline invoked the 1940s and '50s, when Thomson used to hire his fellow composers (Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, Peggy Glanville-Hicks) as critics at the New York Herald Tribune.

Today the larger daily papers do avoid hiring composers as critics. My friend at the San Francisco Chronicle Joshua Kosman recently made a case against composer-critics (as having divided allegiances) in New Music Box, and, startlingly, Phoenix composer-critic Kenneth LaFave was recently told by his paper that a commission he'd accepted from a local ensemble was a conflict of interest, and that he had to choose between the commission and his job; he chose the commission. So the issue is in the news, and since the audience that gathered for us at Kingston, though vocal and interested, wasn't much larger than the panel, I thought I'd record my thoughts on the subject here. I'll let you assume that I was just as eloquent there, speaking extemporaneously, as what I write here, and no one will be the wiser.

"The purpose of music criticism," wrote Thomson, "is to aid the public in the digestion of musical works. Not for nothing is it so often compared to bile." That's always been my guiding principle as a critic, that criticism has a role to play in a healthy musical society. We at the Village Voice are sometimes described as doing what is called "advocacy journalism," and I've never understood what that was supposed to mean. I do indeed advocate a lively music scene, with artists producing new work, spaces producing it well, and audiences reacting to it. I would have no respect at all for a critic so "objective" that he didn't give a damn whether the music scene was healthy or not, and I assume that my colleagues in the critical profession are decent enough people that they prefer good things happening in the arts to bad. That doesn't mean that one writes only favorable reviews, as might superficially be assumed. Writing unapologetically positive notices of concerts that fall flat alienates the audience and makes them distrust your motivations and other judgments; one need not agree with the rest of the audience, but you should acknowledge and account for their perceptions if evident. So rather than cheerlead for every new work that comes by, I advocate that beautiful and interesting music be praised, problematic music be analyzed, and unsuccessful music be exposed as such if it has significant corporate money and publicity behind it, or ignored if no good can be done by drawing attention to it. That's been my position at the Voice, and at the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, The New York Times, and elsewhere.

But other critics, and newspaper editors, have different conceptions of the role of the critic, and it is from these, I think, that a concern for a specious kind of objectivity arises. There are certain critics, especially at the more prestigious newspapers and magazines, who consider themselves gatekeepers, defenders of the culture. Their job, as they see it, is to damn everything that can be damned, to keep any composer or composition from entering the Canon of Great Composers and Works that can possibly be kept out, so that only those of the very highest quality will eventually get in. "Kill them all, God will recognize His own," is the attitude. Unlike in jazz and pop music, classical critics have often risen to the top by seeming impossible to please, projecting a facile persona of extremely high standards - and correspondingly, other classical critics have hit a career ceiling from being too forgiving. But I always admired Leighton Kerner, my classical colleague at the Voice, because, alone among his generation of major critics, he would compare a recent La Traviata with one he heard in 1959, and quite often prefer the newer one. (Claiming that everything was better in 1959 is an easy pose when half your audience wasn't yet culturally aware that year and those who were have embellished it in memory.)

Gatekeeping has declined somewhat, seems to me, and what's more common today is the notion of a critic as consumers' guide. Editors in particular have been allowed to conclude, with little counter-opinion, that the reason people read critical reviews is To Decide Whether To Go To The Show And Plunk Down Their Money. The critic is an adjunct to an economic process, and his role is to increase the income of organizations that have succeeded in providing quality entertainment, and to punish those that haven't. This is one reason review space keeps getting shorter and shorter - because how many words do you need to say "thumbs up" or "thumbs down"? Two - and it's also why music reviews are disadvantaged, because plays and movies regularly run for days or weeks, while concerts usually happen once or twice and then vanish from consciouness. It's also why papers have come to overwhelmingly prefer advance features to reviews, because an article coming out before a concert has a chance to increase ticket sales and justify the concert presenter's having taken an ad out in the newspaper, while a review afterward has no (immediately observable) financial effect. If the reviewer, reduced to an economic cog this way, enhances the liveliness of the music scene, it will be only as an accidental side-effect; his function is to complete a circle, raising money, when possible, for the corporate backers who buy the newspaper's ad space.

Now, whether you're a gatekeeper or a consumer's guide, objectivity is an issue. If you're a gatekeeper who has a friend who's a composer, you may be sorely tempted to unfairly make your friend an exception, to let him into the Gates of the Canon while others you don't know are kept out. If you're a consumer's guide, your decision might make or cost your friend some money. Conflicts of interest are possible. But both of these types assume that the end result of criticism is a binary decision: you're in the canon, you're not, your show is worth the money, yours isn't. Neither places any emphasis on nuanced analysis, on placing music in context, on elucidating a work's meaning without comparison, on revealing one's own range of experience and point of view so that the reader can judge for himself accordingly.

The charge is that composers aren't objective, that we're wrapped up in our own aesthetic struggles, we want our own sides to win, we hang out with other composers and have too many friends affected by our reviews. The flip side of that is that non-composer critics are assumed to be, then, models of objectivity, untainted by their own agendas. But I have never found non-composers different from composers in this respect. Look at Paul Griffiths, who wrote for the Times a few years ago: though not a composer, he had written a good book on the Darmstadt serialist composers, and he made it clear over and over again, week after week, that they were the really great generation of composers. Ligeti's own mother couldn't have had more of an agenda. And before him, Donal Henahan (ex-sportswriter, Segovia fan, and accidental accedant to the lead critic spot) spent more than a decade lambasting us with his perception that classical music had died in 1940, and there wasn't any any more, and there was nothing we could do about it, and that all those composers who thought one could still compose should go home and quit kidding themselves and die. If this was objectivity, let us have nothing but subjectivity from now on. It was the opposite of the purpose for criticism I propose above, and one that offered nothing but harm to our musical health.

Griffiths' harping advocacy for the Darmstadt composers was no more tiresome, of course, than my own truculent fascination with Downtown music. I bring it up to point out that an agenda and a lack of objectivity are not the same thing. After all, how did I end up as a Downtown critic? When I was 16, Cage and Babbitt were paired at the top of my Pantheon of composers. I eventually found that those composers influenced by Cage seemed cheerful and whacky and fun, while those influenced by Babbitt were authoritarian, schoolmarmish, and bitter. I made my choice accordingly; what about it was unobjective, given the extent to which a human being can be objective? After all, short-term self-interest would have dictated I go with the Babbitt faction, which was ascendant at the time and could have procured me a more lucrative career. I voted against my self-interest and went with my musical judgment. Had I given up composing and devoted myself to criticism, my preferences today would remain the same.

Having gone in that general direction, I am in no way committed to bolstering that judgment at every step. The last couple of days I've been revisiting, via piano and recording, George Rochberg's Sonata-Fantasia, a 12-tone work from 1956 that I played in my youth and that has always fascinated me. I am perhaps the leading critical advocate for the greatly misunderstood Ralph Shapey, a relentless atonalist supposed to be one of the "academics." Piece by piece, my opinions about 12-tone, atonal, and Uptown music are not often out of line with those more committed to that repertoire than I am; I greatly prefer Schoenberg's Serenade to his Violin Phantasy, I consider Philomel by far one of Babbitt's best works, and devout 12-tone apologists usually agree. "God is in the details," and on the details I'm as good as anyone. Meanwhile I am not blind to the foibles of much Downtown music, and for some of my Voice articles I will evermore be considered a harsh and grumpy reviewer in certain circles that you might have assumed revered me. My career looks lopsided now because the Voice hired me specifically to review the Downtown scene, but before that, in Chicago, I chronicled both sides of town equally, with occasion to praise Boulez and fault Glass, and no one ever cried "foul" or even seemed sure which "side" I was on.

Critics have agendas, or any interesting critic does, and given enough column inches, those agendas emerge. The problem is sometimes with young critics, who fear some blight on their future if their side doesn"t "win." They cherry-pick their evidence, overlook weaknesses in their own side of the argument, and overstate their holy crusades. When I was young, I cherry-picked my evidence, overlooked weaknesses in my own side of the argument, and overstated my holy crusades. But the problem is inexperience, rather than whether you're a composer or not. Past 40, you realize that no side ever really "wins" for good, that there are advantages to being in the outsider's camp, that pendulums swing and some things never change. It doesn't mean you give up your agenda. My agenda is that I want to live in a lively, healthy music scene. One component I see as essential to that agenda is that composers whose creativity takes them outside the strictures of the classical music business should be encouraged and brought to public attention. It does not mean that I want the orchestral composers to disappear overnight. What a mess we'd be in if they did, with the world's attention suddenly focused on frail, fallible Downtown. What in all this is "unobjective"? Is the fact that I benefit from living in a lively, healthy music scene a "conflict of interest"?

Objectivity is not an absence of connections to the music world, but a quality of writing. "Verbs imply action and can be libelous," wrote Thomson: "it is the adjective that characterizes music neither in sorrow nor in anger." In his articles for the Herald Tribune, Thomson bent over backwards aligning himself with the Stravinsky camp and did his level best to squash Sibelius's popularity, but there is still a wonderful quality of objectivity in his style. He advised not giving a personal evaluation of the music you write about - the evaluation, he said, will come across in your choice of words anyway, and is the least interesting, most dispensible part of the article. He was the opposite of the thumbs-up/thumbs-down critic. It is possible to draw out the ideas from a piece of music, to explain it so clearly in its own terms that the reader will get a positive impression if he likes that sort of thing, and a negative impression if he doesn't. I've managed it, and sometimes been thanked by a composer for capturing him so accurately in a review that most readers regarded as negative. That's objectivity.

A composer can be a perfectly objective critic if he can develop an objective writing style, and not unless. Thomson is considered a great critic not because he was doing it as a composer, but because he wrote so damn convincingly, even with his thumb on the scales. Secondarily, if criticism has enough space to give context, to discuss the network of ideas called upon by a piece of music, and to give some impression of the critic's own biases so that the reader can adjust his own opinions accordingly, then objective criticism can be written. Limit a critic to five or six column inches, 500 or 600 words, and criticism is once again forced into the thumbs-up/thumbs-down mold, and objectivity becomes a vexed issue. You could write about your own wife's music with a surgical accuracy that would allow the reader to form his own opinion, but if you've only got space for, "Her piece was fantastic," then of course conflict of interest is an issue. (I think of composer-critic Deems Taylor, who once wrote a negative review of a piece of music he had written 20 years earlier, on grounds that he was no longer the same person who had written it.)

This is all to say that there is nothing about being a composer that should disqualify one from being a critic, assuming that one can write well. (I can't stress enough the value of serving an apprenticeship with a good newspaper editor. To the extent that I write clearly and sometimes even colorfully, it is due to seven years with Doug Simmons breathing down my neck, who was music editor at the Voice from 1985 to 1993, and phenomenal at his job. This crucial element of music criticism is one that we can't duplicate at present in the blogosphere.) But do composers make the best critics, as Pauline averred at our panel? I don't think we have enough evidence to form a generality. Certainly, composer-critics bring a wealth of understanding about the current music scene, and they make new works stand out in bold relief. What composers very reasonably prefer about composer-critics is that they emphasize new music, while non-composing critics usually do not, but there's no inherent reason that non-composer critics couldn't start "usually" doing that. Composers bring a knowledge of the full repertoire of a composer's motivations, plus a vocabulary that enables them to get the ideas of new music across; they also have a tendency to think too technically, and to not always see the forest for the trees. I think we composers also need the perspective of cultured non-composing critics to get a sense of what we superficially look like in the mirror, for superficial impressions are not unimportant. If composer-critics are better at explaining new music to audiences, non-composing critics are probably better at explaining audiences to composers, and we benefit from both.

Meanwhile, given the endangered-species classification of composer-critics in the wild, Pauline Oliveros plans to raise some in captivity, and is looking for the proper blog format. At the panel warnings were raised about the continuing debacle at New Music Box, where unmoderated composers carp at each other in endlessly bitter and usually anonymous diatribes. But I held up as a far better example the composers' forum at Sequenza 21, which I've been dipping into regularly lately, and which has nurtured an admirably civilized, troll-free exchange of ideas. I even like the format for comments there, which pop up in a separate window, not as obstructions of the main commentary. Our public is decades behind in digesting new musical works, and whatever Pauline comes up with can only add to the liveliness and efficiency of that process.

Copyright 2011 by Kyle Gann

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