Postclassic: How to Respond to Critics

July 24, 2005

By Kyle Gann

A question came up at Sequenza 21 recently as to whether a composer should respond to a negative review. I know the answer to this one. My playing both sides of the game for 22 years has given me some insight into how to treat critics - as a critic myself I've had some blundering composers alienate me for years, and others charm the pants off me (only metaphorically speaking, of course). And as a composer, I've responded to many a review, with such surgical expertise as to never occasion (so far as I know) any negative consequences. It strikes me that composers may benefit from knowing the rules. (I'll refer to the critic as "him" rather than "him or her," because they're always men anyway, right?)

1. Never insult a critic, go ad hominem, or counter his negative opinion with any negative emotionality of your own. Be clear, neutral, objective, factual, professional. He knows he's pissed you off - if you can avoid showing it, he'll be impressed. If you can't, he'll be reluctant to review you again, or, worse, come gunning for you. There's only one exception to this rule, given below.

2. If he's made an error of fact, correct it, cleanly and without rancor or condescension. Condescension is unnecessary when you've got the poor guy by the balls. Factual errors are critics' Achilles' heels. Critics don't really consider themselves reporters, but they work in the same milieu as reporters, and the comparison is unavoidable. There is a spurious but compelling assumption abroad that a critic who can't be trusted for his facts can't be trusted for his opinions either; no logical reason why this should be true, but it remains the soft underbelly of the critic's self-esteem. In many publications, he'll have to issue a correction, which makes him and the paper look bad. Misstatements in negative reviews, unless they are totally trivial, should always be corrected - it keeps the critic on his toes and makes him as humble as he's capable of being.

3. If you're a living composer and the critic is not Kyle Gann, chances are 9 out of 10 that he doesn't understand what you're doing in your music. This in itself can be interesting; you're doing more in your music than you realize, and the insights from offbeat perspectives can be illuminating. But if you get negatively reviewed because he thought you were doing something different than you were, which happens a lot, treat this as a factual error. In analytical terms worthy of an encyclopedia article, explain to him what it was that interested you in the music, what you were trying to achieve - you might even concede that he was right about what the music failed to do, since it's not what you were trying to do. In the short term, this will produce no effect, and the critic will cling to a right to his own subjectivity; but it is not impossible to bully (gently) a critic into some modicum of self-doubt that maybe he really doesn't understand your kind of music.

3a. In endemic cases of this kind, one might write to the editor instead, informing him in objective, unemotional terms that the critic who's covering your kind of music really doesn't have any expertise in the genre, and wouldn't it be better to hire some other critic for that beat - someone like, say, Kyle Gann? In this case I wouldn't write the critic as well, because you're trying to push him out of part of his job, and he'll feel betrayed when he finds out.

4. If the critic's opinion is completely subjective and boils down to an indisputable matter of taste, there's no point in arguing. Instead, send the critic a note thanking him for attending, for choosing your concert to review (if he had that option), for taking your music seriously enough to wrangle with, and/or for getting something about your work out to the public. Feign a belief that all publicity is good publicity, and that you and he are two fellow professionals ultimately involved in the same task. You won't believe how effective this can be. Some of the most negative reviews I've ever written were of operas by Philip Glass - yet whenever he sees me, Phil has always been friendly, affable, and talkative, though dropping the occasional hint to let me know he read those reviews. This baffles the critic; he starts to suspect (as I always did with Phil) that you're such an important composer that noticing negative reviews would be beneath you, since you get so many positive ones elsewhere; most importantly, he will be unafraid to review you again, and to do so honestly; and he might even subconsciously start wanting to like your music because he's unable to dislike you.

5. The exception to number 1: If a critic hates new music but constantly writes about it anyway just out of malicious glee, and there's not a snowball's chance in hell that you or anyone else is ever going to get a good review out of him, and it would make you feel better to tell him what an ignorant, lowlife, tone-deaf son-of-a-bitch he is, go ahead and do so. (Clearly, I'm thinking of Donal Henahan at the Times in the 1980s.) Get as many cosigners as possible.

Why respond? Because more communication is always better than less, and for the critic's own good. A critic who never gets responded to paradoxically starts to think both that, 1. no one's reading him anyway, and so he doesn't have to worry about the consequences of his words, and 2. he's the isolated high-and-mighty authority whose word no one would dare question. I got responded to a lot in my early years at the Village Voice, and it made me sort through my musical convictions with a fine-tooth comb, and express them with razor-edged precision. Not a bad thing.

As for responding to a positive review, a note of thanks is not called for nor, precisely, even appropriate - but it is never resented. Same goes for cash and sexual favors.

Copyright 2005 by Kyle Gann

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