Critical Condition

On both sides of this argument, credentials are often called into question: what qualifies someone to become a good music critic? These things, like being a good artist, are impossible to quantify, but if historical examples are invoked it becomes a little easier. Obviously, I am just one person (one critic, by my many definitions of the word) and this is just my codifying of a few existing notions. I am just doing my job!

In my estimation there are four types of effective critics: the consumer’s critic, the so-called “enlightened other,” the force-of-personality critic, and the composer-critic. Each of these fulfills a specific function, and these are really the only people who have any business holding forth in any sort of public arena, let alone one that has potential fiscal influence.

The consumer’s critics are perhaps the most immediately valuable of the lot. These are unglamorous book and record reviewers who help decide where you put your cash—they act like knowledgeable friends, advising you on where to start. These are the true enthusiasts, and though many of them may not themselves be practicing musicians (or musicians at all), they tend to be deep and careful fans who do an actual service, writing for magazines like International Record Review, Fanfare, or Gramophone, and Web sites like CDNow and ClassicsToday, just to name a few. When trying to find a recording of a standard piece of repertoire, it is often difficult to discern which might be the most effective use of your almost $20 per CD, and these people collectively create a resource to guide you. I am not saying this because I am one (I write regularly for ClassicsToday); rather, I am one because I truly believe in the value of this kind of work. This is service, unspectacular yet necessary, and these people have the collective power to help build an informed and discerning audience.

Criticism has a long and illustrious history of enlightened others—scholars, poets, philosophers. In the literary world this is a more acceptable phenomenon, because therein the critics are also artists after a fashion, blurring the lines between what they call primary and secondary texts; the reigning king at the moment being Harold Bloom, a prodigious mind and deeply prolific individual. He not only has read more than anyone, but he has written or edited hundreds of books and critical editions. It concerns few that he is not a writer because, in fact, he IS a writer—not of fiction or poetry, but of criticism, which is his art. In that world, theory is still just theory (as opposed to music where it is taught as fact) and the theorists have little or no influence over the artists. Someone like Pierre Boulez, being both a critic and the composer-in-residence with several major orchestras (including Chicago) in addition to holding the Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, has an opportunity to make or break careers; Bloom just comments. Literary critics seem to live in both the past and the present, able to define traditions and see how current work does or does not come out of them.

The most important thing about the Enlightened Other type of critic is the fact that they produce a body of work—Bloom’s is enormous and growing rapidly. If one is a reviewer, all one has to offer (generally) is a stack of forgotten reviews in daily papers, perhaps some feature articles here and there—sometimes a book or a libretto as well, but more as a sideline. It is the live mind, the productive mind, which makes an “other” enlightened. Paul Rosenfeld is a fine example: an author of deeply moving essays about contemporary music in the early part of the century, though not himself a musician, he produced a body of respectable work about music. Today he is largely forgotten, but his insights are uncanny—he is quite biased (who isn’t?) but committed, willing to lay himself forward as an artist, not just a writer who happens to be a fan. Other distinguished names are Hanslick, Henry Krehbiel, not to mention Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw, e.e. cummings, Frank O’Hara. All of these minds contributed some music criticism, alongside their own personal work. We like them for their insights, whether they are musical or extramusical. Poets often make the best visual arts critics, and sometimes writers (established, dedicated writers) can be good on the subject of music.

Musicologists and scholars are Enlightened Others—the likes of Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Henri-Louis de la Grange, Robert Donnington, Carl Dalhaus, Pieter Van den Toorn, Susan McClary are among the hundreds of interesting minds contributing books and articles to the nexus of musical understanding. But these people don’t get jobs at major papers here in America, for some reason—perhaps they do not desire them? These are qualified thinkers and writers about music, yet their books languish, and who (among even the most dedicated readers of NewMusicBox) has a subscription to the Journal of American Musicology or 19th Century Music, Perspectives of New Music, or Sonus? Few I would imagine (this author included). These are the real critics, the Harold Blooms of our world, but they get little notice outside the academy. An exception to this is Joseph Horowitz, who has written Understanding Toscanini and Wagner Nights, and also contributes regularly to the New York Times. He is a sharp mind, and an exception where he ought to be the rule.

For sheer force of personality, one would have to look outside the Western classical music establishment to some really strong and interesting thinkers. Pauline Kael, the famous film critic for the New Yorker for years, was such a mind. Her writing about movies was anything but conventional—a far cry from the thumbs-up/thumbs-down soundbite twaddle we swallow whole-heartedly today. She had wide ranging and controversial opinions (including a passionate distaste for Citizen Kane and a deep admiration for gore-meister Brian de Palma) but they were hers and hers alone. The extremity of her degradation of what she did not approve of was at times staggering, but she spoke only for herself, not for a particular paper or magazine or school of thought. And what she could do was to help unpack an experience—another teacherly, or even parental, instinct. Like any good parent, she didn’t want you to have to suffer like she did; like any good parent, she wanted you to experience things that gave her joy. The film critic as shepherd.

Lester Bangs, founder of Creem magazine (and made into a kid-friendly teddy bear in the film Almost Famous), had such a loud, obnoxious, diesel-powered way with words, dismissing the pompous edifice of commercialism with a fierce backhand as often and as extremely as he could, that his voice became something of a rallying cry for sticking to ones principles, even if one had to be an asshole to do it. This requires a certain type of fearlessness of personality, more appropriate to rock music; he is mentioned here only as an extreme example. Critics of classical music, don’t try this at home. It simply wouldn’t work.

The most effective critics of music throughout history have been composers. Robert Schumann, Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, Charles Ives, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, and Steve Reich have all contributed to the fray. Their words have been anthologized and published, and many of them are still in print today. It is quite likely that we read this criticism because we want greater insight into who these men were, what they thought like, and how their time influenced their compositions (and vice-versa), but who can doubt the validity of some of these writers? Schumann, with an obvious agenda, promoted the hell out of what he believed to be the best future for music; Berlioz had enough personality for ten men, and from his involved treatises and books (his Memoirs and Evenings with the Orchestra ought to be required reading for anyone interested in music) we not only get a sense of the man and the times that produced him, but a whole outmoded fashion of musical thought. Schoenberg’s theoretical output is vast, beautiful, and as enigmatic as the man himself; it can teach you a lot about a wide swath of music, from his own all the way back to Bach. As a critic he does for music what Harold Bloom does for words, drawing conclusions and tracing lineage.

Today, with the notable exception of Kyle Gann at the Village Voice, David Schiff in Oregon (and the only serious composer to contribute on a semi-regular basis to the New York Times), and the sporadic contributions of Ned Rorem—perhaps the best music prosifier alive—composers are given little voice. One of the reasons might be that these are not the jobs for which composers might angle. It might seem that taking a major position at a serious daily rag is a sign that your career is in trouble—these jobs being a sort of dustbin for failed musicians. Another symptom in the sadly adversarial (and inexplicably exclusive) roles of artist and critic.

I ask you to examine the major critics for the country’s dailies: Mark Swed in Los Angeles; Richard Dyer in Boston; Peter Dobrin in Philadelphia; John von Rhein in Chicago; Anthony Tommasini in New York. Ask yourself: what qualifies each of them, how do they fit into the scheme I have just outlined? Which of them has a career as a musician? Or is a serious and active scholar? Or has the name recognition that is coupled with a force of personality. These people don’t just write for their papers, they speak on their paper’s behalf. They have the power to halt productions of operas, to bring careers to a summit or push them into non-existence, especially when it comes to new music. They cannot damage Beethoven, but they might be able to take a dent out of Bang On A Can (or whatever group comes down the pike next). Even by not covering something, they can do harm. They have absolute power in this little corner of this little world.

From Critical Condition
By Daniel Felsenfeld
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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