Everyone’s a Critic

One nice perk about hiding out in the hermitage of higher education is that you rarely have to deal with mean-spirited criticism. At least, you should rarely have to deal with mean-spirited criticism—the collegial atmosphere we try to foster here at the University of Minnesota promotes mutual respect, and I think most universities aim for a similar vibe. My fellow students and I differ in the ways we write music and, indeed, in the critical and aesthetic assumptions by which we operate, but each of us wants to understand what makes the others’ musical hearts tick, and we treat each other like rational, intelligent people.

Today I had the novel experience of hearing that a passage in a piece of mine “sound[ed] stupid.” Has anybody gotten this line before? It’s a little off-putting: You certainly don’t see it coming, that’s for sure. It sort of reminded me of the time a new acquaintance asked if I was a teaching assistant; I told her that I’d received a fellowship that temporarily freed me from teaching responsibilities, and she said, “That’s gay.” Really? Gay?

Stupid? Really? What a strange, Anglo-Saxon word to use in the ordinarily erudite and high-minded context of new music. What makes it worse yet is that this particular passage does sound a bit stupid, in the strict sense of the word. Here are the offending bars, if you’re curious.

The material—played by the clarinet, bassoon, piano, and low strings—is supposed to be crudely manipulative: If you find it pretty (which I do), you should also be moved to consider the possibility that you’re capitulating to habituation and aesthetic programming. The jagged upper material should be a red flag of sorts. It’s stupid, sure, but my hope is that the overall effect is cunning, if not properly “smart.” Even if you think it’s dumber than a bag of hammers, I bet you could find a more helpful way to phrase that sentiment than “stupid.”

Anyway, I wanted to share this bizarre experience with you all. It feels a little like I was punched in the face: Aren’t we supposed to be adults here?

13 thoughts on “Everyone’s a Critic

  1. rtanaka

    I think you’ll find that once you’re out of school you’ll come to prefer any criticism over the overwhelming indifference people tend to have of new music in general — the most often used phrase being, “that was very…interesting”. This generally means that they don’t think much of your work either way.

    Maybe it’s too late now, but when people make flippant comments like that there’s usually a deeper reason behind it, so it’s often in the composer’s interest to find out what that is. Most people know what they like (and don’t like) when they hear it but have trouble articulating it in words so if you suspect that they may be one of those people then you can get something out of them by asking them to be more specific. Otherwise you might fall into the trap of overspeculating people’s intensions and reactions, which can be dangerous.

    There’s a very good chance that the passage that you wrote will end up sounding like a jumbled mess or sound like the performers are making mistakes. (The ob. and vln.2 on the 2nd measure, especially.) Lot of the rhythms that you wrote aren’t on any percievable downbeat, but also lacks the punch that you can get when using syncopations so it’s likely to sound confused and muddled. Maybe that’s what they meant?

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  2. colin holter

    There’s a very good chance that the passage that you wrote will end up sounding like a jumbled mess or sound like the performers are making mistakes. (The ob. and vln.2 on the 2nd measure, especially.) Lot of the rhythms that you wrote aren’t on any percievable downbeat, but also lacks the punch that you can get when using syncopations so it’s likely to sound confused and muddled. Maybe that’s what they meant?

    Actually no – he was talking about the other stuff, the stuff that you can definitely tell if it’s wrong or right. Furthermore, having heard this piece twice now, played by two different groups, I can assure you the other instruments’ material is neither confused nor muddled – it’s either simultaneous or not-simultaneous, a distinction that both the conductors I’ve worked with grasped immediately and helped the performers bring out. No consolation prize, but thanks for playing.

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  3. threearrows

    “What makes it worse yet is that this particular passage does sound a bit stupid, in the strict sense of the word.”

    So your friend was correct, and more accurate and insightful than you give him credit for. He used the word stupid, and in the strict sense of that word, he was correct even in your own opinion. It’s not his job to guide or coddle you as a composer or give you erudite criticism, if you want more information from him you need to dig into what he meant by asking him, which would be more instructive and challenging than coming to a forum such as this and looking for blanket support from your niche social group which you’re almost positive will give the boost to your ego that you need in the face of such a blow, without really solving anything. It can’t be solved here, it can only be solved if you talk to your friend, care about his opinion, and deal with what that opinion means for you — no one here can help in that process, all they can do is give you a bunch of pep talk so that you can avoid the problem and continue.

    Perhaps even then he would say “I don’t know, it just sounded stupid.” in which case he is probably even more correct and accurate, so much so that he can’t put it into a syllogism that appeases you, his feeling is so specific. And it pisses you off because maybe he’s even more in touch with what your material is communicating than you are, because you weren’t even confident enough that it was beautiful to smile at your friends interpretation (knowing that for you it wasn’t the case) and move on, but it threatened you to the point of posting here. When you become more secure with your material you welcome diverse opinions and smile at those who diverge from you, you marvel at the multiplicity of view points rather than becoming fearful of the implications of them.

    This threat comes possibly because in some way you don’t really know what you’re doing, you know your friend is right, and you criticize his offering of opinion because your ego is threatened by the fact that someone who doesn’t know much about music or who gives you comments without erudition can actually know more than you do about your own music and how it communicates.

    I’d be interested in seeing what a more in depth conversation with him would reveal, and your subsequent process of grappling with what that means for you. I’m not interested so much in this blast of exasperation that is helping no one here or even you, which is just your ego crying for help when it needs to deal with something.

    This is what you get for trying to be smart. Perhaps stop trying that, and you’ll probably end up sounding less stupid.

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  4. rskendrick

    consider the source
    Colin, unfortunately we all have to deal with criticism. And if we’re honest, no matter what sort of a front we put up, we’re all sensitive to it, because after pouring all of that effort into a piece of music, that’s really part of you out there for the public to criticize – so it’s hard not to take the criticism personally. I always try to look at the source. If it’s a composer you greatly respect, then consider what they are saying – perhaps a couple of revisions will make a stronger work. If it’s someone with an aesthetic bias that doesn’t jive with your own, then ignore it and move on.

    The best approach may be to ignore the piece for two months, then revisit with fresh ears, when you’re not so close to it emotionally. Good luck and great post

    Ralph Kendrick, Iowa Composers Forum

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  5. robd

    It’s a bit hard to comment on the effect this kind of passage would have without reference to the surrounding material, really. If there was no kind of prior ‘preparation’, I can imagine the the unison materials sounding rather confronting (not necessarily in a good way).

    But really that’s a bit beside the point. If the passage does what you’d hoped it would do, then that’s enough, surely? If the person thinks that what you were trying to do is total dumb-town, then perhaps it’s okay to agree to disagree.

    “I think it sounds stupid” certainly isn’t a phrase I’d employ in the hopes of promoting an interesting discourse, though. I mean, if you think that’s a good way to go about things, you’re being a little bit gay.

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  6. rtanaka

    Yes, Ralph put what I was trying to say but much more eloquently. Either way you’re going to have to find a more constructive way to deal with criticism otherwise you’re setting yourself for a pretty awful compositional career, filled with anxiety and resentment.

    Criticism — seek it, don’t avoid it. If you’ve ever wondered how some musicians might have gotten so good, it’s largely because of that, I guarantee.

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  7. philmusic

    Colin, I never remember in all my days the experience of hearing a work and finding it wonderful except for say– 4 “bad” measures.

    Usually it’s either good or bad. Some times, when a work is over composed, one might regret the constant obscuring of the artless by the need for some stylistic identity. In that case the mind (or someone else’s) pushes the talent in uncongenial directions. (Well, uncongenial for me).

    What I noticed is that you are dealing with registeral change. Depending on what surrounded these measures it can be a shock, as this kind of change can also have theatrical implications.

    Phil Fried, PhilFried.com

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  8. pgblu

    Thanks for a thoughtful post, Colin. I think some of the responses you got here are pretty mean-spirited, frankly, so I wanted to lend you a little moral support.

    The page you posted, however, looks pretty bizarre to me too; which makes me no less intrigued to hear it, as well as see a bit more of the context. Is the whole score online?

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  9. Kyle Gann

    We composers are so well trained in commenting on each other’s work without actually saying anything (“Interesting piece, Kyle”) that I almost always find comments from fellow composers useless. But comments from nonmusicians are priceless, and even negative ones can offer a lot of (sometimes unintended) insight. John Rockwell once tried to criticize my music as “naively pictorial,” and I liked the words so well I’ve made them my aesthetic banner.

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  10. rtanaka

    But comments from nonmusicians are priceless, and even negative ones can offer a lot of (sometimes unintended) insight.

    I think the best comments I’ve gotten have come from people outside of the compositional realm as well. I wouldn’t say that my time spent with other composers were “useless”, but if you’re in the field your opinions are naturally going to be skewed in a certain way and it does become pretty redundant after a while.

    Sometimes you need that outside perspective to get a sense of how your craft is functioning in relation to everything else. I was forced to revise my style a number of times after some interactions with people outside of the field, and it really does make a huge difference. You do, however, have to make it clear that you are open to criticism otherwise people will just avoid talking to you about anything substantial. I don’t think there’s really any other way to do it, personally.

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  11. RBonotto

    in reverse
    I seem to remember a story that a woman came up to Honneger during an intermission and gushed about how wonderful his music was. He pointed out that the first half of the programme was all by Bach, and his own music was too come. “Oh, now,” she said, “You’re just being modest.

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  12. pgblu

    Once again, I don’t think Colin was complaining about criticism as such, but about unconstructive criticism presented without further elaboration. It would have been helpful if he’d given us the full context, namely that the comment was made loudly during a rehearsal for the piece, right in front of the musicians. What exactly is ‘stupid’ about the passage was not revealed at that particular time.

    Before you get too preachy again, Ryan, about everyone else needing to be as open-minded as you are, I think you ought to admit you’d likely be at least a little miffed under these circumstances yourself.

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  13. rtanaka

    We all have our moments of frustrations and it’s not like I don’t get miffed about stuff either, but the problem with these “circumstances” is that this is a public forum with a public audience. The fact that he decided to use this place as a platform to complain about his personal problems doesn’t speak well for the columnist nor the institution that allowed for the column to be posted. (You gotta admit was asking for it to some degree.)

    This isn’t someone’s personal blog or an idle chat amongst friends — this site makes the claim that they represent the American New Music community and is also partially funded by taxpayer money. I don’t expect every post to be a sublime, enlightening experience but I think it’s reasonable for the public to expect the columnists to at least have a sense of responsibility toward the context in which they are writing in. If some of the responses here seem “mean”, it’s probably that type of frustration manifesting itself in some way.

    But to stay on topic, while the majority of the comments above aren’t exactly lovey-dovey, a lot of them actually have some suggestions in there which I think are pretty helpful. It’s largely up to him to decide what to do with that information — whether to accept it or ignore it — but either way that’s something new that didn’t exist before. Empty praises, on the other hand, in the end leaves the artist with nothing to work with and can be more cruel in the long run.

    That’s kind of what most of us were trying to say — that you’re almost never going to get a well-thought out, carefully worded criticism that is helpful yet somehow makes you feel good about yourself. You’re going to get your share of “sounds stupid”s, “boring”s, “didn’t do it for me, sorry”s, “heard it before”s, “interesting”s and so on, and of course you’re going to have to deal with assholes like us probably for the rest of your life. You can take away the unpleasantness of it, though, by being the one to initiate a critique of your own work and find out what these phrases really mean to people. Then there can be a mutual understanding and nobody has to throw a hissy fit.

    Some of the best relationships I’ve had were ones where nobody had to fear what the other person had to say, and we could come to substantial disagreements without worrying about withering the other person’s ego. A lot of them have become very good long-term friends.

    Reply

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