Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry

One of the more fascinating, and potentially touchy topics that come up in musical discussions has to do with composers as critics, and some of the pros, the cons, and the more interesting ramifications of this dual role, past and present.

Let’s begin by differentiating one who writes about music from one who critiques it. Countless composers, of course, have written on musical topics, from Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner to Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Ives, Copland, Thomson, Cage, Bernstein, Babbitt, Boulez, Glass, and onwards. In some circles Ned Rorem is better known as diarist than as America’s leading vocal music composer.

Certain composers write brilliantly about other composers or genres. George Perle‘s peerless, scholarly analyses of Alban Berg‘s operas come to mind, as do Gunther Schuller‘s exhaustively researched books on Early Jazz and the Swing Era, Alec Wilder’s American Popular Song, or the penetrating essays Christian Wolff contributed to Nonesuch‘s Rzewski plays Rzewski box set. Think of composers who supply program or CD booklet notes for their own works: that’s any composer and every composer. And what about the literary efforts of jazz composers and improvisors? Louis Armstrong was a particularly prolific letter writer. Art Hodes and trumpeter Rex Stewart wrote lively, provocative articles for Down Beat, while Marian McPartland, Dick Hyman, Andy LaVerne, and Jack Reilly, among others, penned regular “how to” columns pertaining to their art. Dr. Billy Taylor is as articulate on the page as he is at the keyboard. Few commentators discuss Miles Davis’ landmark album Kind of Blue without mentioning Bill Evans‘s liner notes, yet the pianist/composer also penned equally insightful annotations for albums by Thelonious Monk and Ben Webster. And the poetry of Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor invites another essay.

The bottom line is that if you pick up Babbitt’s “Who Cares If You Listen?“, Berlioz’s Memoirs, Hindemith’s Elemetary Training for Musicians, Stravinsky’s numerous conversations, Mozart’s letters, Cage’s A Year From Monday, or Philip Glass’s autobiography, chances are you do so out of knowledge or curiosity about the composer’s music, or, at the very least, the music’s reputation. Indeed, Ned Rorem told me in a 1995 interview that he writes his prose from whatever authority he has as a composer.

Music criticism, however, constitutes a different kettle of fish altogether. And its impact on the American classical music scene is tackled with painstaking care and historic comprehensiveness by Mark N. Grant (another composer/writer, by the way) in his book, Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in North America. One reads a review or a critique first and foremost to learn about last night’s Met debut, this week’s new CD release, or a highly touted world premiere. The critic’s task (as I see it, anyway) is to describe and evaluate the musical event in question. Over time, certain critics become established as arbiters of taste and key players in the music community. This fact does not always sit well with performers and composers at the critic’s receiving end, and it’s possible that music journalists are least respected by those they write about. I always direct a recent victim of negative press to the trusty Lexicon of Musical Invective, Nicolas Slonimsky‘s infamous collection of verbal assaults on composers from Beethoven through Bartok by their critical contemporaries.

The question for composers who become critics is how one reconciles the two careers, and there’s no pat answer. Deems Taylor, whose populist composing style enjoyed a certain vogue in the 20th century’s first half, is a case in point. His orchestral suite Through the Looking Glass was frequently performed, and two of his operas, The King’s Henchman and Peter Ibbetson, resulted from the Metropolitan Opera‘s first commissions of an American composer. Yet he also gained renown as a music critic for the New York World, and, more prominently, as a media personality. As intermission commentator for the New York Philharmonic radio broadcasts and the on-screen host of Walt Disney‘s Fantasia, Taylor introduced millions of Americans to classical music.

Virgil Thomson‘s impact as chief music critic at the New York Herald Tribune between 1940 and 1954 looms large today. Whether or not one agrees with all his opinions, there’s no denying that he expressed them in a prose style that was simple, direct, clean, imaginative, and witty. More often then not Thomson delivered his verdicts by citing chapter and verse, in terms both laymen could understand and from which professional musicians could learn.

At the same time, the question of conflict of interest hovered over Thomson’s tenure. He forthrightly admitted that his presence in such a prominent post might stimulate performances of his own works, and he was right. The pianist and composer Abram Chasins, too, straddled this grey area. His accessable, neo-romantic compositions were taken seriously by Josef Hofmann, Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladimir Horowitz, and Arturo Toscanini. In turn, he wrote about these artists, and used his position as music director of New York’s classical radio station WQXR to promote established and emerging talents.

Composers like Lou Harrison, Paul Bowles, Arthur Berger, John Cage, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks all wrote criticism for the Herald Tribune as stringers under Thomson. Their journalistic careers, however, proved relatively inconsequential in relation to their accomplishments as active musicians. Yet Cage later co-authored a biography of Thomson, and the experience left a sour aftertaste between author and subject. Paul Bowles gradually phased out music to fully focus his creative energy on writing.

Other composing critics establish more of a separation of powers. With his heyday as modern music’s “bad boy” behind him, George Antheil added newspaper journalism to his protean creative arsenal, but in the form of an advice column addressed to lonely hearts. Tim Page trained as a composer, but stopped composing long before he established himself as a critic. James Wierzbicki, on the other hand, retired from the St. Louis Post Dispatch to devote himself to composing. So did Tom Johnson from the Village Voice. Newsday‘s chief music critic Justin Davidson is registered as a composer member of ASCAP, and has been active as a composer, yet he downplays his own music. The case of Kyle Gann is more complex. There’s no doubt he is a serious, committed composer. Yet he’s also a fiercely committed writer, as his prolific output on nearly every aspect of contemporary music proves, together with his standing as the Village Voice‘s new music critic.

My own position as a critic differs from everyone above. I limit my record reviewing and CD booklet writing to standard repertoire, with a concentration on piano and historic reissues. For me this kind of activity stems from my lifelong hobby of collecting recordings and comparing performances, and I basically turned a recreational activity into a viable form of income. Perhaps my ultimate assignment in this regard was for International Record Review, when I compared and evaluated every existing recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony!

But I generally refuse to write about new music. As an active composer and presenter, the last thing I want to do is pass public judgements on my composer friends and performer colleagues. Here’s one reason why: In 1981, a short-lived New York arts journal called InStep invited me to write for them. I was an inexperienced and opinionated 24 year old. My second or third assignment involved an American Composers Orchestra concert paying tribute to Virgil Thomson on his 85th birthday. Laurie Anderson had an orchestral piece, It’s Cold Outside, premiered on the program. I was quite full of myself back then, and believed that performance art was the last bastion of quackery: in other words, those who can’t compose do performance art. I didn’t like the piece and arrogantly put the composer in her place. More than 20 years later, my own work increasingly draws upon spoken text, theatrical elements, and multi-media! Who’s the performance artist now? On top of that, Anderson’s called me a couple of times to orchestrate some stuff for her (scheduling conflicts prevented me from accepting), and I only pray that she’s never seen that old review of mine.

True, I’ve covered a handful of new music releases in the past, but rarely, and uncomfortably. When I do write the very occasional piece about composer/pianist heroes of mine like Frederic Rzewski and Robert Helps, I make my bias and my personal and professional relationships with these artists clear from the start. I also recently wrote a feature article for BBC Music about the life and music of John Cage. Since I had no particular bias pro or con towards his legacy, little knowledge of his writings and his non-piano music, and felt that his iconic reputation would easily survive whatever I wrote, I treated the assignment as a voyage of discovery. I read books, downloaded articles, borrowed videos, listened to recordings, and basically did a week-long John Cage crash course. No, I didn’t hunt for mushrooms!

In the main, when it comes to promoting new music, I feel I’m contributing more to the community when I perform works by my colleagues on the piano, present them via ComposersCollaborative‘s programs, or consider them for events that I guest curate. While it’s important to discuss music, it’s even more important to hear it. And no matter how many more Beethoven Ninths remain in the world for me to review, I’m the only one who can write my own music.

From Polyphonic Lives: Composers Working Behind the Scenes in the Music Industry
by Jed Distler
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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