Problems Facing Music Criticism From the COMPOSER-TO-COMPOSER Series at the Telluride Institute

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: My experience suggests to me that pre-performance articles appearing in publications, from a producer’s point of view, are clearly a lot more important than criticisms which appear after a performance. Of course, the time factor is inverted as it were. And I also have the sense, when I send off a bunch of criticisms to somebody interested in presenting me, that the existence of the criticisms, irrespective of the content, is what is of interest to the producer. Just that there are criticisms of my work is much more important than the actual content of the criticisms, so that the criticisms could be terribly abstract, almost graphic, as long as there’s a headline and a dateline and a critic’s name at the end. And I wonder if we’re overlooking the extent to which newspaper readers are often thoroughly informed people. I think we’re overlooking the extent to which a reader recognizes fully that a criticism is a personal opinion, takes the criticism as a personal opinion, which tends to diminish its political power. Maybe I’m dead wrong about that, but just from casual conversations, and not so casual conversations, with people who are not professional musicians but who hear a lot of music, it is very clear to me that they will read and interpret the various New York critics very much as personal opinion and select which one they’re interested to read on that basis and really don’t seem to interpret criticism as a cultural comment, you know, as a sort of community cultural comment.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: You get to know the critic.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Alan Rich is dying to say something.

ALAN RICH: I just wish that were true. My experience is that it isn’t. That, unfortunately, when we talk about the power of the critic, I think partly we’re talking about the way the critic is used by the performance industry, by the music-producing industry and by the production industry. I think we are ascribed an amount of power that we neither seek nor deserve because we are quoted on three sheets in front of Carnegie Hall, we are quoted on record jackets, we are used as the weapon to substitute for the producer of music attending concerts himself and making his own decisions. And I think that this has led to a total misunderstanding of the critics’ power. It galls me to go to concerts, both in New York and Los Angeles where I work, and hear how many times the opinion of the critic is parroted by people in conversation during intermission. We critics, talking in general, have actually created a jargon when we’re talking about music, that I think is most unfortunate. We have created a way of thinking about a piece of music that is full of that kind of critic-ese or musical jargon that blinds one to what the musical experience could often be about. There are a lot of things that I want to say, but I’m here as a guest and I don’t feel it’s my place to make long speeches. But music critics are a different kind of breed from drama critics, or theater critics, or movie critics, or food critics, or any other kind, simply because most of what we deal with, a great deal of what we deal with, is a repertory that has been sealed in amber for anywhere up to two or three hundred years. We get to the point where the whole idea of performance becomes a much more important aspect of music criticism than the work itself. And, unfortunately, this can spill over to the way a critic approaches a contemporary piece. My own impression is that there are maybe half a dozen critics across the country who are working regularly, who know how to approach and deal with it, and translate–that very important word that John used–the experience of a piece of music and how it works. There used to be seven of us until Tom Johnson left. Now there are only six. For the rest, we face a situation that Joan was talking about where the critic on the largest paper let’s say in my vicinity looks upon music criticism as the writing of a kind of entertainment. It means that he, having been brought up as an opera singer and a performance-oriented person, has never yet learned about the importance of writing about contemporary music qua music. And I think that situation exists itself in most cities across the country. I wish I could say that there were a number of music critics working on newspapers and magazines across the country that people can trust for their opinions. I just don’t think it’s the case. I think we are being used as a substitute for the music industry having opinions of its own. I think that the function of a music critic as creating a feeling of curiosity, both within and outside the musical community. The best thing I can hope to do, and I include myself in the number of those people sympathetic to new music, is to write in an engaging enough way to create a kind of curiosity, to get people to say, “Hey, there’s something going on out there that interests this guy who writes rather well for the Los Angeles Herald and maybe I should check it out for myself.” I wish there were more people doing that.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: We haven’t mentioned any of the criticisms in the packet I gave out, but I’d like to read one passage from Virgil Thomson just as an example of a criticism that is not technical or analytical but gives a sort of broad, general understanding of a particular aspect of vocal music and opera and see what your response is to it. This was written in the May/June 1939 issue of Modern Music, and it is in the context of a general report called “More and More From Paris”:

“All musicians know the subtlety of the interplay that takes place between a good recital-singer and his accompanist, between a true song-line and its instrumental clothing. The two are not one, but they have one subject which they treat with all the mutual understanding, all the intimacy of a true married pair. The lied is the most sensitive kind of music in the world and very nearly the most personal. It is very difficult to put on a stage. Sauguet‘s achievement (the thing that has shocked so many of his critics) is that he has got it on to the stage. His lied-technic is at its best, of course, in the solo numbers and the love conversations. It got in his way frightfully in the larger scenes. He finally scrapped it altogether for the final church-scene and broadened the whole effect considerably by the systematic use of choral interjections and the employment of a sustained and independent orchestral accompaniment that represents the scene itself rather than what some character on the stage is feeling about something. In consequence, what the characters do feel, and express vocally, becomes very clear indeed and quite moving, thrown into relief as it is against a background of contrasting music.”

What about this passage? This is not a technical-analytic passage. It doesn’t go into detail to defend his assertions. What is good and bad about the passage?

ALAN RICH: What is good about it is that it implies a way of listening to music that can be extended to listening to all music. I think that’s one of the things that occurred to me.

TOM JOHNSON: It’s a good description of the style.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Of the style of Sauguet?

TOM JOHNSON: Yes. I have a good feeling about what the opera must have been like. To what we were talking before, about the importance of information, I always used to say, when I was doing criticism, that I should do first description, second interpretation, and only third evaluation. I didn’t always achieve that. Sometimes evaluations got up front. But in principle…

JOHN CAGE: Would you repeat that?

TOM JOHNSON: Description, and then interpretation, and then evaluation.

ANTHONY DAVIS: I thought there was a lot of insight. That interested me. I thought it had some insight. I mean, I always expect that. That was interesting to me. It spoke to larger problems. I think a lot of stuff that was interesting speaks to larger problems, problems that actually, as a composer, Thomson was dealing with. So that makes it more interesting to me because it’s speaking to the issues of the music.

JOHN CAGE: I would like to say I’m glad that Tom Johnson was writing, whether it was about my work or about someone else’s work. I found his writing interesting.

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: And thoughtful.

JOHN CAGE: I’d like to ask him whether not doing it, whether you miss something of yourself or whether you feel better not doing it.

TOM JOHNSON: I think I feel better not doing it, partly because of conflicts of interest which arose which were difficult. When I was only a composer that was simpler. But I think the main thing was that I had the feeling in the last two or three years that I was writing that I wasn’t writing as well. Sometimes I had to write about the same people a third, fourth, and fifth time and started finding myself finding it difficult to come up with a new idea and looking back and seeing that the article I’d written two years earlier was really already better than anything I could come up with new. It seemed time to make a change.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Also that you felt used for record covers.

TOM JOHNSON: No, that didn’t really bother me because I really firmly believed and still believe that the power of the critic is universally overestimated by composers and interpreters.

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