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

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: There are so many various types of music criticism that it’s difficult to lump them together, just as it is difficult to lump all French composers together or many other categories that get lumped together– West Coast composers, and so forth. And especially now, because in each area of the world there are so many different tendencies operating simultaneously because of increased communication. But, in considering music criticism, it would be important to think, from the composer’s point of view, of experiences you’ve had with criticism–have there been events that have been helpful to you, that have occurred through your reading of criticism? Has anything ever had an impact on your work? Is criticism useless to you as a method of feedback due to the quality of it? Or the quality of it in a particular location? What is the difference between daily, weekly, and quarterly criticism, and if we look at just daily criticism, which is the kind we mostly respond to because we’re anxious to see what happened after our concert. We have to take into account that there are various types of daily criticism and various qualities of training of critics and there are reviews, previews, and “think pieces,”–which is a strange name that is bandied about in newspaper parlance because we would hope that all the pieces would be “think pieces.” But these are overview statements about tendencies and we also have a situation, in this country, which is quite different from foreign countries, from other countries. I’m sure Tom Johnson will address that. There is also the issue of composers as critics vs. non-composers as critics. The New York Times refuses to hire composers as critics whereas The Herald Tribune, in its heyday, had only composers, or primarily composers, as critics. There is also the famous dictum of Virgil Thomson which is that criticism should first and foremost describe the performance so that somebody who wasn’t there could understand basically what went on. Very often we have criticisms which are inadequate in that they don’t describe in any detail a particular piece of music because of the lack of preparation of the reviewer or the lack of ability in the reviewer to comprehend what is going on. Or many other factorsÖ Maybe the critic wasn’t even in the hall. That has happened. So we need to think about many of these things and, particularly, about what use criticism is to us, what we think it should be. We have a couple of examples of writing from the ’30s to the present which begin to stimulate discussion. John, would you like to start with some comments about your thoughts over the week on this subject?

JOHN CAGE: Well, the difficulty is that it’s a large subject. One way that I, for myself, simplify it, is that criticism is not musical, it’s literary. It’s an act of writing rather than art, or making a piece of music. So, it seems to me that if one’s interested in quality, which criticism seems to be–whether something is good or bad–that first of all it should be good writing. I find that I am unable to take criticism seriously that is not interesting to me as writing. Now what is interesting to me as writing is often something that I can’t even understand. For instance the philosophy of Wittgenstein. I find it extremely beautiful, fascinating to read, but I don’t understand it. The same takes place with the writing of Gertrude Stein. One’s not involved with understanding but rather with the experience of reading. Now I think this is largely missing from what we call newspaper or media music criticism and I myself don’t use it. I don’t buy the newspaper, any more than I, pardon me Charles, listen to the radio.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: I’ve heard stories that you would run out to the corner stand and buy the newspapers.

JOHN CAGE: To get Virgil’s. I used to go and buy the New York Herald Tribune not knowing what Virgil had written about just to see what he had to say because he was interesting to read. On another occasion, as far as the usefulness of criticism to me goes, I used it once in advertising a concert that I was giving of music for prepared piano. I put on one side of the announcement favorable criticisms and on another side unfavorable criticisms, so the person reading the announcement could see what situation he was in–namely a controversial one. As far as the attitudes toward music go, I think in terms of Marcel Duchamp‘s text “The Critical Act,” which makes it clear that the work of art is not finished by the composer but is finished by the person who uses it. This is very much like the philosophy of Wittgenstein, that meaning doesn’t exist apart from the actual use of whatever it is. So that if there are twelve people using or listening, say, to a piece of music, there will be twelve pieces of music at the end rather than the one which we think there is. This is why people can converse or can disagree. But there is not one attitude toward the piece in a realistic, Duchampian way. There are as many works of art as there are observers of the work. That makes a very complex situation in which I come back to the fact that I think the first duty of the critic would be to write something that we can read with pleasure or with the use of our faculties.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So the criticism becomes a work of art in itself.

JOHN CAGE: Yes. In my own case, I would not do it. I’ve grown disinterested in writing about things. I would rather write in such a way that the writing was a thing itself. This, of course, arouses indignation on the part of not only critics but many observers with regard to my work.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: There are a couple of points. One is that you talk about the use of music and the corollary is what is the use of criticism, what is it actually used for? By analogy of there being multiple perspectives on a piece of music, there are probably as many readers of a review as there, I mean, different ways of interpreting…

JOHN CAGE: And it gets more complicated.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: It’s a branching set of perceptions so you end up with a couple generations’ removed of people’s hypotheses about what actually happened at the concert. The uses of a review are to find out about something you weren’t at, or to get further ideas about something you did experience.

JOHN CAGE: That’s implicit in what Charles quoted from Virgil.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: You also mentioned using them to publicize things, so they’re useful to us composers as sort of descriptions that are, hopefully, less subjective of our own work. But, I don’t know. I’m curious how many people here really feel that criticism in reviews has been generally useful to them.

JOAN LA BARBARA: I wanted to get to a different thing before we get to that. When you spoke about criticism being valid as almost a work of art, or valid in itself, I have difficulty with that because I know that when I was working as a stringer for the L. A. Times, [Martin] Bernheimer made a big point about how you write your piece. You had to have a “hook” at the beginning, to “hook” the reader in, and it was more about writing an entertaining piece of verbiage than writing about the music itself. And, in fact, I had to argue with him for a long time before he would permit me to be hired by the paper because he felt that I had such a strong conflict of interest because I knew about music. He felt it would be better to have a person who was trained in English than a person who was trained in music. And I think that’s a fundamental problem because many, many times we have critics writing about music who were trained in baseball or some other thing rather than trained in music.

JOHN CAGE: I didn’t say what I said earlier to you that both your work in writing about music and Charles’ work with the radio seems to me to be bringing about a bridge between the music or the composer and the listener, and I think you do that, in both cases, in a way that works, in a human way, so that the feelings are very good and you have said something about the work in such a way that it could be used in any way by any person who happens to read it. I don’t think of that as criticism.

JOAN LA BARBARA: I never considered myself a critic.

JOHN CAGE: It’s almost a kind of social act, characterized by love.

JOAN LA BARBARA: I always considered myself a kind of translator. In fact, when I started writing, I wrote for a paper called the SoHo Weekly News, which was given out on the doorsteps in the neighborhood for free. I did that because, one, the criticism was so bad, and, two, because my friends wrote such terrible program notes that were either incomplete or so difficult that they put the audience off and confused people. So I would interview the composers ahead of time and do preview articles to sort of introduce the audience to the area that they were going to be entering when they came into the concert space. But I never considered it criticism. And I think music critics do the same thing–they don’t consider what I write or people who write the way I did as music criticism. They consider it something else.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Tom Johnson, you haven’t said anything yet.

TOM JOHNSON: I’d like to put the emphasis a little differently than John has. I think I’m not really interested now in criticism as much as in musicology or even in music philosophy. I never thought very much about that in America because you never read very much of it in America, but in Europe I’ve come across that more often. And, in my case, several times in the last few years I’ve learned, really learned, something from critics. They have said something so perceptive about my music, about things I hadn’t seen myself. And there’re a couple of quotes… I even have one in my brochure now, because they explained my music better than I ever have.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: But it didn’t alter the way you compose, it just reinforced the way you compose.

TOM JOHNSON: I think it gave me more conviction or understanding of what I was doing and then maybe more courage to go forward.

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