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

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: How good is the best criticism in the European press?

TOM JOHNSON: Well, I don’t think that individually they’re any smarter than we are. But there is a tendency for critics to be musicologists and for people with Ph. D‘s who’ve really thought about and specialized in new music and maybe written dissertations on Ligeti to be coming to your concerts. People who have had more time to think and often have more space to write. And often are better informed. A good anecdote is Phil Corner and I were in Berlin for D.A.A.D. at the same time and a musicologist from the Technische Universität came to do an interview with Philip about his music because she was writing a little article and she began the interview by apologizing that she only actually knew seven of his pieces. This really shocked him. He said, “There’s not a critic in the whole United States that knows seven of my pieces and I just got to Berlin! I’ve been living all my life in the United States.” So she was a person that does her research, that memorized all the Source magazines, and Ear, and everyplace you can find Philip Corner’s music, and had done some special research, of course, before that too.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Is this typical? When you give a concert, do you have critics come to you beforehand for scores and conversation?

TOM JOHNSON: Well, no…


WALTER ZIMMERMANN: No… In Europe, the critics are used to keeping a distance and I think it’s good for the composers, too–for them to keep their distance.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So you don’t fraternize with the critics?

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: I don’t advise that. It can work. It can also work the opposite… You should stay away.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So whose writing are you interested in, in criticism, in Germany, for example?

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Well, Reinhard Oehlschlagel is one real example of a full-hearted critic. He is very enthusiastic.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: We should say he’s coming here, by the way.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Yes. He’s one of the best-informed critics. He knows more than any others. He can also be difficult, become difficult, because he also has his limitations. He’s not so open as one wishes him to be. Well, I can recall this event which happened with Scelsi. I don’t know if you were informed about this. Scelsi died last year. And, as you know, he had someone to transcribe his music because he used to record his music on tape.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Playing the piano?

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: No, a special instrument, I think, an electronic instrument which allowed him to play also quarter-tones. He had someone with the name of Tosatti, who was his assistant, you can say, like in the Renaissance. And he transcribed his music like you transcribe an improvisation into a score, with exact rhythmical and precise dynamic notation. And after his death, somehow the Italian press dug up this man and asked him, “Isn’t it so that you were there…?” and they suggested to him questions which he answered with “Yes.” And finally you found an article in Italian which says “Scelsi c’est moi.” This was, of course, because there is a long history of Scelsi being opposed to the more academic Italian composers because they think someone who is not writing his music to the very end is not a composer, he is something else. Well, Oehlschlagel, in this case, used this just one statement and published it in his paper in German translation, without any comment. Because the Italian newspapers already were going around getting comments on that assertion [Tosatti's] from other composers. So he brought this isolated to… And I think this is a kind of… He is not objective in the matter. He consciously withholds information to point out something he probably thinks is right. Probably he thought that Scelsi anyway was an aristocrat. He was not from the Communist party, and all of this was, you know, going along with his thinking. In this case, he was not a journalist as I wish a journalist to be–that he supplies all the information.

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