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

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: I think this is the danger–that journalists are also opinion-makers. I wish that they were open and try to get the whole perspective of a situation, like a detective, who tries to find out the truth all the time.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Why shouldn’t critics have areas of specialty and interest just like composers?

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Of course it’s impossible to be objective. I know that. But you can still try. If you consciously withhold things… He’s very clever. He could have gotten these other messages if he wanted to. You find in this German critic the kind of opinion that you would expect from someone who writes with a special political stance. So from that side, he already sees the music under a certain light and he’s not… Whereas in America, I think there’s a closeness of… Sometimes, like Joan La Barbara, who herself is doing music, is more like a translator. So that’s one of the differences.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Mort’s been dying to say something, but Tom, if this is about Europe…

TOM JOHNSON: Yes, it’s about Oehlschlagel. And we should also talk about Gisela Gronemeyer, too, I think, who writes just as well, and thinks just as well. They work together on MusikTexte. One thing I think that’s important about them, and about a lot of other people, is that they’re not just writers–and you usually think of a critic as a writer–but musicologists, somebody who’s really thinking about music. Like they’d be involved in a lot of other things. One thing that they do a lot of is radio production work. Gisela did I think it was a 90-minute broadcast of my things on Frankfurt Radio where she’d selected ten or twelve excerpts of my pieces and she wrote about six or seven pages of text which later became an article in MusikTexte. But she really started as a radio producer, selecting these examples, how she was going to… So she was thinking of it from that standpoint. Then, of course, being an editor of a magazine is another way where you’re selecting what to quote and what not to quote. But many people also teach or do other things, or write program notes. There are many ways that musicologists of contemporary music can make money in Europe, more than here, especially with the subsidized National Radio, where they can do commentaries and interviews and prepare programs.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Tom, you introduced me to Rene Farabe who is the producer for Radio France who does very in-depth interviews with a composer and then collages the interview, in translation if necessary, with pieces of music so that you don’t hear continuous, whole pieces of music. Is that the same style?

TOM JOHNSON: No, Rene Farabe is more of an artist. He’s making radio as an art object, I would say.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: But he does get into some of the deeper issues of why the composer does particular things.

TOM JOHNSON: But when I was talking about musicologists, I was really thinking more about French radio, the classical music program. For example, every morning from 9:00 AM until 12:00 noon, it has, you know, morning music. But there’s usually a theme for the week. There was a wonderful week of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, for example. Often choosing a composer like that, who’s important, but not terribly well known. Somebody works, you know, two months on doing all the research and putting together the best tapes of all the most important pieces, in the right sequence, and writing a very useful text to introduce all of this. So it’s almost like a little course on Zimmermann you can have in the morning. That was one week I got hooked, because Zimmermann is a very important composer, I think, and somebody who we should know better. And if there’s enough money in a situation like that, to pay somebody for a lot of work to prepare fifteen hours…

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Mort, you had something?

MORTON SUBOTNICK: It’s very much related to what we’ve just been talking about and what John brought up at the very outset. I just wanted to point out, or to raise the issue, a couple of small issues. I don’t have anything much to say about them, but just to raise them. One is that in addition to criticism being a literary form, as John pointed out in the beginning, it also exists in a series of media which are very different from music making. Music happens in a concert hall, where you might have in the biggest sense two or three thousand people at one time hearing that piece of music, or in the case of a recording where one person or two people at a time hear it. Whereas even the smallest magazine or quarterly will have a larger audience than any piece that was talked about at any given time. And then when you get into newspapers, you’re talking in the millions, and magazines you’re talking in millions, so that the impact of that media is, I wouldn’t say greater, but quantitatively greater, and certainly different than music. So it’s not just that it’s a literary form but the whole way in which it interacts, as Walter was talking about, with people is greater. He called it an opinion-maker. In many cases, that’s the function of it, to create opinion. Which is not the function of music. We’re not trying to create opinions; we have an experience. So we have two very different forms there and it makes it very difficult for us to even know how to approach it. The second thing, related to that, is that in the United States, the opinion-making function of criticism has become so important because the marketplace has become so important. BAM and various places are all trying to make money and in the process of making money they’re using the media in order to do it. So for many people–I don’t even want to say critics, because it’s not even critical anymore–it becomes a function of the marketplace. It’s a whole other thing. We’re facing that in this country more than Europe is facing it, but Europe, as it becomes… It’s already happening in England now where the BBC is going to be challenged by commercial stations. This could happen anywhere where the marketplace becomes strong. I just wanted to add those issues to it.

JOHN CAGE: Have you finished?

MORTON SUBOTNICK: I’ve finished.

JOHN CAGE: I’d like to tell something that happened to me this last year. The ISCM president–I’ve forgotten his name, but he lives in Poland–had gotten me somehow to agree to write about twenty different composers for whom the ISCM was making films. Originally they wanted each composer to have his own film and I think they made that material. But then they were told that it would be better for the music and better for the films and so forth if each film had two composers. Then I was still asked to write about each one of the twenty composers and to introduce their work to the public. Now what in heaven’s name was I going to do? Because I didn’t know the music of these twenty composers, and they failed to send me tapes of the music which I did not want to listen to. If I listen to all the tapes that are sent to me constantly I have no time to do anything else. Well… I didn’t want to finish because of the pleasure your work gave me.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: No, finish that sentence. That’s good. Finish that sentence.

JOHN CAGE: What you’ve done with recorded sound is marvelous, whereas for me it doesn’t have that life that it has for you because of your involvement with technology. Anyway, I then asked him to send me what these twenty different people had written, each one, about his own work. Anything that he had said. Then I used that as source material, so that I had twenty bodies of source material with which to write something. Then, of course, what I could write was a mesostic on the name of each composer. Or several. I forget how it happened. The result was that I was involved in writing twenty different kinds of poetry, which came from the twenty different sources. And it was interesting for me personally to do that, because I had never read such things before. And I made them work as something to read as much as I could and by that I mean I introduced into the writing aspects of music. That is to sayÖ aspects of time, which writing is a part of, as music is. It goes, you know, from one moment in time to a later moment in time. These poems didn’t make sense, but they made twenty different kinds of nonsense, and the different kinds of nonsense somehow explained or suggested twenty different attitudes toward living and working in the field of music. And the people, when they came to film my reading of them for the final film, were surprised that each one introduced the work of that person in a way that they thought would please each person, that the works, of course, were coming from that source, that the music came from.