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

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Getting back to the subject of criticism, you’re not suggesting that Alan Rich write mesostics in response to music?

JOHN CAGE: Well, I’m suggesting…

ALAN RICH: Not if I have to do seven a week!

JOHN CAGE: No, I’m suggesting not that the rest of the world engage in writing mesostics as I do but that they write in such a way that we can read it apart from… Let’s see, what can I say? Read it in such a way that we are introduced to the ideas of what’s being discussed. I think Walter came close to it. We want, when we read about something, to get a–how would you put it?–a full picture, in which the writer has not decided how we will feel but in which we can make up our own minds.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: The problem is that the critic has the feeling that if he reports like this that he would be in a way a servant of the composer. And, of course, he has his pride in his profession to also transmit a certain opinion.

JOHN CAGE: His own opinion.

JOAN LA BARBARA: You know, I think it’s a matter of opinion vs. information and that the critic feels that if he or she is not giving an opinion he’s not serving his function as a critic. Whereas I think perhaps composers who write about music are more interested in imparting information about the subject. Musicologists may have the same feeling.

JOHN CAGE: There’s another thing in information and that’s experience. That’s what I’m trying to suggest with my suggesting that nonsense is not irrelevant.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: It’s closer to the music.

JOHN CAGE: It’s closer to the music and when the nonsense is closer to the music that’s being introduced there may be some value to it, or some usefulness.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: You know, in this little discussion going on, between trying to introduce the music, or explain the music, or present in a literary way something about the music which is complete, maybe the one thing that is in common with all of this is that there ought to be… And my feeling is that the media itself is being used. It has a very high impact. It’s a higher impact than the piece itself, at any given moment. That perhaps what we’re talking about is the responsibility. In other words, if the critic felt the responsibility of trying to do this, they’d find their own way to do it, rather than to form public opinion. If the responsibility of the critic were to somehow serve not just the piece of music, but the art of music, and not to create particular opinions about music, it would fit into various things that we’re talking about, whether it’s historic, or whether it’s an experience, or whether it’s a description. But I think that where we’re at is that the role of the critic is not really defined. I mean, each critic defines it for him or herself, and each newspaper defines it for, as Joan was pointing out, the critics at that newspaper, rather than there being a more general idea about what the responsibility or role of criticism is in this medium.