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

TOM JOHNSON: One opinion which I formed rather early in my career as a critic and which I’ve really never changed, I still believe, is that composers and performers always, without exception, overestimate the power of the critic.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Well, a simple example. A critic is in a small room with new music that has thirty people in it. He writes the next morning for 30,000 people. I mean, this is power.

JOAN LA BARBARA: Yes.

JOHN CAGE: But is it?

TOM JOHNSON: I never felt that.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: This is an incredible power one person has.

TOM JOHNSON: But when you see it from the other side you write an article and you think, “Ah! This might have some impact. This might make somebody think,” and you see very little come back. I never had the feeling that my writing had very much impact.

JOHN CAGE: I don’t agree about power either.

TOM JOHNSON: No.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: I don’t think it has power with the thirty thousand or the thirty million people. I think where it has power is in the people who are the producers of new music, who will look at it, and they have the power because they can produce an opera. And so, in that sense, it is power.

TOM JOHNSON: Most producers that I know are very proud of the fact that their own opinions are better than the critics’ opinion. In fact, the critics get off on having this inverse effect on them.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: I have a simple example, very short. The opera I did, Static Drama, which was actually a non-opera, was criticized by opera critics. They were completely confused and they banned this piece. Other opera houses read this critic, because they didn’t go there, and they say, “No, we don’t want this.”

JOAN LA BARBARA: Yes.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: It had the effect of turning the piece off…

JOHN CAGE: From it being used.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: We had a very similar experience when I did a piece with Lee Breuer, which was extremely well received by the audience and we had one performance and the reviews were, for the production, very bad. And we have not been able to reproduce it again because it’s very expensive and there’s nothing. It’s just very scary for them to do something that expensive.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Would it have been better to have no criticism printed at all?

MORTON SUBOTNICK: It probably would have.

JOAN LA BARBARA: Yes.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: But I’m not suggesting that that’s a good idea.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: In my case, it would have been better if the critics informed themselves about what were the real problems of this production. Not just going there, and seeing what’s happening or not happening. That there were some problems with the production which did not necessarily belong to me as the composer. But the composer, of course, always gets it back.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: John, what do you say to that, in regards to power? If a production is stopped.

JOHN CAGE: I have a whole history of criticism of my work. If the criticism were true, the work wouldn’t exist, and that’s not true so I don’t think it has power.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: But you never wanted to write operas until recently. We’re talking about very large productions.

JOHN CAGE: I’m wondering, in response to what Walter is saying about power, whether you could bring about the performance of your work. Could you do that?

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Well, now Stiebler did it, because he…

JOHN CAGE: That’s what I mean about the absence of power.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: …because he sensed the injustice which happened at this point. So that here was something wrong which did not have to do with me, so he tried to show that it was not the music.

TOM JOHNSON: But that’s a case of criticism being a negative influence on the producer.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Yes, but it’s a very bad case. I mean, there’s lots of music which has disappeared because of bad criticism.

JOHN CAGE: Yes, I know.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: In America there is a whole history of unplayed scores.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Sometimes I think they use the press as an excuse. I don’t think that necessarily producers are all that influenced by the press. They may use negative criticism as an excuse for not doing something. I used to find that to be more the case. That there are other factors that enter into it that are much more pertinent. I think there are quite different attitudes I think in how the press receives things vis-‡-vis if you look at something in New York, for example, as opposed to other places around the country. I think that sometimes there’s a sense of standing at the gates. You know, that the critic has this idea of functioning as the person who’s guarding this gate. I don’t know what the gate’s supposed to be or what’s supposed to be on the other side. But, you know, this sense of this Janus image. I think that’s a problem and I think in a sense what it is is they have a weird idea about their function in history. Somehow I think they try to take on too much responsibility, more than what is possible.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: A short example. Last year there was in the Frankfurtfest a “Portrait of Stockhausen,” for his sixtieth birthday. One of the critics from the Frankfurter Allgemeinea lady, who was very charming–got him to have a three-hour discussion on his work. She gave him the impression that she wanted to understand what he has to say.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: She was sympathetic.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Yes. But it was a trick, and the next morning there was a very bad, opinionated article of hers against his attitudes and about the kitsch in his work. Of course he was furious. And the next evening, he saw her again and he went to her and he said, “Get out!” He didn’t want the concert to start before she left, so she had to leave. So the next morning, in the paper, you saw the real power of the journalist. This made the rounds in all the German newspapers, about the scandal that Stockhausen caused by asking this critic to leave the room. Stockhausen was the loser finally.

JOAN LA BARBARA: No. Stockhausen is a showman.

ALAN RICH: The critic couldn’t buy that much publicity! How did Paul Hume become famous? By Harry Truman punching him in the jaw. These are the things we live for.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: John Simon in New York, too, I’m sure.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Tania, do you have any thoughts about all of this?

TANIA LEÓN: Oh, sure. Perhaps Ricardo could also say something about all this, and that means that traveling is something very impressive because you get to the different awareness of our society and where do they lean to and what is important to them and in reference to where we come from and what is expected from us in terms of sound and in terms of attitudes, and things like that.