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

TANIA LEÓN: In my own perception of the critiques that have been done to my sounds, I compare the critiques that have been done in different countries and it has to do with experiences of those critics in terms of where this composer is coming from, and how they perceive that composer. Perhaps, for example, my sounds might be analyzed in the countries that have to do with my place of origin in a very different way than they are critiqued or analyzed, per se, in the United States. Things that may be generalized as dance rhythms or Latin American rhythms or whatever are not such in those countries where they will go into tremendous in-depth talking about the units, about the cells, about the correspondences, and about where this is coming from. And it has to do with the amount of information that they have about that particular origin of music and rhythms and different associations that might not be the same experience of the critics in another region of the world.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: This is like the Eskimo having many words for snow.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. So, you might have the very same piece critiqued by three different societies and they are completely, diametrically opposed to each other. That has been an experience that has led me to believe that, in a way, music is a social function and it is going to be actually described or received according to the awareness of those people that are actually critiquing. But that doesn’t suffice or that doesn’t actually give power to anybody to permeate the validity of the work, how valuable this work is.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So one has to take into consideration these cross-cultural identities.

TANIA LEÓN: Definitely.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Julio? Anything about that?

JULIO ESTRADA: Yes, I have something to say about music criticism and power. Mexico had some elections recently and we had a parallel development in music criticism as we had in journalism regarding politics. You know we have the Aztec Soviets in Mexico, and they always win, the PRI. Also they lose, and they try to legitimize the supposed President by means of the newspapers, the press, and the TV.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So they just take the elections.

JULIO ESTRADA: Yes. But now, there was more of a scandal. It was shown to all the country that they had lost. So, one thing could happen is that suddenly, after certain actions of the President, several individuals of the extreme center wrote in a newspaper a letter saying, “You are wonderful, Mr. President. We give our support.” And then from there it came a very strange situation from one of the musicians who wrote that particular letter that he became suddenly also a very important composer. And by the press, by the music criticism, was also legitimized. So the composer gave a concert and the audience was against the music, saying this was a very boring thing. All of the audience, saying this, and this, and this. But in the press it was a fantastic work, “Oh, the audience were stupid people! Nobody understood the sense of that work, which was sublime, etc., etc., etc.” And then what we get is the same as in politics in music. But you must know that in Mexico a music critic, if the national orchestra travels, they bring the critic with them in the plane. You can hear from the critic the cynical attitude, “Yes, I sublease myself.” But we are furious as a society. We are really furious about all this. But what can you do as a society, as a musical society, against that? If you write in the newspaper and you are critical against that particular music, that particularly composer, or that particular situation, you become someone who is in trouble. You are doing a political action.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: It’s interesting that this situation is exactly parallel to the composer whose work is misunderstood by the audience and by critics for years and years and years and who gets terrible reviews, and in fact it’s important work.

JOHN CAGE: This is another experience that brings about our belief in anarchy.

JULIO ESTRADA: There’s no anarchy in a country which has no newspapers, where the only newspaper which exists is a paper from the government, when you want to print something you need to eliminate certain names. So you can be an anarchist in the shower. That’s what we do.

JOHN CAGE: When you have a dualistic situation of the strong and the weak, and the right and the wrong, and so forth, then you have a situation which is not good.

JULIO ESTRADA: Sure, it’s not good.