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

MORTON SUBOTNICK: After all this I withdraw my statement about power, because what we’re really talking about is short-term power and long-term power. In the short-term, all of us are deeply affected by someone saying bad about us to a million people, but in the long-term it really doesn’t matter. So I think the power is very short-lived. There is a power, no question about it, but it’s much shorter lived than the power of the music itself, which is going to outlast, you know. People will gradually, well, you get these terrible reviews, and gradually people will remember less and less of what was in the review and gradually remember, “Gee, that person had all those reviews.” It almost turns opposite over a long period of time.

JOHN CAGE: This is why Gertrude Stein said it doesn’t matter what they say, it matters how much they say.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: This brings up the question of how they select which things to write about. How do you get to be one of the ones that are written about, because there are all these conflicts? I think every paper and every person writing must have different criteria for selecting who to write about. Coming from New York, where there are millions of things going on any given night, there are only six things possible to cover.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: There are two examples here–John, who has had probably more bad things said about him than any human being, over and over again, and Nancarrow, who went years without anyone hearing anything about him. And then it reached the point, not through the press and not through all those things, where people searched him out to see what he was doing. So in the long run, I don’t think it matters that much. That’s why I withdraw what I said earlier.

TOM JOHNSON: Just to raise another issue about who becomes a critic and who doesn’t. Does anybody know what’s happened to John Vinton?

MORTON SUBOTNICK: Who?

TOM JOHNSON: John Vinton. He worked with Eric Salzman on The Dictionary of Contemporary Music which is that 1,000-page black book that we probably all use, a very fine piece of research, I think. Salzman left and he finished it all by himself. I met him twice, once with Frederic Rzewski and another time with another person. I was very impressed with this man. He knew everything about everybody’s music and he had really interesting things, he had philosophical/aesthetic backgrounds in the other arts, and so forth. After he finished the Dictionary, he was unemployed. He couldn’t find anything in the university. He wasn’t really the teacher type, I think. There were no other reference books to edit. There were no jobs in publishing. He was not the type of critic who could write things in a daily paper on short notice because he tended to think longer and write more. And the last I knew of him he was running a machine in a photocopy shop because he couldn’t do anything else. If he’d been in Europe, I think, there would have been any number of jobs he could have found in editing, or working with subsidized arts journals. The radios would have been happy to hire him to put together programs and stuff. But we don’t have places for people like this, and it’s a shame, because these are the people who could tell us about the music.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Jin-Hi, you’re writing criticism now for Korean press on the new music scene here.

JIN HI KIM: I’m not writing criticism.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: What do you write?

JIN HI KIM: I’m a case like Joan La Barbara.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Feature articles?

JIN HI KIM: Yes. It doesn’t make any sense to the Korean audience to get criticism because they don’t know what’s happening. So I’m reporting what’s happening. I just interview the composers and kind of, well, transport information. That’s the case.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: What about criticism in Korea for contemporary music? Is there a lot of performances and writing about it?

JIN HI KIM: I don’t know much about the criticism because whenever I have a chance to go to Korea and I read the newspaper there is not much criticism at all. But I know one thing, that they focus on the really famous composers. There’s a kind of dangerous situation, if somebody is famous, because everything is focused on him, and then absolutely nobody else gets a chance to get a review or anything like that. That’s the case.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Who is the composer in this case?

JIN HI KIM: In Seoul? Well, there are maybe only two people–Byong Dong Paik and Suk Hi Kang. You probably know him because he works in America too. And then we have a third which you might know about, Isang Yun. He was neglected for a long time, for thirty years or so.

ALAN RICH: Is he being played in Korea now?

JIN HI KIM: I was in Korea this year, in February. For the first time his music was supposed to be performed, for the orchestra and some chamber music.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: For the first time?

JIN HI KIM: For the first time in Korea. I mean, he did an orchestra piece before but there was a lot of bad reaction. People demonstrated against his music.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: They demonstrated in the streets or what?

JIN HI KIM: Yes, because he was involved in critical actions. But anyway, he still has this handicap. But, this time, for the first time, he was invited to Korea by the musicians, and also somebody invited him, one of the major newspapers, and when I got there there was one beautiful concert of his music. And the newspapers talked about him–who he was and his music and the performance and all that. And then there was a problem. He asked the Korean press and the public to give a public apology, for what happened before, and, of course, the government didn’t want to do that.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: They wouldn’t apologize?

JIN HI KIM: Of course. And they made a big issue that now he’s not a composer anymore, he’s a politician in Korea. And then after that they cancelled the concerts and they published an article which was not just criticism about his music but about the kind of political view that he’s not a composer, he’s a bad composer. It’s a very sensitive issue, not very logical, not very rational at all.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: As a progressive individual, then, he has to suffer this indignity because of his politics.

JIN HI KIM: That is true.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So the press is like the Mexican press in a way.

JIN HI KIM: They don’t have their own goal. They just depend too much on what’s the political situation. Critics don’t have their own trust. It can’t be just this anger or that anger. I couldn’t believe it.