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

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Was there a parallel situation in the U.S. in the late ’30s with Blitzstein and other composers writing music that was politically oriented? Did the press attack that in the U.S.?

ANTHONY DAVIS: It happens now. I don’t think there’s any question about it. I think that what happens is not so overt. I think the idea is that they deal with political issues and then they try to say that’s all the work is about. I think that happened with X at some points, with some of the criticism. I’d say particularly in New York, not in other places. But the idea that because of the political situation that’s happening in America now, in which there’s great antipathy between Blacks and Jews in New York, and X, doing a piece about Malcolm X, seemed to bring out those old fears and those old feelings. So I think what happens is that a lot of the press really dealt with that, with more about what are, I think, their problems with Malcolm X rather than dealing with a piece of art or a work of art, what it’s about. A lot of it was trying to say, “This was polemic,” or “This was propaganda,” or something, because they couldn’t relate, they couldn’t really make a distinction between content and form. I think that exists, that still happens. I think what happens is, and the danger, I think, that we see in America now, is a real sense of censorship that’s about to take place, and that’s been taking place.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: What forms is that taking?

ANTHONY DAVIS: Well, I think when you look at issues of funding, for example. I think that works which are political, which are likely to excite or alienate supposedly, are less likely to get funded now.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Can you give an example?

ANTHONY DAVIS: That’s been happening. With the recent Helms stuff, that’s really dangerous, but I know with my experience with X that there were foundations who even though they normally were interested in funding works of art and operas, etc., could not, because of the political nature of X and what Malcolm X was about, could not deal with that.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So private donors withdrew and other sources had to be found?

ANTHONY DAVIS: A lot of pressure was put on New York City Opera.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: What sources were found to support the opera?

ANTHONY DAVIS: Well, we went into the Black community for it. But I think it was very interesting because it became a whole political thing. I remember a lot of donors, for example, who normally gave money to New York City Opera, withdrew their money. People refused to give money to the opera because they were producing this work.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: What’s the relation to criticism in all this?

MORTON SUBOTNICK: Can I ask a question just before this?

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Sure, go ahead.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: Do you feel that the money will be there, in the future, if you were not doing a political work? I mean, do you feel that the money was withdrawn from you or the subject? There’s a slight distinction here. In the case of the Korean composer, the person is boycotted. The person himself can’t do anything anymore. I don’t know if that’s the case.

ANTHONY DAVIS: No, I think what happens is that there’s a sense of eliminating the possibility. I think what we’re going to see is art that’s not threatening, and there’s a lot of pressure to produce what I call safe art.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: But the mechanism is different.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: What’s the difference if he can’t be himself?

MORTON SUBOTNICK: The mechanism is different.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: But he can’t be Anthony Davis. He has to do something that…

MORTON SUBOTNICK: The result may be the same, but the mechanism is different.

ANTHONY DAVIS: But there’s pressure for that. And I think that’s been going on for some time and there is a sense of those kinds of pressures. I think producers feel it, the funding pressures. Now it seems, through the National Endowment, I mean you can see much more of that. I think it’s a real present danger.

TOM JOHNSON: Well, this reaction doesn’t seem to have hurt Under the Double Moon, has it? That was well supported…

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: There’s some misunderstanding about what occurred. Private donors to the New York City Opera withdrew their normal donations because of this particular subject. As I understand it, Black labor unions in Harlem and many other people in the Black community came forward, made donations, and actually bought tickets for that evening. I mean, I was there. The audience was over 50 per cent Blacks.

ANTHONY DAVIS: No. What I think is funny is that initially it looked as if it was going to be impossible to produce this work again. The work was sold out every performance at the New York City Opera. There were lines around the house. But the reason is because, as we know about opera, ticket sales don’t pay for opera. So what happens is basically the difference in the private support, the sources of private support. And when the subject matter or whatever of the work offends those who give private support, then you find that there’s less support for the work.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: But what happened really was not less support but just diversification of the sources of support.

ANTHONY DAVIS: But it didn’t really compensate for that. So, for example, when we go back… We would normally say, “Okay, why don’t we do it again?” Now they are going to do it again, but because of the new regime. But it was really difficult.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: Was the press involved? Was it at any point reported that people were withdrawing support for the production? Did the press actually participate?

ANTHONY DAVIS: No, no, no. They did not report that. They wouldn’t report that. In fact, we sent press releases out about these issues. No, I don’t think was ever really reported. In fact, it was usually reported how abundantly we were funded. It was very funny, a very funny phenomenon. I would look at the paper and someone would say, “Well, they’ve had this and this, and they were so abundantly funded,” and then realize that I just had to raise $20,000 to pay my bills for this thing.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Ricardo, you’ve not only been active in Buenos Aires but you travel quite a bit. What is your perspective on all of this business of music criticism?

RICARDO DAL FARRA: Well, first I would like to say something about what we were saying before about information and opinion and what is happening in Argentina and probably in many other places. Normally in Argentina, you don’t have critics of contemporary music. You have critics to write about all kinds of performances, normally on traditional music, classical music. From time to time you can find critics of contemporary music, but they have opinions but no information. Then, what we were talking about before, about critics being opinion-makers, probably the critics in contemporary music, or, in my case, in electro-acoustic music… I never had a critique of a performance because they don’t want to go because they don’t understand anything at all of what is happening. The effort is too big to get some information to understand what is happening when you are going to a performance and then to give an opinion. I think that normally you find some critics with some opinions of what they are hearing in ten minutes about the work of probably one year or many years. And the person making the critiques doesn’t know anything about what he is talking about.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Was there any difference in the period of the military dictatorship to the present period in music criticism or was it simply just business as usual?

RICARDO DAL FARRA: I think it’s more or less the same. Probably now it’s different because the last government was very open to cultural activities. But, anyway, you can hear many times comments that, for example, electronic music or something like that, is terrorism. Some kind of suppression. It’s not all the people. I mean, there is a big audience in Argentina for concerts of electro-acoustic music. We have in Buenos Aires one concert each week of electro-acoustic and computer music. This probably doesn’t happen in any other city of the world, one concert each week. But you can never find a critique about what is happening at those concerts.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: I recently talked with Astor Piazzolla when he was in California, and he always says the same thing, that his music was regarded as some sort of social criticism and therefore dangerous.

RICARDO DAL FARRA: But that is different. Because here, Astor Piazzolla is an avant-garde musician, a contemporary composer. Not in Argentina. In Argentina he is a tango composer. Ten years ago he was not a tango composer because his tangos were not traditional tangos. For many years he was not a tango composer. Now he is a tango composer. But he is not the same here. I was at the last New Music America Festival and there were several pieces of Astor Piazzolla. For me it was very surprising to find his pieces played in this Festival because living in Argentina, Astor Piazzolla’s music, for me–and I like his music very much–is not typical contemporary music. It’s an extension of tango music.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Annea, you haven’t had a chance to say anything yet. Any thoughts on all this?

ANNEA LOCKWOOD: It doesn’t really feel like a burning issue to me, unless I receive a really bad criticism, a criticism that really misunderstands what I’m doing, of course. Then it becomes very personal. I just had a few, rather unsophisticated thoughts. It’s not something I think about. The issues that Anthony raised, about the marginalization of the arts and so on, seem to me much more vital, more interesting.