Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Critic

[Ed. Note: This essay, written in Nantucket in 1982, appeared in Ned Rorem’s collection Setting The Tone: Essays and a Diary (Coward McCann, 1983) which is currently out of print. Many of the issues he raises in this 20 year-old essay are still extremely relevant today, which is why with the kind permission of Mr. Rorem, we reprint it here.]

1. Critics of words use words. Critics of music use words.

Those thirteen syllables, penned a decade ago, are as pertinent as any I can make on the matter.

If the final comment on a work of art is another work of art, might some critical prose equal, as art, the art it describes? Yes, but that very prose is independent of the art it describes.

The best critical writing is superfluous to its subject, and musical criticism is the most superfluous of all.

2. The music reviewer differs from fellow reviewers in that he deals with ephemerae, and hears mostly the past.

Concerts are one-shot deals. If a Rubinstein or a James Galway “ran” for five months, like Gielgud or Lena Horne, would they pack them in each night? Unlike the painting or movie or theater or dance critic, the music critic writes epitaphs rather than birth notices. Since what he reviews won’t be repeated, how can his readers profit?

Meanwhile the fellow reviewers are immersed in new works. Oh, they do consider retrospectives of old masters like Picasso or Tennessee Williams, Balanchine or Ingmar Bergman, but they speak of “revivals” of O’Neill or of Oscar Wilde. We musicians do not speak of even a Beethoven revival since Beethoven is our rule.

The music critic is thus prey to the ennui of the Eternal Return, and to the anxiety of being unneeded. But if he cannot aspire to high art so long as he deals in other people’s art, he can be a useful citizen by committing himself to the music of today and letting the chips of the past fall where they may.

3. Some of my best friends are critics; but the basic rapport with, for example, Virgil Thomson or the late William Flanagan, has always been compositional, Flanagan-as-critic was a purveyor of free tickets; Thomson-as-critic was the best in the world and hence free of rules. But that was in another time.

The New York Times‘s policy was to fire reporters who were found to be practicing musicians. Thomson’s Tribune policy was to hire only practicing musicians. The Tribune wrote from the inside out and sometimes the writer was female. The Times still writes from the outside in and is represented solely by males.

Whether composers make the best music critics is debatable; but composers, even bad ones, know better than anyone how music is made—providing they have heard their works in good performances.

4. The critic as composer manqué is an old notion. The composer as critic manqué is more amusing. As one who straddles both professions I grow schizoid. But both composer and critic are different from “real” listeners. The drabbest reviewer is necessarily more responsible than the brightest Music Lover in that he must formally set—or rather, reset—the tone of a concert. When I must report on a concert, I listen differently than when I am the General Public. Indeed, I hear my own music differently according to the occasion.

As a sometime critic my duty is to every composer. As a full-time composer my duty is only to myself. In theory, all composers, even the despicable ones, are my brethren, while all critics, even the adorable ones, are my foes. I carry an enemy within me.

5. Some of my best friends are performers. But since composers and performers mostly face in opposite directions in our day, those friends are among the 5 percent who care about me and my (sometimes despicable) brethren. They are a race apart and the pariahs of critics who, merely to earn a living, are more concerned with who plays than what’s played. Even the listings in their periodicals name minor performers but not major premières.

A soprano friend claims that her long career is now but a mass of yellowing newsprint. Is the critic’s career more? Do not his stardom, his power, stem from a ubiquity which, like the soprano’s, must continually be reaffirmed? Nothing dates like yesterday’s paper.

6. 3 August 1980. Back from New Mexican glory, I open newspapers for the first time in weeks to rewitness, not unexpectedly, exhaustion, corroborated, in her already notorious dressing-down of Pauline Kael, by Renata Adler, who declares in The New York Review of Books: “No serious critic can devote himself frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which cannot bear, would be misrepresented by, review in depth.” And so sometimes these reviewers theorize, as when Tom Johnson adjacently in The Village Voice describes in 300 words the whole history of contemporary music as a “quest for freedom,” without once explaining: freedom from what? From the past? But the simplest observer knows that the most rigorous censorship has never squelched art so much as obliged artists to confect alternative molds, whereas electronic studios, while presumably supplying composers unlimited palettes, have come up with nothing very worthy. Meanwhile in the Times, during his second week as the world’s most powerful music critic, Donal Henahan bemoans the sterile outcome of the promising sixties: “We [who is we?] continued to harbor the pitiable hope that the next turn of the cards would bring us another Bach, another Mozart, another Mahler.” Why always the Germans? Why not another Debussy, or Ives, or Britten? But of course there is never “another.” Artists, are the only non-duplicable commodities that exist. Even in America. While Henahan extols the past as ever true and Johnson berates the past as ever false, both bark up the wrong tree in assuming that any work of art is “like” any other, even by the same artist. Now, what Renata Adler says about critics (whom she does not subsume in the artist category, though it’s usually done these days) is equally applicable to artists. The latter on schedule must come up with new works, if not with new ideas, or die of hunger. It has always been so. An artist refashions the same notion over and over and disperses it always for a price. Not only Andy Warhol, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Georgia O’Keeffe and Francis Poulenc, but Braque, Tolstoy, Michelangelo and, yes (whisper the name), even Mozart. Artists have only four or five ideas in their whole lives. They spend their lives sorting out those ideas in order to make them communicable in various guises.

7. A critic must be able to tell—and then to tell you—the first-rate from the second-rate. In every field except music this question has been settled so far as the past is concerned, and concentration centers on the moment. Music critics’ chief business should be the discouragement of standard masterpieces. At this point his function is moral; to warn against being beguiled by trends.

Most new music is bad, and it is the critic’s duty to say so. But let him say so with sorrow, not with relish. The glee with which some of our head critics declare “I told you so” as yet another premiere bites the dust is no less contemptible than Casals belittling Stravinsky in order to sit on the Russian’s throne. The great unwashed in heeding these spokesmen become exonerated from what should be a normal need for today’s music.

8. The most honest description of the creative process is: making it up as you go along. The most honest description of the critical process is: judgment according to kinetic reaction. Neither process is casual. But for every Henahan who at least knows what he hates, there is one who is not sure of what he likes. Do we even know what we believe? If so, how to react to the belief? The not knowing has itself become in America a kind of belief. We like to talk about it more than to listen to it; it is made in order to be reviewed; it does not exist if it is not discussed.

9. Gide’s quip, “Don’t be too quick to understand me,” obtains to us all, since we don’t even understand ourselves. A composer doesn’t want to be understood, he wants not to be misunderstood. Of course, Gide could also have said, “Don’t be too quick to misunderstand me.”

Can a living composer be a sacred cow? Can a living composer become a fallen idol? If one never sees raves for, say, Virgil Thomson’s non-operatic works, neither does one see reviews that are less than deferential. Why? Meanwhile, even a Harold Schonberg gives Elliott Carter the benefit of the doubt. Why? And whatever became of the unanimous championing of George Crumb? If you explain that, well, lately Crumb hasn’t written much to review, then why not review the eighty-seventh performance of an old piece as you do with Verdi?

If critics are tastemakers, why has none blown the whistle on the concept of greatness—whatever that may be—as absolute and irreversible? Perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth is trash. Perhaps even Babbitt and Sessions are antiseptic bores who, if they appeal to executants, appeal through challenge and not pleasure. (And I do allow the roIe of ugliness-as-pleasure in art: Mozart and Ravel, at their highest, contain ugliness. But when all is ugly, nothing is ugly.)

10. If critics applaud the emperor’s new clothes along with the Philistines, some recognize the real thing when they hear it. But what critic will put his finger on the absence of the real thing?

Who ever questions the repertory of American song recitalists who sing in all languages but their own? More interesting, who ever remarks on how our national inferiority complex extends to those few composers who still write songs? Why are the texts of Crumb and Bowles almost all in Spanish, those of Perle and Weber almost all in German, of Harbison and Thorne in Italian, of Harrison and Glass in Esperanto and Sanskrit? Should these men claim to “feel” their music in these languages, I reply: You have no moral right to feel these languages before exploring the gnarled thrills of your native tongue, your gift, and yours alone. What a waste! Can you name one European who has forsaken his language to compose only in American?

11. The same Donal Henahan who knows what he hates has on four occasions reviewed my cycle War Scenes with four conflicting verdicts: memorable, bad, good, forgettable.

Have I ever learned about my own music through reviews of it? No, no more than through annotators who sometimes point out trouvailles I never knew were there. I’ve never altered a piece because of a critic. Unlike a performer, a composer is always ready: his performance is “honed,” cannot be improved. A good write-up, alas, seems never to assure further performances.

Can I as a critic criticize myself as a composer? Yes, during the composing process, but no, during the performance. Unless the performance is years later…at which time I am no longer the composer of the piece performed.

12. Does public criticism otherwise affect me? And what do I stand to lose by voicing these opinions before critics?

Bad reviews make me feel worse than good reviews make me feel good, but no reviews are saddest. Although I’ve never read anything about myself that I’ve agreed with, or even understood, bad or good, I still prefer good to bad, since friends and foes might read it. But mainly I am ignored by the press. If the punishment for complaining is to be further ignored, I have nothing to lose.

Why be paranoid about a career that has prevailed for three decades? Yet what is there to think when, for instance, The Village Voice and The New Yorker show good will toward certain composers they disdain, listen to tapes of others whose concerts they’ve missed, while leaving my three decades quite unrecorded? Perhaps they have nothing to say because my work is devoid of device; expressivity in itself is not food for comment. When the fatted calf is killed for those prodigal brethren coming back to the C-major fold, no one attends me precisely because I’ve always been a good boy. In longing for proofs of love, I have held back, literally wept. In flailing out in prose I have shown myself naked and been answered with derision. To combat critics on their terms is a losing game. The frustration of being nonexistent keeps us awake, while they arise fresh in the day to hand out or withhold yet again their merits and demerits based on who builds a better mousetrap. The critic forever has the last word. Or as the case may be, the last silence.

13. In Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird Wallace Stevens wonders

…which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

In music there is no “just after.” A critic will never recapture the sound. The writings of even a Proust, a Shaw, a Tovey may be music—evocative, penetrating, ambiguous, yet inevitable—but they are not the music. We can recall being in love but we cannot revive lovemaking except while making love. Sometimes when we finally hear the piece a critic has so wonderfully extolled we find no link. Stevens has it both ways but only within his poem, and our memory of his poem is the poem. Similarly, the memory and therefore the criticism of music lie only within the music.