Writing about Writing About Music, Interactively

The internet is ubiquitous and open to everyone, yet it still surprises me when a figure who is the topic of discussion on NewMusicBox pops in—like, that actual person—to have his or her say on the matter. The comments area of Alexandra Gardner’s post last week on the Verge Ensemble’s recent press coverage featured not one but two such dramatic entrances: Both critic Charles Downey (whose work came under some criticism from Alex and others, including myself) and composer and Verge director Steve Antosca (whose work came under some criticism from Downey) spoke their respective pieces, and for a moment the promise of online interconnectivity was realized—no sooner did we begin to speculate on Downey’s situation as a music journalist than he appeared and set us straight. Antosca came along shortly thereafter to offer his perspective, and the whole thing was extraordinarily edifying. We can all feel good about it. Now that this round of high-fives has been discharged, though, I wonder if the problem at the root of our objections to the reviews—both Downey’s and Cecelia Porter’s—could be more thoroughly theorized.

On one level, you have to sympathize with the music critics: Their job is to describe a classical music event—an esoteric phenomenon right out of the gate—in a very few words and in a way that all readers can be expected to understand. This is a rough row to hoe, not least because understanding music is super difficult. I’ve been studying it at the university level for ten years, and stabs in the dark are about the best I can do. There is no way to give an adequate account of what happens during a musical performance in 250 words; it simply can’t be done. This is doubly true of contemporary music. I can’t imagine having to walk any distance at all in a critic’s shoes, and thanks to the generous bandwidth and general lack of accountability I enjoy at NewMusicBox, I don’t have to.

But I do have to read what they write. Composers’ livelihoods are to some extent dependent on reviews, and it’s a matter of professional awareness that we keep up with them. Commenter eaj’s point that we—that is, composers—are not the “typical audience” for a classical music review is well taken, because we have the knowledge-apparatus to instead read music writings by theorists and musicologists who are subject to peer review: However, if these newspaper articles aren’t for us, who are they for?

Who, in other words, is curious about Steve Antosca’s piece circulation and could make use of Varèse’s Poème électronique—but only a piece as well-known as this one—as a reference point to surmise its aesthetic? Who knows enough about contemporary music to fruitfully parse the shorthand that Downey and his fellow music critics are obliged to use, but not so much that they find it unfulfilling to do so? If, as Norman Lebrecht and many others have argued, arts criticism in traditional media is in hot water, finding out what happened to that informed-but-not-nerdy reader who can get the maximum benefit from classical music reviews in print may be a step toward getting it out.

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3 thoughts on “Writing about Writing About Music, Interactively

  1. holbrooke

    However, if these newspaper articles aren’t for us, who are they for?

    It’s worth considering that the answer might be an honest: nobody.

    Reply
  2. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    Colin- this is a great post; thank you! I read Alexandra’s post and the subsequent comments in fascination, and my unshakable reaction was that on the whole, composers weren’t so thrilled about getting reviews at all.

    Not to put words in anyone’s mouth, but let me make an honest observation. As much as we like to be open-minded about music and compositional approaches, my experience at a university level has been that composers are extraordinarily nitpicky. We get UP IN ARMS if someone uses the dirty S word (serialism) to incorrectly describe our music (or worse yet, the M word for the likes of Reich and Glass). I have on many occasions found myself more than a little peeved when someone says “That was nice, but it needed a melody.” “NO IT DIDN’T!!” I think, “if it needed a melody I would have dang well put one in!”

    Informed or not, this reaction is an honest one, and equally as valid as any comment by a professional critic, fellow composer, or my grandma. If an honest comment can be damaging (or at least mis-representative), we either have to take the late Mr. Babbitt’s route of kindly asking the audience to stop listening, or take it in stride.

    If the goal of a review is to deliver, in very few words, a synopsis and opinion, then we must learn to take the opinions as they come. Accuracy is not even an issue. All this said, it’s my belief that the NEWSPAPER is the entity with the most responsibility to the work of art. A reviewer is hired to review, and yes, it damages careers. So the newspaper either needs to A) stop hiring reviewers and just offer listings; or B) find some persuasive way to convince readers that engaging with unfamiliar music is really super fun. It’s not gonna be A….

    If we’re going to allow/force/encourage people to listen, we have to be prepared to face *gasp* “incorrect” interpretations of our work. And with a medium as abstract as contemporary music, we should already be masters of this.

    Reply
  3. Elena

    I suppose one of the only reason for contemporary classical music reviews is for non-composers/novice listeners to classify pieces and composers by comparisons. It makes people more comfortable to have things in order and be able to bounce from one composer to the next – even if the comparisons are off. For example, I am more inclined to care about a review if it states why the criticisms were made in reference to other works instead of just the reviewer’s bias opinion.

    -Elena

    Reply

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