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.