Edward T. Cone: Not Theory, Practice…

Composition as Criticism and Criticism as Composition

FRANK J. OTERI: I first read your essays almost twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. They were a great inspiration to me because my life has been a divided life—somebody who writes about music and somebody who also composes music. I came across a comment when I was going through all your essays again, recently, from you essay “Schubert’s Unfinished Business” from 1984 where you said, “Criticism and composition are not necessarily distinct.”

EDWARD T. CONE: That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: I thought that was really interesting and I’d like to flesh out that thought. You’re known principally in the world as a theorist. All your life you’ve also been a composer.

EDWARD T. CONE: I don’t call myself a theorist by the way. I call myself a writer on musical topics. I don’t consider what I do theory, I mean, in the sense that theory has become something very esoteric, very precise, and of a self-enclosed world. I’m not interested in that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, there’s an interesting thing in labels. I hate the word critic. In our society today “critic” implies negativity. You criticize something…

EDWARD T. CONE: It shouldn’t be. For me to be a good critic is a term of high praise. The best criticism isn’t necessarily negative. I consider what I do criticism. When I write, let’s say, “In Praise of Schubert,” I call that criticism.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s the original meaning of the word. It’s a shame we sort of lost that word in our common usage in English at this point. Whenever people hear the word “to criticize” they say, “Oh, he hates criticism.” It means he hates being criticized….

EDWARD T. CONE: Negative criticism, of course!

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes! To get back to this original question, you’ve written about music but you’re also a composer. You’ve written over eighty pieces of music, according to the booklet notes on the CRI disc. That disc is a few years old, so there are probably a few more pieces now. How do you identify yourself primarily?

EDWARD T. CONE: As a musician. I mean, I’m also a pianist and started out as a pianist. I try not to categorize myself any further than that. It’s making music and talking about it. To get back to your original question—or original reference to what I wrote about composition and criticism not being necessarily opposed to each other—a composer has to be a critic. If he isn’t the most devastating critic of his own music, he’s not a good composer. Every compositional decision you make is a critical decision. You have to choose among several alternatives and you obviously negatively criticize the ones you don’t choose.

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