Music Criticism is Broken and It’s All Your Fault

One of my first composition teachers, Evan Chambers, made it a point to tell his students that learning how to talk about music was almost as important—and in some ways as important—as learning how to write music. At the time he said it, I believe he meant that verbalizing was a valuable compositional aid that gave shape and purpose to amorphous ideas. But in the intervening years, that thought has grown and taken on new and broader meanings for me. When composers and musicians don’t speak, we allow others to direct the discourse and determine the ways our music is contextualized and appreciated.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; music’s protean ability to accumulate new meanings is a large part of its enduring fascination and vitality. But it’s worth looking at just who is speaking and exactly what they’re saying. Historically, it’s generally established music critics doing this work, and the relationship between artists and critics is often fraught.

Most of the time this is background radiation, but it becomes painfully apparent whenever a critic does something especially cringeworthy, as when Norman Lebrecht expresses his disdain for “Afro-American” music, or when Rupert Christiansen makes nasty comments about soprano Tara Erraught’s weight, or when Mark Swed ruminates on the length of pianist Yuja Wang’s dress, to name a few instances. Some of these are worse than others (I feel a little bad for lumping Swed’s thoughtful essay in with the other two), but I bring them up to show that these aren’t isolated incidents; they are part of a continuing trend.

Rupert Christiansen writing for The Telegraph

The flip side is that these comments tend to generate a lot of discussion that crystallizes public attention around these issues. This is a fairly new thing, with the pace of the back-and-forth greatly accelerated by the internet and where more voices can participate. I find this kind of metacriticism—writing about writing!—to be immensely valuable, with the potential to actually shift attitudes in the long term.

But what does it say about the current state of criticism when the discussion of reviews is arguably more vital than the reviews themselves? It points to something deeply broken and dysfunctional about the current model.

Fundamentally, while the individual gaffes are easy to point out, I believe these problems are systemic. Between the decline in newspaper readership and shifts in culture, the number of classical music critics has undoubtedly dwindled in recent years, but as their ranks have shrunk, their perceived power within the community has remained constant, or even increased. Arguably, the internet is now more relevant than print media, but because new music banks on prestige instead of mass popularity, it still relies on old media to endorse and legitimize it. A good review from a major publication is still a rare and coveted thing, not just for the publicity it provides, but for the cachet it confers. Reviews are capable of canonizing or anointing artists in a way that is difficult if not impossible to achieve through other means.

newspaper reading

Photo courtesy of Miguel Pires da Rosa via Flickr.

This places far, far too much responsibility on the vanishingly small number of active critics working today, and it can create an atmosphere of mutual resentment. The easy answer to this, which is maybe a facile answer, is that more people should be writing about new music, including and especially practitioners of new music. This idea has its share of detractors. A great number of words have been spilled on the virtues and drawbacks of the composer as critic, with the objectivity of composers often coming under fire. Interestingly, this is something Christiansen also invoked when called out for his invective. His comments about Tara Erraught’s appearance were made in the name of “disinterested criticism,” or so he claims—never mind that similar verbiage about male singers had never graced his column. The lesson is clear: objectivity doesn’t matter as much as having a veneer of plausible deniability.

Speaking from experience as a double agent of sorts, this impression of objectivity can be quite challenging for a writer-composer to maintain. I’ll give one example. I recently went to a concert that featured some works by friends and colleagues, and a few works by composers unknown to me. I thoroughly enjoyed all the works by the composers I knew, and disliked everything else on the program. I was reasonably certain that I would have made the same exact aesthetic judgement if everyone was a stranger to me, but I knew on the drive home that I could not possibly write about the concert. If I did so honestly, it would look terribly partisan, and dishonesty was of course out of the question.

Perhaps this is why critics so often employ the idea of “disinterested criticism” as a shield when they are accused of being unnecessarily vindictive, petty, or cruel. Like Fox News’s “fair and balanced” slogan, it doesn’t really denote a commitment to objectivity, but it offers a disingenuous way to continue to be partisan while pretending not to be. Things would be better, maybe, if we were open about our inevitable allegiances. Or as Kyle Gann puts it: “Critics have agendas, or any interesting critic does, and given enough column inches, those agendas emerge.”

All of this indicates to me that concert reviews and album reviews, traditionally the bread and butter of music criticism, should play a much, much smaller role than they currently do. I will stop short of calling them obsolete, since they seem to still be obligatory. But I look forward to a hypothetical future where they are just a tiny part of a vast landscape of compelling music writing.

A fair and obvious follow-up question would be: okay, smartypants, if not reviews then what? Short answer: I don’t know. Long answer: Anything at all. I don’t know what can or should replace or supplement reviews, but this should be an era of experimentation in writing about new music, at least until we figure out what sticks. Traditional media outlets typically have style guidelines and space limitations that are not ideally suited for putting new music in context. (Swed’s reviews for the LA Times are often preceded by lengthy history lectures, leaving little room for discussion of the actual concerts themselves.) But blogs and most online publications are not bound by these same conventions.

Ted Gioia has complained that pop music journalism has degenerated into “lifestyle reporting,” divorced from musical content and musical knowledge, but I honestly think that new music journalism could use a little more lifestyle reporting. I don’t mean that we should be more sensationalist, but we should be better about conveying the fact that new music is the product of individuals with a wide range of personalities and quirks and challenges, and most of these people are not dead. I’m thinking of something like video game journalist Cara Ellison’s EMBED WITH GAMES series of articles. For each article, she travels to stay with “a different important game auteur of our times [to] write about their life, the culture that influences their games’ work, and look at how their immediate environment affects their outlook and design philosophy.” The result is intensely personal and illuminating, and unlike anything I’ve ever encountered in writing about new music, which is often dry and impersonal.

Owen Pallett writing for Slate

At the same time I think Gioia is a little bit right, and we could do with more substantive writing about musical content as well. Written in response to Gioia’s call to arms, Owen Pallett’s semi-satirical pop music theory articles weren’t perfect, but they were interesting, and generated surprising enthusiasm for music theory outside of the typical audience for such things. Clearly, there’s a great hunger for musical insight out there, but outside of academic journals written for a specialist audience, there isn’t much writing about new music that actually satisfies this craving.

A final pertinent question might be: okay then, who will write these fancy hypothetical things? If you’ve read this far then the answer is you. I’m serious about this. Whether you’re a composer or a musician or an enthusiast, I know you’re probably pressed for time and that you are being asked to take on an increasingly overwhelming number of duties. But chances are your perspective is not being represented, and if you don’t share it, who will? Sure, talking about music, like dancing about architecture, is patently absurd. But at least for now, it seems to be a necessity.

9 thoughts on “Music Criticism is Broken and It’s All Your Fault

  1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    What are you asking? The number of articulate, engaging and well-written articles and essays by composers about music has never been greater. The blogs in particular are fine and many. The online news and opinion outlets (like NMBx) are extensive. There is far too much excellent and perceptive writing even to read every day.

    Are you suggesting that composers attempt to become critics for mainstream news media, and somehow beat down those doors to be represented there?

    Reply
  2. william osborne

    I wouldn’t defend many things Norman Lebrecht says, but to say he doesn’t like African-American music is false and not reflected in the comment you link to. Your remark vaguely portrays him as racist, and is exactly the sort of cheap journalism you’re criticizing. His editorial addressed the problems with sexism in rap music which is known for its language like “bitches” and “hos” and other forms of misogyny. And he questions why the Seattle Symphony would present a rapper known for that kind of thought.

    Reply
    1. Isaac Schankler

      His exact words were, “Rap is a divisive Afro-American male genre. We stand for plurality, diversity, inclusion.”This is so brainbendingly nonsensical that it would take another entire article to truly unpack, so I feel okay with condensing it here.

      You perform the same sort of elision when you equate “Baby Got Back” with music that calls women “bitches” and “hos,” while the song contains neither of these words. I’m perfectly willing to consider the proposition that the song is sexist, but I tend to defer to the other gender on these matters, and I really only heard white men complaining about this.

      Reply
      1. william osborne

        Yes, those are his exact words. They do not reflect a general dislike for African-American music. I don’t want to side track the important discussion about composers as writers so I will just list a url that discusses the problems with “Baby Got Back”:

        http://focusing-on-feminism.blogspot.com/2010/10/media-project-baby-got-back.html

        And here is a wiki article about misogyny in hip-hop culture that is a worthwhile read:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misogyny_in_hip_hop_culture

        On the other hand, Isaac is right. “Baby Got Back” isn’t nearly as sexist or misogynist as a lot of work in the genre.

        Another reason composers should learn to write well is to explore moral and ethical topics in the field that might not otherwise be addressed.

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      2. Phil Fried

        The song in question is a comic song. Comedy is can be dangerous because its habit of offending someone. Jobs have been lost on private jokes made public. It is easy to misunderstand or be offended by a joke that tells a positive story in a negative or profane way. It seems that few of my fellow composers are known for their sense of humor. My own attempts at humor here have been misunderstood more than once.

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  3. Kyle Gann

    Isaac, of course I completely agree with you – I would have to, wouldn’t I? – and thanks for mentioning me. My first thought was that Evan Chambers was completely right. I’m always trying to get young composers to write about their music, and music in general, partly because we educated composers inherit a ton of vapid platitudes about the profession that just don’t stand up to scrutiny, and I think if composers would learn to think more clearly, in words, about their music, they would start composing more clearly as well. I also highly recommend a thorough grounding in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, from Aristotle through Ruskin to Nelson Goodman, Stanley Cavell, and others. There is a hell of a lot to be said for talking about what the purpose of music is or can be, and how it’s achieved or not achieved. Also for talking to audiences about music, and letting them know what we’re trying to do.

    I think on one level the wider problem you discuss is working itself out gradually. There is a tremendous upsurge in young composers getting graduate degrees in musicology – often the very composers who don’t feel comfortable or welcome in the academic composition world – and they go out and write about new music on a scholarly but usually very accessible level. I know more than a dozen such, and the Society of Minimalist Music, which is a musicological entity, is half full of composers. The question is, where should their writings appear? The internet provides quite a few answers, and I am one of many people who has started posting academic papers on my blog, rather than relegating them to academic journals behind paywalls. (Bypassing “peer review” sometimes has its advantages, too.) The newspaper review paradigm, based as it’s always been entirely in a capitalist advertising system, grows ever more irrelevant with each passing year. We don’t need people giving thumbs-up/thumbs-down judgments, we need context and background. Virgil Thomson understood that, but to do better takes a lot more print space than most newspapers can/will afford. It also takes critics who have been educated to do what they’re doing, not just erstwhile musicians who fell into it (as I did and almost everyone does). I wish we had graduate music criticism programs. The Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, has actually started one, which I’ve been advising them on.

    If it’s any consolation (it won’t be), the level of music reviews today couldn’t possibly be any worse than it already was thirty, forty years ago. Donal Henahan, as chief critic at the Times, was a guaranteed disaster every week in the 1980s – the man was on a one-man crusade to destroy new (post-1940) music. My forehead is rather flat from slapping it and banging it on the dinner table as I was reading the Times music section back in those years. It’s almost a relief that they barely try to cover new classical music now.

    Reply
  4. Mark N. Grant

    Mr. Schankler, I agree with Dennis (and William) above: music criticism isn’t any more broken now than it ever was– all of the issues you raise are old hat issues that have perennially surfaced for the last 150 years. As the author of a 1998 book on the subject (“Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America”) I know whereof I speak. As a composer and sometime critic, I have always subscribed to the idea that composers make the best critics, but the New York Times has since the 1960s observed a policy of not hiring practicing composers as critics, a stance echoed by the remaining leading newspapers in this country. Notwithstanding this, all of the Times’s current music critics are excellently informed musicians and discerning critics. Read old issues of “Modern Music” from the 1930s and you’ll see composers savaging other composers.

    I do agree with you, though, that some critics for newspapers and magazines today, in a vain effort to maintain cultural importance and not be drowned out in the blogosphere, are trying to engage the visual culture’s issues (weight, appearance, etc.). I find the current music critics I’ve read generally far more honest and objective than some of the current critics of theater, film, and books who are elite bylines in the elite publications. The sheer hype, BS, and actual falsehoods that some respected names in criticism in these fields put over in a blandly nonchalant manner sometimes staggers me (I can especially speak to theater criticism as I have practiced that as well as music criticism). Unfortunately, I now disappointingly find one elite name in music criticism himself edging into that corner at times. Formerly objective, he has now fallen head over heels in love with the nimbus of his own regard.

    Reply
  5. Phil Fried

    Isaac it looks like the above folks have it covered as it were. All 3 above make interesting reading, besides them there are 1000′s of composer blogs out there. A brief goggle of any of the posters here for say the last few months will show that most of them have their own blogs.
    I do.

    My problem with mainstream criticism is that it only focuses on mainstream activity. Another problem is that critics are not hired because of respect for their opinions but because their bosses believe that their opinions reflect the majority of their readers.

    Reply
  6. Mark N. Grant

    May I clarify that the last two sentences of my post above do NOT refer to my esteemed colleague Kyle Gann though they may appear to because of the unfortunate placement of my comment immediately after his. Kyle and I may have had occasional squabbles in the threads of NewMusicBox in the past but I would never characterize him with the words I wrote above. I deplore that the Village Voice no longer publishes his criticism. Composer critics like Kyle are exactly what we sorely need more of nowadays, not just in the blogs but in commercial journalism.

    Reply

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