Problems Facing Music Criticism From the COMPOSER-TO-COMPOSER Series at the Telluride Institute

Problems Facing Music Criticism From the COMPOSER-TO-COMPOSER Series at the Telluride Institute

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: But I think what was very important with you in New York, as I knew it at that time, when I was there, there was Uptown and Downtown aesthetics, and you were a representative for the Village, which was the more experimental and I would say avant-garde aesthetic, and since you left there’s no one to replace you.

TOM JOHNSON: Well, I wasn’t the only one that left. A lot of composers left too. I wanted to say one thing to something. Alan was talking about jargon. He said that he thought that inventing jargon was not too useful but I think sometimes this is very useful. I often think about how in art criticism there’s such a healthy dialogue it seems to me between the artists and the critics. Some critic comes up with a term like post-minimalism or post-modern and everybody has to try to figure out, “What does post-modern mean?” and the artists start thinking, “Well, let’s see. Am I post-modern or not?” It makes a dialogue. I think it really is a useful exchange. Or what’s the difference between repetitive music and minimalism and other terms that are sort of vaguely related but they’re really different? When critics start to label things or come up with a new label…

ANTHONY DAVIS: “Fit to be demolished.”

TOM JOHNSON: It would be nice to have a more useful dialogue back and forth as I see in art criticism.

ANTHONY DAVIS: I think it’s really a problem, that when I first came to New York, this whole Uptown/Downtown dialogue was going on. And I was always impressed with the fact that Blacks didn’t exist in either. So, to me, it was like a dialogue of mutual exclusivity. I had a very violent reaction to it because it seemed to be talking very little about what was going on.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: But you were covered quite extensively in jazz criticism, and you belonged to that category and not the other, so it’s not as if…

TOM JOHNSON: There were three camps of criticisms: the uptown critic, the downtown critic, and the jazz critic.

ANTHONY DAVIS: To me it was all pretty misrepresentative. I felt that a lot of those distinctions, and I think still, when I read Peter Garland‘s article, a lot of those distinctions blur. I mean, I think a lot of that schism isn’t too real to me.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: It’s not too real altogether.

ANTHONY DAVIS: I think there are a lot of other ways in which we divide ourselves and I think they’re ultimately very damaging. So, I found what emerged was a certain kind of dogma that, as a composer, I found repugnant–both the Downtown dogma and the Uptown dogma. So, what I dislike about a lot of critics, in New York particularly, is that they’re more sociologists than critics. They’re really looking at it from the idea of a social phenomenon and an analysis of a group of people rather than looking at it as the emergence of an idea or art as a form. That really upsets me.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: The question, though, that Tania brought up, “Is a critic insensitive to a particular social group?” Is that relevant? There are aspects of sociology, I suppose, that are important. You wouldn’t want somebody not to know the background from which you begin to emerge as a composer.

ANTHONY DAVIS: No, but I think that what they do is enslave you to it. I mean, that’s what it is.

TANIA LEÓN: I’d like to elaborate a little bit on that because yesterday Tom and I were having a conversation dealing specifically with these issues and by dealing with colleagues that come from different walks of life. I could actually mention that people that are living under these categories are the ones that tend to speak very eloquently about all of the things that they are going through. The categorization, labelization, and all of these things, and the aspects of expectationÖ And the different communities of composers that feel they have been neglected because of the categorization or the labels they are under and despite of our talking about Uptown, Downtown, Midtown, whatever town you’re talking about, the point is that there are some people who are completely out of town, even when they are in town.

TOM JOHNSON: That’s good! The “out of town critic” can write about the “out of town music,” and form a new school!

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly. You know, what I was saying is the fact that by dealing with many, many living composers, you will be surprised to know how many people feel that they are actually neglected of participating because of situation. There are societies being formed to address those composers. There are all kinds of situations going on, specifically in our metropolis of New York where we live. People that happen to be associated with these situations are the ones that know what’s going on. These people are not participating, and I don’t know why.

TOM JOHNSON: That’s why we need critics to continually be remaking new categories.

TANIA LEÓN: Exactly.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: Either that or continually get new critics.

TOM JOHNSON: That’s good too.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: I think categories, no matter how many you make, tend to limit. If you compare the category technique to the Virgil Thomson technique, which is trying to get you to a way to listen to a piece of music rather than a way to define where that piece of music exists, then I think you’ve got a very big difference there. What we need are more people trying to help us listen to different kinds of music rather than saying it fits into this category or that category.

TOM JOHNSON: It’s hard to say anything without making categories. You just make a distinction between the category technique and the Virgil Thomson technique, for example, thus forming two categories. Very interesting classification.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: No, no, no. See, you’re making categories out of it. I’m just making a distinction between two things rather than trying to make large classes of things out of one thing.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Well, I want to get back to what Anthony said. Anthony just said something very important, and it was an interesting choice of words, it was “enslaved by,” being cast in a certain way. On the other hand, you’re writing in a medium which is going to be judged by European, classically-trained music critics, and so we need then to define by what standards your music should be judged. And same for you, Tania. When you write a concerto for piano and orchestra, do you really expect that the critics that are largely writing about European classical music and writing about the American Composers Orchestra are going to be prepared for what you’re doing? Or do you expect to be judged by a different standard? What are the standards by which you want to be judged?

TANIA LEÓN: Well, I have to get back to the question of Astor Piazzolla, because there was no differentiation between my thinking about Astor as somebody I admire for what he is doing and what Ricardo just mentioned. For me, Astor is an extension of tango form, you know, tango vocabulary in tone and rhythms and so forth, and yet some of the people in the country are actually mentioning him as an avant-garde in the contemporary scene, coming from Argentina. It’s the same thing. The most that we know about Latin American composers is that we keep talking about Villa-Lobos, or we talk about Chavez a little bit, or Sylvestre Revueltas. But actually we don’t know anymore about who is existing or who is extending, or who is actually producing any kind of sound that might have to do with their schooling and their region and their preferences. So, therefore, I open myself to any kind of comments because I actually work within the parameters of knowing that the person that is criticizing me might not be knowledgeable about the region where I’m coming from.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Isn’t it true, though, that right now what is different about contemporary music is the hybridization that’s going on? The fact that world music and popular music and folk music and jazz have had an impact on the European tradition and that it’s no longer a pure form.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Well, that’s true since 1900.


ANTHONY DAVIS: I mean, there’s nothing new with that.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: So what you’re saying is that the critics haven’t kept up with this trend.

ANTHONY DAVIS: I think we still deal with this whole high art/pop art schism, which I think is stupid.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Well, how do you respond when you see Charles Wuorinen quoted in The New York Times as saying that we have no standards in music and people who can’t really compose properly are getting all the grants?

ANTHONY DAVIS: He must not be getting any grants.

ALAN RICH: He’s pulled down a few.

ANTHONY DAVIS: I don’t know. This is a person who wanted to abolish the NEA because of corruption. No, I don’t take him seriously. Not at all.


TOM JOHNSON: Oh, no. Really?

ALAN RICH: Besides Charles himself?

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Two minutes and we’ll wrap this up.

JOHN CAGE: How can you wrap it up? Charles has wrapping paper.

JULIO ESTRADA: A quick point about the opening of the spectrum of music, about ethnic music, classical music, etc. Let me tell you something, shortly, of my experience about Indian American music. I was listening to many records of Indian American music and I never understood.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: You never what?

JULIO ESTRADA: I never understood the music. I never knew which were the boundaries, what they wanted when they aspirate the rhythm, when they change the rhythm, what does it mean? Well, from several points of view, we ask as individuals, as critics, as historians, or professors. When listening to a certain music, you need an historical point of view because you will miss the whole point. You also need a musicological point of view, because you need to understand the structure. What happens finally is that we are always alone. We are anarchists, no? But we need to have that extremely independent, individual, isolated experience of perceiving what we are listening to. Maybe, for me, the explanation for critics, is, well, I would prefer they don’t exist, but I think many of the critics have shown how much they have been involved in the experience of perceiving certain music and transmitting that particular experience to show that’s one of the ways to listen to music. In some way, when you have a student and he comes to be taught, you can be a very bad musical critic. You can say, “Well, you’re composing in a very nice kinetic style, and you can now go into Stockhausen‘s style and all this.” Or you can be a more open-minded musical critic and professor and say, “What are you listening to? How much are you listening? How far are you listening?”

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: To other people’s music, or in your mind?

JULIO ESTRADA: Yes. In the other’s mind. Everything happens in your mind. Coming back to John Cage’s commentary about these things, when we listen to music, is that enough to listen to music? Or do we need to organize what we have listened to into a sort of comprehensible language? Say, what I was perceiving was this aspect, or this other one, or this other one. Do we perceive a language? Not poetry. I don’t like poetry from critics. I prefer poetry by itself. But when we listen to certain kinds of music, I think that many people need to have it explained, rationally, to use some rationality to explain what happens in this sensorial, perceptive, aural feeling. So, I think that once the critics give us an historical reference, and a musical reference, and a very individual, personal experience of the music, I think they can help. We don’t really need the critics, if we are able to get information, to understand what the musical structure is, so that is musical education. And how much can we be lost while listening to music?

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