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

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Now many of us do not belong to the group that subscribes to the journal Perspectives of New Music, but for those who do, what is the function of that magazine, which has very analytical articles, often very mathematical, about pieces of music?

TOM JOHNSON: It’s still like that?

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: No. It’s half and half. Does that meet the requirements you have? Your own needs, like MusikTexte?

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: I think, in the case of the early articles of ’39, it must have been clear. The critics were necessary because nobody knew about these composers and they had to meld them, to hold them together somehow. It was such an urge to have someone speaking for them.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Is that true John? Is that what the function was of that magazine, or did people read it seriously for other reasons?

JOHN CAGE: What Walter says about Ear magazine, and what we all have experienced as it’s gotten larger, is that it’s gotten less useful. This has happened also with our places for performing music in New York. The Kitchen, which used to be lively, no longer is. One almost looks at New York now, if he wants to hear interesting music, he has to go to someplace that he doesn’t yet know about.



ANTHONY DAVIS: But that’s inevitable. I don’t think that’s sad. To me, institutions wear out. The idea of critics changing is not sad either. I think there’s some kind of cycle involved in that. The Kitchen’s an interesting case because I think at some point when some people were affected it was because The Kitchen was becoming broader in its interests, which I think was a necessity.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: It was becoming more cross-cultural, less wide.

ANTHONY DAVIS: Yes, and I think that was very important. I think there’s a lot of resentment in the Downtown community because they actually wanted to maintain it as this little niche for a very small group of musicians.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: Well, when it first started, I was in two of the first four concerts at The Kitchen, way back when it first started, in ’70 I guess it was. The original idea was a place where composers could play works for each other which were perhaps unfinished or very experimental for dialogue and interchange… Public presentation of the music was one of the purposes, but the communication amongst composers was really a primary one. And then it really completely changed to the point where the public presentation was the thing and everything had to be very finished and very completed to go on. It got to be very competitive to get things into it so they were very selective and then a lot of politics began creeping in, so really it’s a cycle of becoming established. But one of the things that’s been very important in the last couple of years in New York, I think, is what’s happened with the radio and the fact that the concert media are just less important. I mean, the amount of new music programming, both in the established halls, but particularly on the radio, has just gone up tremendously, so that the primary media of new musical experience is really moving out of the concert halls and it’s partly because we’re becoming a more global society. We’ve got a swarm of student stations, plus the usual listener-sponsored ones, and a couple of classical ones.

JOHN CAGE: But it’s clear from these meetings that we’ve had, that one of the urgent facts in new musical experience is space. It’s been mentioned over and over again and this is not available to us through the radio.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: I’m not sure what you mean by space. But we do get, as a surrogate for the critic, we get the announcer making little announcements which are like pithy attempted descriptions that are coupled with music, which I think is important. Whereas reading the critic is desynchronized with hearing the music–it’s either before or after–the radio stuff puts the commentary right with the music. I’m sorry to digress about your question of space.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Do you mean space in the sense that the composer is given air time to do anything he pleases for a particular length of time? That kind of space?

JOHN CAGE: No, no. The experience of hearing sound.


JOHN CAGE: Working with space as one of the parameters of musical experience, which so many of you do.

JULIO ESTRADA: Many, many resources of the radio can allow you to do different kinds of experiences of space. I did a concert in Mexico in which the performance was discreet and we were listening to another performance on the radio simultaneously. You do a lot of work with the radio so that you can get together several stations and you are dealing with people’s space and different times.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: That’s quite rare, though.

JULIO ESTRADA: Yes, but you can have it.

JOHN CAGE: No, but then the experience finally over radio comes from a box and that’s what we want to become free of. We want to get into that space. And that has to be done in a live situation.

TOM JOHNSON: Well, that depends on the composer. Obviously, for you, the live situation is better, but for Charles, I think, radio is better.

JOHN CAGE: The result, for me, for my life experience, is that I leave the windows open, when the weather permits, and I hear the sounds of Sixth Avenue, and this is my music.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Joan, where do you live?

JOAN LA BARBARA: I live a lot of places. I was thinking of several things in a way as a kind of summary and also an introduction to maybe the next set of discussions. I think education is an extremely important thing. We are beginning to lose music education in the public schools so that education, in a way, comes from the radio, comes from print media, comes from other sources. And we’re becoming a culture that does not know about classical works one to another because there are so few sources for this kind of information. Which leads me to the next topic, which is economics and the absolute control that economics has over what we are experiencing and what we are not experiencing. And then that brings me to politics, and how much control politics have over what we are experiencing and what we are not experiencing. And something that Anthony was bringing up is a major question, that of funding. If we lose our public funding, which is supposedly color-blind and other kinds of blind, if we become a culture that is funded by patrons, then we become music that is dictated by those people who happen to have money and who have a particular choice as far as what we’re going to hear. So, I’d like to address those things.

WALTER ZIMMERMANN: Is it very difficult to restructure, for example, the radio system?


WALTER ZIMMERMANN: It seems to me simple. Like in Germany, everyone in Germany who has a radio in his home pays ten marks a month. From this money, we get our commission.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: That’s anti-American! We all think that’s the way it should be, but…

ALAN RICH: Unfortunately, the radio system is being restructured and it’s being restructured in the wrong direction from what Walter is talking about. WNYC in New York, which used to broadcast across the board Tim Page presenting contemporary music, with a tremendous amount of imagination and knowledge, now puts Tim on once a week. The rest of what I hear on WNYC, because our NPR station in Los Angeles carries it, is a lot of new age jargoneering–”From the Hearts of Outer Space.”

LAURIE SPIEGEL: It’s become formalized. Some of the college stations, though, are very lively. But then students are always…

ALAN RICH: Are these critics? Are these knowledgeable people or are they hobbyists?

LAURIE SPIEGEL: Maybe not always, but they do bring information.

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: You’re talking about John Schaefer?

LAURIE SPIEGEL: The problem with funding… Essentially you’ve got two kinds of radio, you’ve got the commercial stuff where it’s blatantly commercial, and then you’ve got these listener-supported stations, that are done by contribution, where, again, to some degree, it’s a little bit of a commercial. I mean, if Mobil Oil is sponsoring this one hour of air time, you have to be careful… There’s a lot of pleasing people.

MORTON SUBOTNICK: Public radio has the worst tyranny, in a way, because it’s not Mobil they’re worried about, it’s how many people are listening. And you get over and over and over again, you get five people who write letters and they say, “We’ve got to take this off the air immediately!” And they do.

ALAN RICH: Our public radio station in Los Angeles, KUSC, is becoming more and more like the commercial radio station every day. They just started putting in what they call “light pop,” whatever that is. And our commercial good music station in L.A. is converting to rock in the middle of September, which is going to effect WNCN’s thinking about good music in New York.

LAURIE SPIEGEL: We’ve got a very great paradox in the American system, because as a Democratic, capitalist economy, there is a tendency for that which is pleasing to the largest number of people, which is like the lowest common denominator, to gain the greatest support. At the same time, we’re a society that wants to emphasize variety, multiplicity, and pluralism, which, of course, means the things that have the least support because they have the fewest people into them. It’s a real paradox which is very problematic.

ALAN RICH: And it’s complicated by the fact that these minority tastes control spots on the radio which are very commercially tempting to change to rock. How many people try to buy out KPFA every month?

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Buy out? By pressuring us to change programs?

ALAN RICH: Yes. How many offers do you get every month?

CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: Well, you left out one part of the equation. You have public radio stations, which is a term that was coined in 1970 after National Public Radio came into existence, and you have commercial stations, which came in the ’20s, and you have the community stations, like the Pacifica stations, which respond less to pressure of that sort but have some considerations. But the point is, as composers living in this country, as Ellen Buckwalder pointed out yesterday on KOTO, the radio stations here, there are three kinds of support–there’s private, corporate, and government. So, the equation is that we’re, in America, in the United States, shifting between these three to get our acts together, as it were, whereas in Germany and in Argentina, and other places, the considerations are quite different. Maybe we can save that for the next discussion and take a break right now. Thank you all for your participation in the panel on criticism. Good work!

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