The Critical Can of Worms Reopened

The Critical Can of Worms Reopened

Several friends of mine who write music criticism have extremely open and astute ears as well as a propensity toward advocacy and overall goodwill. Yet there have been times when some of these friends have questioned their positive judgments of music that the big bad wolves with the more famous bylines declared to be worthless. Such is the power of suggestion.

Anyone who reads these pages knows about the disdain I have for the de facto critical position of giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The more I think about the process of listening to music, the more I realize that any listener’s reactions to a piece are his or her own and have little to do with the music they are listening to, at least insofar as how that music will relate to any other listener. They also vary over time.

Each time you listen to something, what you are listening to is clouded both by what you’ve heard before and what you haven’t heard before. A repeated listen to a specific piece of music will never be the same as a first listen, but neither will multiple experiences to similar musical ideas in any piece be the same as that initial encounter with such an idea (e.g. prepared piano, 31-tone tuning, bowing crotales, you name it). Most people like music that sounds like music they already like. Such a stance has everything to do with multiple exposures to a particular aesthetic and nothing to do with the specific piece of music they are attempting to evaluate.

But the contrapositive is also true. We new music types like something because it sounds like nothing we’ve never heard before. But would we have liked it as much if we had heard something like it before? Since music exists as a phenomenon within society, if it were possible for you to actually be able to have heard everything that’s out there (something I’m trying to do but will inevitably never complete), chances are slim that you’ll ever hear something that’s completely unique.

This week the thumbs-up-thumbs-down crowd have taken some heavy critical hits themselves. Fanfare magazine’s practice of asking labels to advertise prior to committing to review recordings is old news to some of us, but Tim Mangan’s exposé in the Sunday edition of the Orange County Register made today’s music section of ArtsJournal. And Sequenza21 offers a long overdue excoriation of American Record Guide, whose nearly unanimous antipathy toward anything beyond standard classical repertoire played on turn-of-the-last-century instruments is legion. After all, the only constructive thing one can do with negative criticism is criticize it.

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21 thoughts on “The Critical Can of Worms Reopened

  1. JKG

    Criticizing the critic…
    Many composers I know have dreamed of being composers since they were children. I wonder if the same is true for critics? The problem with modern criticism is that it limits itself primarily to the literary understanding of music as opposed to what the listener might likely enjoy – plus, the critic is far more apt to offer a “learned” expose of the piece at hand, which is the topic of a few other threads of this site presently. What kind of person even read criticism and takes it seriously before deciding to hear a piece they’re curious about? With so much information available to glean depth of understanding regarding particular composers and their works, I for one doubt very seriously I shall ever have to depend upon a mere critic to fathom someone’s expression. And as far as my own work is concerned, I have plenty enough self-confidence that, should a critic offer “insights” to my work in disdain, I would likely have a raucous laugh at his/her expense. The real bottom line with present-day criticism – WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?

  2. ichypatia

    “…what you are listening to is clouded both by what you’ve heard before…”

    Not clouded, influenced.

    “…We new music types like something because it sounds like nothing we’ve never heard before…”

    Really? I think you’re talking about novelty, not artistic value.

  3. Frank J. Oteri

    Hmm, “clouded” or “influenced”?

    I actually think I meant “clouded,” since that more metaphorical word connotes the kind of inevitable vague haze of lasting impressions of whatever you have heard that are not always fully formed. Whereas to be “influenced” to me seems much more determined an act. e.g. I don’t think that my listening habits have been “influenced” by exposure to recordings by say, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, or whatever flavor of the month pop star is currently on the charts, but I’d be disingenuous to claim that hearing such music, which most people have (since it’s pretty impossible to exist in 21st century society and not be exposed to it), has not “clouded” my aural view. (Although I wish there was a one-syllable audio word for view.)

    How could it not? With the exception of tragic brain injuries or the kind of mind-control techniques that Philip K. Dick fantasized about in short stories like “We Can Remembering It for You Wholesale” (which inspired the more well-known though not so great film Total Recall staring the current governator of California), memories cannot be implanted or taken away. But this is something much subtler than “influence.”

    As far as “novelty” vs. “artistic value” goes, I feel that both of these concepts are completely subjective and are arrived at by the very listening and exposure phenomena I already described above. That was the whole point of this thread. But, like everything else I’m questioning here, this is just “my opinion.”

  4. gborchert

    “With so much information available to glean depth of understanding regarding particular composers and their works. . .”

    This comment puzzles me. Where did that information come from? On the page or online, someone wrote it. I just don’t see a great deal of difference among the various branches of music writing. Newspaper reviews, CD liner notes, encyclopedia entries, scholarly papers, blog postings–we’re all toiling in the same vineyard.

    Do children dream of becoming music critics? Well, they dream of talking about music, writing about it, sharing it, because they love it. Again, whether that takes the form of covering opera for the NYTimes, or listing your five favorite albums on your MySpace page, doesn’t it stem from the same impulse?

  5. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    The motivations for various branches of music writing appear very different to me, and part of that stems from which side of the economic relationship you write from. Critics have many people to please; MySpace users have none. In between are the panoply of writers — the hired guns for program notes and CD booklets, the academics seeking self-promotion, even the encyclopedists making their point-of-view clear in their choices. (The very fact of ad-trolling at Fanfare exposes the complicated and seamy relationship of critic and subject.)

    Beyond that, the reasons for writing are as diverse as the ways of listening. Can critics turn off what they have become? Can composers really unhear the music’s mechanism? Can performers no longer listen to the technique at will?

    What troubles me more about critics is their refusal to act upon issues they find wanting. One reason criticism falters (and is antipathetic toward much new nonpop) is its very uninvolvement in musical change, to the point of a debilitating misunderstanding and misrepresentation.

    The role of the critic has devolved into being all-thumbs-up-down without putting itself in the risky position of advocating improvement or solutions — even if they might be wrong.

    Todays’ critics expect artists to take all the risks, and then misapprehend what has been risked.


    PS: More at my blog.

  6. delaurenti

    One part of the economic relationship that Dennis mentioned is the required regularity and manifold variety required by the newspaper business.

    I could easily spend every column in my weekly allotment of 800 words praising, coddling, or condemning the Seattle Symphony during its season. Yet excepting a dedicated, stringently topical column, readers and editors expect something slightly different every week – and rightfully so.

    I’m surprised that there are music writers who worry about “…their positive judgments of music that the big bad wolves with the more famous bylines declared to be worthless.” Taking aim at the big guns – as I did at Alex Ross a few months ago – should be part of the critical dialogue.


    ps I documented Flegler and his despicable antics at Fanfare in a 1998 piece, Malevolent.

    If your player doesn’t like the link, get the mp3 here and do a control+F for Malevolent.

  7. Frank J. Oteri


    I’m not sure how in your taking on Alex Ross you emerge more open minded, but maybe I missed the point. I can’t share your disdain for Shostakovich, whose string quartets and later symphonies are among the most provocative music of the past half century. Have you heard the first movement of 13th, Babi Yar? This is music that is so visceral it was censured by the Soviets in the post-Stalin detente of the 1960s. I’m a big fan of Stockhausen as well; you forgot about Gesang der junglinge which to me has the same heart-stopping energy of the best moments in Shostakovich, or Stimmung and Sternklang which put a whole new spin on minimalism and rumor has it were the by-product of KS’s encounters with La Monte Young.

    Though I still haven’t had complete listening epiphanies with either Britten (beyond Prince of the Pagodas, Peter Grimes, the solo cello pieces as played by Rostropovich, or the first two movements of his piano concerto) or Nono (apart from the Fidel Castro cantata whose real name escapes me at the moment and a nice but not life-changing, at least for me, DG LP featuring Maurizio Pollini). But, given my critical inclinations, I fault me and not them and will keep on listening to both until I figure it all out one day.

    But I totally loved and “got” “Malevolent” on the first listen; thanks for sharing THAT :)

  8. JKG

    I apologize, Gavin. I should have made myself plainer with that comment. What I meant to say, is that the present day listener is so inundated with opinions and background materials regarding any music they like (or despise), that the general opinions of both critics and bloggers have effectively become obsolete for all intents and purposes. The traditional role of music critic has been usurped in two ways (1) the listening audience is more and more saavy to what they like and appreciate, and (2) unless critics can come up with real and useful ways to further the art of music, they will experience more and more isolation from both performers and listeners.

    If I were you, I’d consider becoming a paid composer.

  9. Marc

    It’s not my job to “come up with real and useful ways to further the art of music.” What I can do is bring an informed opinion to the people who are trying to do that—composers—and discuss how they are or aren’t doing that. The listening audience has become savvier, but there are still boatloads of people who prefer a guiding hand. With all the options available—program notes, published criticism, blogs, Amazon reviews, what have you—their choices are legion. But what I can provide, along with those who also get paid to do it for a living and know what they’re talking about, is give context. Context is at a premium, and with all the clutter people have to go through to hear music, that’s a valuable commodity. Maybe that actually is furthering the art of music, now that I think about it.

  10. delaurenti

    Hi Frank,

    My intent in examining Alex Ross’ list was not to open my mind – music does a much better job of that for me than anyone’s words. I wanted to offer readers an alternative view, ideally one that doesn’t give fine writers like Ross a free pass.

    As for Shostakovich, I don’t find the later symphonies provocative (honestly, I prefer Steve Martland’s Babi Yar) and I like some of the later string quartets however quartets by Kagel, Ligeti, and Nono do more for me. I should note that my ‘Shostakovich Rule,’ in effect since 1990, has sent me back to Shosty’s symphonies every 5 years. I’m still not convinced that Shostakovich should be heard more often than Stravinsky’s “Agon,” Berio’s “Sinfonia” or the “Harmonielehre” of John Adams.

    As for omitting some of Stockhausen’s hits such as Gesang der junglinge and Stimmung, I should have included those too.

    My epihanies with Nono include the short Omaggo a Vedova, a Carlo Scarpa, and Fragmente-stille, an Diotima.


  11. JKG

    You hit the nail on the head, Marc. Too many “experts” get hamstrung in a thousand different directions, and the next thing you know, they have to pick and choose. What is needed for the realm of critics is something continually needed in the realm of composers – personal and artistic integrity. Now, some will balk and say, “Yes, but Moussorgsky was a DRUNK! How can integrity ever be a guiding force to insure the furtherance of an art that exists over four dimensions, including the gamut of human emotion?

    When we’re talking art music, we’re either talking art that is musical, or music which is artful. Either way, there will always be the matter of technique versus syntax – the first can exist without a context, but may prove unpalatable to the uninitiated; the second is wholly dependent upon tradition, generally the bane of those constantly in search of anything unique.

    There are unique expressions which initially work for a limited audience, but by and large, context and program will always play a large part with any music which strives past the listeners’ ears to their hearts. If a critic assists me in the accomplishment of that goal, then we are both increased for usefullness to one another, and the audience.

  12. gborchert

    Just a few comments:

    If the reasons for music writing, the specific instances of where and how we do it, are diverse on the surface, I think what we all have in common is more essential: love of music and a need to share it. What is it that leads someone even to consider music journalism as a career in the first place? I harp on this point only because on this thread and on other online discussions I’ve seen, there’s a hint, just the teensiest breath of an implication, that there are two kinds of people who write about music: those who are pure and virtuous whose thoughts are worth attending to, and those who are irredeemably corrupted whose thoughts should be dismissed and ignored out of hand, and that the difference between the two groups has something to do with the absence or presence of a paycheck. . .
    OK, call me paranoid.

    I’ve always felt my job as a critic, ideally, was indeed to make the listening audience more savvy: to provide information and context, to give non-practitioners insight into the music world—and sure, to provide informed personal opinion to those who care to be guided by it—and in so doing to spur discussion, to encourage people to more deeply consider music and their own reactions to it. Are we thus rendering ourselves obsolete? Only if you consider a review a report card and the writer as Lawgiver. . . That may be what you mean, JKG, by a traditional role. I’d be happy to see it go.
    I am an active composer, btw, though getting paid for it is another question.

    Christopher, you are the only person I know—or can imagine—who could look at an overview playlist of 20th-century music and complain that Britten and Shostakovich were included and Horatiu Radulescu and Harry Bertoia weren’t.

  13. gborchert

    sorry, haven’t quite mastered the art of paragraph breaks. . .
    That looks like more of a foam-at-the-mouth rant than I intended it to.

  14. JKG

    Yes, I agree Gavin. I would be delighted to see more critics to be more open to a rationale more given to reason and honesty than any amount of informed critique for its’ own sake. There is open-minded, then there is open-headed, the latter of which I abhor and give flatly no respect or credence to. As a composer, you have the enviable position of being subjective about your own tastes, which at best feigning objectivity towards the skill of others. The great issue of music criticism today, concerning its’ relevance at all, is that most composers nowadays work so hard simply to be themselves. The great educational doctrines such as “inclusion” have generally helped academia to side-step once cherished artistic standards in favor of an aesthetic where “anything goes.” Interestingly enough, most of these educational ldeals were formulated by folks who had no clue to begin with whether standards were even valid or worth maintaining. Now we have a world where everyone’s expression is equally valid. As a result, talent has largely fallen by the wayside, and God help you if you bring up that subject to those for whom audience and critical appreciation fall short of announcing the non-talent’s genius. There is a genuine attempt to replace true originality with novelty, because its’ a lot easier for those with no talent to compete.

    Fortunately for most of us, it is always evident whether a composer knows what he’s doing. Create a style where there are no “wrong notes,” and anything goes. Just ask any punk-rocker.

  15. william

    I’ve never had much of an issue with music criticism since I have never taken it very seriously. Probably less than one in a hundred music reviews have much substance at all. And strangely, many music journals aren’t that much better.

    All the same, it is disgusting how a number of prominent voices in the music world have taken a cavalier attitude toward, and even rationalized, the ways Fanfare links its reporting and advertising without informing the readers. If enough advertising is bought, they will even publish an interview. The magazine has not been upfront with its readers about these practices. Fanfare’s readers have made the good faith assumption that reviews and interviews were based strictly on editorial decisions regarding artistic merit. They have thus been deceived, defrauded, and betrayed.

    These unethical standards, even if not as crudely practiced, have become so common in America that they affect even publications such as medical journals which are all too often unduly influenced by drug companies. It is a fact that in recent decades large numbers of people have died as a result. It is never right to compromise standards of journalistic integrity.

    People argue that Fanfare’s behavior is acceptable because everyone else is doing it, or that it is such a small fish in an ugly world it doesn’t really matter, or that poor little new music should have a special dispensation as an art form, etc., etc. but they are wrong. We might remember the little homely that integrity does not start with others, it starts with us. There is no reason to think that we as artists can be bigger cheats and less fair and candid than others because part of our work can involve questioning cultural assumptions. Ultimately, subversion is not a matter of lying and deceit; it is a matter of integrity and fierce honesty.

    The last time Frank wrote under the rubric of a “critical can of worms” I addressed the issue of integrity. Among other things, poor arts funding concentrates composers into a few urban areas and this seems to contribute to mindless forms of orthodoxy and cronyism. This cronyism is also compounded by our educational class system. It seems that these conditions have created a rarified insiderism in new music that has so deeply influenced our pedagogy and aesthetics that we as artists have lost much of our capacity for social engagement and responsibility. You can find the comments here. Copy and past this URL into your browser:

    Occasionally music journalists comment on the lack of integrity that too often characterizes our profession. A recent example is Philip Kennicott’s article in the Washington Post, “Is Opera Still Relevant?” (August 2006, vol. 71, no. 2). He notes how John Adam’s “Death of Klinghoffer” has languished since its premiere in 1991 even though it is arguably one of his strongest works. Kennicott asks, “Can an art form that is averse to controversy survive in this kind of society? Doesn’t it risk seeming to be in the care of dull people, equivocators and cowards?”

    Kennicott also notes how Jake Heggie and his librettist Terrence McNally tried to deny the political content of their opera Dead Man Waling when it was premiered at the San Francisco Opera:

    “Six years ago, the creative team of Dead Man Walking — one of the starriest new American operas in decades — assembled to assure the world that their work, about the death penalty, wasn’t really about the death penalty. In interviews before opening night, the librettist and composer wanted to keep the focus on the drama, not the politics. Librettist Terrence McNally said in the L.A. Times, ‘What first attracted me to it was not where you stand on the death penalty’ and denied it was an ‘issues’ opera. The opera, the first composed by rising star Jake Heggie, garnered mostly rapturous reviews and was subsequently seen at several other major American companies. But the chance for its creators to make a larger moral statement about an issue that isolates the U.S. from most of the world was lost.”

    Kennicott continues:

    ”The saddest part of the efforts by the creators of Dead Man Walking to deny political meaning was the lack of faith in opera it suggested. They may have believed firmly that art should be above politics. But what the public hears is that art is afraid of politics. And again, in a country that is becoming ever more a place of conflict and controversy, that suggests weakness. It’s not even fair to the nature of opera, which in times past has shown itself more than capable of maintaining strong political and moral views. Verdi stood against reactionary clerical forces, and for the Risorgimento; Beethoven dramatized revolutionary sentiments in Fidelio; and a strong and noble pacifism runs through the works of Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. The question one wanted to ask the creative team for Dead Man Walking was this: Why not take a stand? What have you got to lose?”

    It is exactly this calculated careerism, this propensity to sacrifice integrity for access, that has made classical music, especially in places like NYC, so dead, innocuous, and conformist. It is little wonder that so many people writing from the Northeastern establishment find little problem in Fanfare’s unethical behavior. Indeed, it represents a norm.

    Shouldn’t music journalism be a place where people speak from the edge, where they are NEVER bought, where they take the gloves off and speak the truth, carefully and clearly, but with the fierceness for which genuine artists have always been known?

    Sadly, in many areas of the music world, writers given to such clear and necessary fierceness toward the massive abuses of power in our society would never obtain jobs in the first place. The genuine speakers of truth are seldom even let in the door. I can understand the financial problems Fanfare faces, but a simple photocopied publication sent to people in the mail or published on the web is vastly better than a journal that prostitutes itself.

    Maybe we need more professors who teach their students that the ultimate end of an artist’s life is not career, access, and power, but a careful, accurate, sober, and deep devotion to truth and honesty. Among many other things, that kind of honesty would never allow for Fanfare’s practice of offering interviews if enough advertising space is purchased – and without letting the readers know about these editorial practices.

    It surely must be obvious that there has hardly been a time in American society when a fierce devotion to the truth has been more necessary. Now that conformity and careerism have become so common among musicians, we have lost much of what it means to be an artist in the first place. We are not fulfilling our tasks, and our society is suffering for it.

    William Osborne

  16. Tom Myron

    I find Tim Mangan’s final assessment of Fanfare as worthless entirely credible. Fanfare offered his source an interview for a pre-determined sum of money with the intention of presenting it as a piece of legitimate journalism. I would say that “worthless” about sums it up. As a veteran of several media outlets myself, another word that comes to mind is “criminal.”

    Frankly, I’m surprised at the outpouring of creative rationalizations from journalists formerly or presently associated with Fanfare. I’d have thought outrage at having been duped into complicity a more likely response.

  17. Frank J. Oteri

    Tom, don’t get me wrong. I’m no great fan of Fanfare or its practices and these days I rarely read it. But, once upon a time before I had the benefit of first-hand knowledge about what recordings are being commercially released, it was a treasure trove of information for me and frequently contained insightful commentary from the likes of Kyle Gann and Alex Ross, to name two of the journalists who have recently stepped forward in Fanfare‘s defense.

    I learned about Fanfare‘s “creative” (to be as objectively euphemistic as possible here) approach to advertising over 15 years ago when I was doing purgatory as a classical music publicist. It was old news then and it is old news now. And I was upset by it then as I continue to be now.

    But, what makes me more upset, and what perhaps should make others here more upset as well, is that their approach to advertising is probably why they survived in a nation that unfathomably can support several competing muscle-building magazines, tattoo magazines, car racing magazine, you name it, but no U.S.-based commercially-independent general interest print publication devoted to classical music. (Publications such as Chamber Music Magazine and Symphony Magazine are, of course, publications supported by the non-profit service organizations Chamber Music America and the American Symphony Orchestra League, respectively.)

    Whether it jibes with our oh-so-moral sense of right and wrong, Fanfare has managed to find a way to survive in an economic system that dictates that it shouldn’t have survived. Does anyone here remember Ovation, Classical, or the monthly print magazine Musical America? I would imagine most record companies tacitly go along with Fanfare‘s “unconventional” (there’s another euphemism) advertising policy because they want Fanfare to survive, knowing full well that many of their recordings would otherwise not receive coverage anywhere, and certainly not in a publication that is readily available for free perusal at just about any record store that sells classical recordings, although such brick and mortar edifices are allegedly also waning.

    Of course, they could always rely instead on Fanfare‘s competition, American Record Guide… But, as many of us knew already and those of us who didn’t who read the thread that ran temporarily on Sequenza21 last week now know, that publication is rarely disposed toward music that pushes at the boundaries away from the tried and true of the standard repertoire and only the accepted old school performance of it at that. Fancy that, a publication with equal disdain for serialism, indeterminacy, minimalism, and neo-romanticism as well as period performance practice, electronics or anything that smacks of cross-cultural pollination. I exaggerate a bit and am painting with a rather broad brush here, since I have read occasional enthusiastic commentary for each of these things within ARG’s pages, but by-and-large, openness is too often not the M.O. as any of its editor’s occasional editorial rants therein should make perfectly clear.

    Of course, the web has changed the economics of the media game, and now sites such as this very one and hosts of others which are devoted to very specific niches in the full geographical and chronological trajectory of music can and do survive and thrive. So, maybe the existence and the desire for the existence of any print publication devoted to a specialist interest is a quaint and antiquated idea. Well, tell that to the tattooed, body-building, car racers out there who keep their special interests alive.

    Maybe we as a community, need to start putting our money where our mouths and hearts are. When is the last time you bought a list-price CD of contemporary music? When is the last time you bought a full-price ticket to a concert featuring contemporary music? When is the last time you bought a publication to read articles about contemporary music? When is the last time you donated money to an organization that supports such things?

  18. william

    Tom Myron comments:

    “Frankly, I’m surprised at the outpouring of creative rationalizations from journalists formerly or presently associated with Fanfare. I’d have thought outrage at having been duped into complicity a more likely response.”

    Were they duped? Or did they know about the magazine’s editorial policies? I think it is important to know.

    Frank, this is far too serious of an issue to brush aside as “casting stones,” or by saying it is old hat, or that those concerned are being “oh-so-moral”, etc.. Magazines should not decieve people to stay in business. They could have been up front about their practices. If you want to defend Fanfare, speak to the issues.

    I sometimes wonder if the reason classical music journals can’t compete with tattoo mags is because the latter are a little more honest.

    Sadly, I suspect the discussion about Fanfare will quickly become an invisible non-topic.

    William Osborne

  19. coreydargel

    While I think it’s wholly disgusting, I’m not particularly interested in discussing Fanfare’s ad-requirement. It’s not at all an uncommon “policy,” and anyone who reads a decent number of major periodicals can see the evidence. We’re better off starting our own publication(s) than trying to change the survival tactics of periodicals by wielding blogs at them.

    I’d rather talk about what role editors play in deciding which albums get reviewed and which don’t. It seems that a critic/writer could be super enthusiastic about an album, but it won’t make a bit of difference if the editor doesn’t think it belongs in the publication. I’d be more interested in that discussion, but of course, it would be mostly speculation without hearing from critics who’ve encountered this problem. I know they’re out there, but they probably wouldn’t be comfortable airing such dirty laundry in public.

    Maybe AMC could assemble a panel of critics and editors and record label folks to have a candid discussion about how they each handle the pitching/reviewing process, off the record of course.


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