A Critical Gap

A Critical Gap

After the deluge of new music concerts over the past few weeks, the dearth of dedicated new music critics in Los Angeles has felt particularly frustrating. Since Alan Rich’s retirement from the LA Weekly in 2008, Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times has been pretty much the only game in town. Swed is not everyone’s favorite person in the world, and he’s earned his fair share of criticism over the years (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters).

Now, I don’t point this out to impugn Swed personally, but rather to demonstrate what a large target he is, simply by virtue of being the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times. In particular, local musicians have often contended that he doesn’t pay enough attention to local music, outside of a few standbys like the LA Phil. But while I might make different choices in his position, I’m not sure they’d be choices that would make anyone happier, since it’s simply not possible for one critic to review everything that’s going on in a major metropolitan area. Whoever the critic is, they’re going to have to make choices, choices that will most likely reflect their own personal preferences and biases (not to mention the preferences and biases of their employer). You’re bound to disappoint someone.

What’s the solution then? A few bloggers have valiantly tried to fill the gap, including Brian Holt (Outwest Arts), Nick Norton (New Classic LA), Daniel Corral (Auscultations), and George Wallace (A Fool in the Forest). But because these blogs are the work of aficionados with lives and careers outside of music writing, they’re not always consistently updated.

Norton and Corral are also active composers themselves, raising the question of impartiality. Should critics exist separately from the music scenes they orbit, or should they be immersed in it? More and more lately, the latter option has started to seem more attractive to me. Any loss in objectivity could be offset by gains in depth and insight. The danger is that a composer’s perspective may be too myopic to relate the work of another composer to a more general audience (and academic journals already exist for specialized audiences). But I can imagine a third sort of critical stream that exists between journalistic writing and academic writing, one that doesn’t pretend to be impartial, one that is willing to be personal, maybe even a little bit messy and absurd.

Matador Oven/Adam Overton’s Ripe for Embarrassment: For a New Musical Masochism, a deeply silly and highly perceptive essay, strikes the kind of tone I am envisioning. But it’s still about John Cage and Overton’s own work–it seems difficult to write about anything except yourself and dead people. What would happen if we relaxed these mental blocks and (gasp) wrote about our friends?

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4 thoughts on “A Critical Gap

  1. Heather Heise

    How timely! I arrive in Los Angeles sometime this summer with the intent of developing exactly what you describe: a voice “between journalistic writing and acadmic writing” that serves the new music community (and sometimes the old one, too). Can’t wait!

  2. Alvaro Gallegos

    In my experience, music criticism has been very useful to promote and champion new music. It helps to remind some people that music is being created now and that lots of composers present their pieces. In short, that music is not just a museum artifact.

    Is a shame that there’s a “critical gap” in a gigantic city like LA, where there are lots of composers doing their stuff.

  3. Laurie W

    Nicely put, Isaac.

    I wish you would have mentioned Timothy Mangan of the Orange County Register and his own blog, Classical Life. I’ve always liked his writing better than Swed’s, and now that the new owners of the OCR have put him back as a full-time classical music critic, he’s been covering more concerts in both LA and OC.

    I would also add CK Dexter Haven (All is Yar) to your very good list of bloggers. He reviews a fair amount of new music concerts by smaller groups (e.g. Southwest, Jacaranda, among others) in addition to covering the big local groups like the LA Phil and LA Chamber Orchestra.

    I like his writing style, and his opinion usually lines up with my own. Ever since Brian’s anti-Dudamel rants have become predictable and especially now that Brian at Outwest Arts has been writing extremely little, All is Yar has become my go-to music blog.

    1. Laurie W

      I should clarify that in general, I really like Brian and Outwest Arts too, his anti-Dudamel bent notwithstanding. I hope he begins to once again blog regularly.


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