Saturday, November 8, 2014

Music Critic in Residence

By way of Lisa Hirsch's blog Iron Tongue of Midnight I ran across this clip of music critic Joshua Kosman talking about his job of teaching music criticism in a new program at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music:

It's a nice clip and he seems not only a nice fellow, but a knowledgeable one. Plus, he has bookshelves groaning with all the right reference books. I noticed in particular the New Grove (which I secretly covet) and Shostakovich: A Life, by Laurel Fay. I'll bet he gives a darn good course on how to be a music critic.

I just have two problems: first, the old mass media outlets like newspapers and magazines are getting rid of music critics as fast as they can, plus, the newer media outlets like television and radio never really had formal music critics, the kind of people who had to have a set of the New Grove handy, and the newest media outlets like the internet don't seem to have any paying positions for music critics. And by music critics, I mean people like Joshua Kosman who talk and write about concerts of classical music, not do reviews of hip hop albums. So I honestly don't see who is going to employ graduates of the program.

The second thing that I noticed was that he didn't engage any of the issues or problems of music criticism and in a four minute clip you wouldn't expect him to. He says that music criticism has three parts: first, report on the event (where the concert was, who played, what was the music), third, render your critical judgement and second, explain why this was your critical judgement. Yes, that was his order. But then he throws in a little bit of advice that assumes the conclusion of a whole argument and I thought it was interesting how he put it (my transcript):
So my advice to someone trying this for the first time is trust your reaction. Trust your reaction to what you've heard and what you've witnessed and be assured that you are right in thinking what you think.
Hmm, well, the corollary to this is that therefore critics are always right, but of course criticism can be a lot of different things (good, bad, well-founded, barking at the moon mad) and surely the way to become a better critic is by recognizing when you have fallen short? Isn't criticism a bit similar to being a performer? Performers spend much of their time analyzing critically what they do. If we could record the inner soundtrack of a performer's morning practice routine it might go like this: strings sound a bit dead, need to change them ... that's a funny sound ... whoa, better do that again! ... damned uneven scale ... the bass is sounding hollow again ... how the hell is that supposed to be phrased? ... should the development really be that forte? and so on, much of it very tedious because maintaining one's technique, for example, involves solving a lot of the same problems over and over again.

I think I would want to modify his advice to a young music critic. But, yes, I would say something just that encouraging to get them started. But instead of saying "you are right in thinking what you think" I would say, in order to check on the validity of your reaction, examine your reasons. Did you hate/love the concert because of the dress the soprano was wearing or her tone color? What principles do you follow in your criticism? What specifics can you point to in the concert to support your opinion? Do you know the repertoire well enough?

And one other thing, perhaps he is right, based on his long experience, but is it really harder to write a good review than a bad review? Surely if you are a well-educated music critic you can explain what was so great in the concert? He mentions a singer as an example. I could mention Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whom I have heard in concert. He was a great singer, but there are a thousand things you could mention that went into why. For example, his diction was unparalleled. Listening to him sing, you could write down every single letter of every word, even if he is singing in German. Maybe the reason Joshua finds it hard to write about good concerts is the likely restriction on technical vocabulary, though that didn't hold me back from mentioning something about Fischer-Dieskau.

If you tell people too often that everything they think is right, then don't you encourage half-baked narcissistic opinions?

But this train of thought would lead us into a philosophical problem and this post is long enough already.

For my musical envoi I won't pick something by Fischer-Dieskau as I have done that so often. Another singer that I heard give an incredible concert about which much could be said was Nigel Rogers. His particular achievement was to revive the art of vocal ornamentation in music of the early 17th century. I heard him sing a whole concert of this music by people like Caccini and Purcell. Remarkable agility and clarity of execution. Here he is with the big aria from Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607:


Joshua Kosman said...

Bryan, thanks so much for this kind and very thoughtful post. Just to respond to a few of your points:

1) What is this Institute for, given the current employment situation? I agree that this is a vexing question; some thoughts on the matter are here and here. At the risk of seeming to speak for the conceivers and organizers of this project (of which I am very definitely not one), I think the rationale is basically to a) train young musicians in habits of evaluation, communication and engagement that are broadly valuable even in the absence of a paid staff position, and b) to make some kind of public noise about the inherent important of criticism in the broadest sense – i.e., a public discourse about art. These all strike me as worthy goals, notwithstanding the very real concerns you raise.

2) There's a piece of context missing from the video that I think might make my remarks clearer. In addition to the training sessions for the student fellows, with which I'm only tangentially connected, there's another aspect of the Institute, called the Everyone's a Critic prize, which awards $1,000 to the best review of one of these performances by an audience member. I'm heading the panel that makes that judgment, and one of the things they asked me for in this video was some words of guidance for lay folk who had probably never considered undertaking such a thing before.

So the "you" in the passage you cite is meant less for the students – who all do have a certain amount of training and expertise in music – than for ordinary citizens, who are most likely to feel that their lack of training or expertise limits the validity of their judgment. It's an understandable impulse – "I'm just an ordinary joe, what do I know?" – but it's one that I wanted to push back against fairly strongly.

Also, too (as Ms. Palin would say), I don't think being "right" is particularly relevant or important in the scheme of things, either for amateur or professional critics. What matters is being able to make your case soundly and persuasively, and you can only do that if you proceed from your own experience as a given. Make the listener hear what you heard, rather than what you think they might have heard had they been there and been you.

3) Finally: Yes, it is easier to write a negative review than a positive one, always. You've made a good case for how one could write a detailed positive review, and I agree. But I didn't say it was impossible, I just said it was harder than the converse. That Fischer-Dieskau rave you envision would take a lot of time and energy and attention to detail; you could write a takedown of poor Andrea Bocelli that was just as accurate, as well as being mean and funny and memorable, in a quarter of the time.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Joshua,

Wow, the Internet never ceases to amaze me. Thank you for such a wonderful response to my post. I take your points in detail and thanks so much for filling in the blanks for me. Making a noise about the importance of criticism in the broadest sense is one of my core reasons for doing my blog, so thanks for saying that. I couldn't agree more with your approach to the ordinary citizens.

Well yes, writing a negative review offers so many more opportunities for humor and just general entertainment, doesn't it?

Thanks again for the comment. Come back anytime!

Christine Lacroix said...

Wow! That was an impressive exchange. Thoughtful and thought provoking. I wonder how he found your post if he isn't a regular reader? The internet is a miracle isn't it? I'm old enough to appreciate the wonder of it. You lamented in another post the dumbing down of the population but has there ever been in the history of the world a time when so many people could read and write and have access to incredible sources of knowledge and inspiration like your blog for example?

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you can set up Google alerts or something that will notify you whenever something appears with your name in it.

Yes, I did lament the dumbing down, but in another post, Sober Second Thoughts, I praised the online community that we find here and in other places on the web. I think that the opening up of channels of communication will have enormous effects over the years. It is no longer possible for a few media outlets to enforce their interpretation of events on the populace or, even worse, simply refuse to report on those events that reflect badly on their favored politicians.