Saturday, April 18, 2015

Music Critics and Criticism

Yesterday in the Friday Miscellanea I included this bit on writing about music:
I've been reading Monroe Beardsley's Aesthetics recently with great interest. One point he makes is that there are two basic categories of comments one can make about an artwork. He labels them "external" and "internal" according to whether they are about things external to or internal to the piece. For example, mentioning that Beethoven died in a thunderstorm, or sued his sister in law for custody of his nephew, or complained about Haydn's way of teaching counterpoint is to discuss externals as none of these things are internal to the artworks themselves. Mentioning that Beethoven liked the music of Handel, or worked on themes for months or years in his sketchbooks, or struggled with coming up with definitive metronome markings are, however, internal to the music itself (or could be argued so). All external comments are irrelevant, even if they shed light on the composer's intentions because the composer's intentions are also irrelevant. Now, ask yourself, how much of the liner notes, program notes and reviews you have read recently are actually relevant? 50%? Or maybe more like 5%?
The unfortunate truth is that a great deal, probably most, of what we read written about music is misleading and misdirecting. It does not help us understand the music, but rather leads us to misunderstand the music. In this category we would most definitely include all those biographical details beloved of program note writers who want to "humanize" the composer.

This, and some other posts and comments this week about some less-than-stellar music criticism leads me to want to evaluate some of the most active music critics writing in English. Let's start with the chief music critic for the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini. Here is an excerpt from a recent review of a recording:
Fans of Tchaikovsky’s beloved First Piano Concerto will notice something different at the start of this exciting new recording, featuring the formidable pianist Kirill Gerstein. When the soaring main theme breaks out in the orchestra, the accompanying piano chords are rolled, not played in solid blocks of steely sound; and the rising three-chord pattern spans just four octaves, not five. Mr. Gerstein and the conductor James Gaffigan use the 1879 version of the piece, the one Tchaikovsky settled on after making some alternations to the score after the work’s 1875 premiere. But the concerto is known today from an 1894 version, published after Tchaikovsky’s death, which includes tweaks and cuts the composer had never sanctioned, as Mr. Gerstein explains in his information liner notes. The changes, though not extensive, tend to tame and make more conventional some of Tchaikovsky bolder flights.
I haven't heard this recording, but that doesn't matter, because I just want to look at what Tommasini wrote to see if it qualifies as music criticism. The answer is yes. He discusses only those things inherent to the aesthetic object in question, namely the new Tchaikovsky recording, and he does so in clear, unambiguous language that is neither too technical, nor too avoiding of appropriate technical terms. I don't know if his comments are correct and exact, but they are appropriate. Let's look at another example. Here is a review of a concert of music by Purcell:
The concert began with excerpts from “The Fairy Queen,” adapted from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The players of Les Violons du Roy, based in Quebec City, brought Baroque-style focused sound and appealing swing to an orchestral Air and Rondeau, which led into a scene for a drunken poet. The bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus was delightful as the poet, slurping his delivery, sometimes bellowing his lines. A chorus of spirits mocked him for his “dogrel rhymes” and prodded two fairies to “pinch him for his crimes” in music that walked a blissful line between gentle joking and intense needling.
Again, the focus is on the music and the performance. Nowhere else in the review does he wander into irrelevancies. Let's look at one more example. Here is a paragraph from a recent review of a concert by the New York Philharmonic:
I could devote a whole report to the wrenching, blazing and vehement account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 in E minor that Mr. Gilbert conducted after intermission. The composer completed this hourlong symphony months after the death of Stalin. How explicitly it was intended as bitter commentary on Stalinist repression is a topic of debate. Whatever one’s take, Mr. Gilbert led a commanding performance, especially the spacious gravity he summoned during the expansive opening movement and the intensity bordering on sheer terror of the short Allegro.
Again, nothing out of place here. Tommasini mentions the controversy over the "meaning" of some of the symphonies of Shostakovich, but doesn't force an opinion on us, commenting rather on how the music was delivered.

Now let's take a look at another very prominent critic, Alex Ross who is the chief music critic for the New Yorker. I've kicked Mr. Ross around quite a bit recently, largely because of a piece he wrote titled "Listen to the Future". Here is one bit I haven't previously quoted:
Can tradition-minded classical listeners ever be made to grasp the crippling contradictions inherent in their hostility toward contemporary music?
I think this encapsulates rather well the central problem of Mr. Ross' criticism: he really does want to tell us what to think and he really does think that we must be made to think certain things. In the case of this quote, we must be "made to grasp" that we are just wrong, wrong, wrong to dismiss some contemporary music, because our hostility is based on "crippling contradictions". That kind of totalitarian pomposity is exactly why I intensely dislike Alex Ross' criticism. Let us seek further representative examples, however. Here is description of a recent piece by Thomas Adès:
Adès’s latest creations are anything but circumspect: they are wilder, stranger, and bolder than the intricate, insolent scores with which he first made his name, in the nineteen-nineties. The opening bars of “Totentanz” give us winds shrieking in their upper registers, hectoring brass, whistles and whipcracks from the percussion section, and a splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance. It is a sound at once grand and gaudy, majestic and mordant.
 This is reasonably apt writing, though I am a bit uncomfortable with the "intricate, insolent" characterization which is thinly-disguised propaganda for two of the essential elements in high modernism: that it be maximally complex and that it "épater les bourgeoisie" (insult the middle-class). The "splattered G-major chord that lands like a dissonance" seems oddly uninformative. Mr. Ross always seems to have agendas other than the music itself, though he is quite skilled at making us think otherwise. Here is an excerpt from a piece about singer-composers:
Significantly, this is the first classical genre to be dominated by women. The musicologist Susan McClary notes that “women have rarely been permitted agency in art, but, instead, have been restricted to enacting—upon and through their bodies—the theatrical, musical, cinematic, and dance scenarios concocted by male artists.” When women employ their own voices as vessels for musical thought, they are amending history: the expressivity of the female voice speaks, at last, for female ideas, rather than for male ideas about female ideas. And, whatever the gender of the composer, there is an uncanny charge in seeing someone sing a score that he or she has constructed. The sensual immediacy of the voice merges with abstractions of the mind, until, as in the Wallace Stevens poem, the composer becomes the “single artificer of the world in which she sang.”
The feminist dogma quoted from Susan McClary is pretty blatant, of course. The questions that spring immediately to mind are "how can you define 'agency' so that it omits the agency of female performers?" Also, it is an illegitimate smear to refer to artworks by men as being "concocted". The mere fact of women singing does not, of course, "amend history". However would you manage to define "female" ideas as opposed to "male" ideas? There are only ideas--and idiocies, of which this is an example. Mr. Ross' biases come to the fore in many ways. Here is another example:
“Kinder! macht Neues!” Richard Wagner once scowled—“Children! Make something new!” He was berating fellow composers for reworking old pieces instead of delivering fresh creations. One can only imagine how Wagner would have been exasperated by the contemporary classical world, with its sclerotic fear of the new.
I'm sure that he in no way sees his view of the classical music world as being anything like a bias. For him it is simply true that disagreement with modernism, of which Wagner was one of the founders, is simply an error. For Ross, "the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream." The only march is the march into the future. Tradition, indeed, aesthetics itself, is really just a sclerosis of the culture. This is the pure propaganda of high modernism and Mr. Ross wants us to accept it as a given.

It's not, of course. This is Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt, which came about as a result of his long meditation on history and tradition:


Marc said...

(Am listening to the Pärt Tabula Rasa, which is almost unspeakably beautiful, although it may glitter just a bit more brightly because I had just finished with half an hour of that John Luther Adams water music. I notice that Alex Ross has 'merited' his own mention on the Pärt T.R. Wikipedia page.)

Anonymous said...

épater la bourgeoisie

Bryan Townsend said...

You always have to check your French expressions!

Yes, Tabula Rasa works very well, but it also has a lot of repetition. Again, it is all in how you do it.

Marc said...

Philip Clark at the Spectator:

"Everyone keeps talking about classical music’s image problem, and proposals on the table designed to rescue the music from apparent extinction have included the suggestion that conductors ought to face audiences rather than orchestras, and the cunning plan, mooted by Julian Lloyd Webber, that we stop calling it ‘classical music’."

Bryan Townsend said...

Well, you know what I think. We don't have a problem--audiences have a problem. But if the wrong people read that, they will be accusing me of being "part of the problem" and "elitist" and of hastening the imminent demise of classical music. Actually, my attitude tends to preserve classical music, but if we follow the prescriptions of these guys, it will be watered down into pseudo-pop before you can say "2cellos".

I know, let's keep calling classical music classical music but start calling pop music "adolescent trash". Do you think that would help?

Marc said...

Satisfying to say the words but, no, probably not, except in the sense that one of our first moral obligations is to call things by their right names.

Do you know, I listened, during the summer, to a 2Cellos show, or part of it, and was interested to read that the both of those fellows are in fact classically trained etc. Tried to think about why anyone would leap from that to the pop culture nonsense; perhaps if I were 15 and not older than 51 it would make a sort of sense.

Bryan Townsend said...


Marc said...

Ah, well, yes. :-) I'd say I don't see much to criticize in taking a few years to make one's fortune before returning to making music seriously-- presumably one would pick up some bad habits-- but musicians who go that direction seem to decamp there permanently.

Bryan Townsend said...

The economics of music is something that fascinates me, but it is a very sore point for a lot of classical musicians. A huge artist like Hilary Hahn is seeing sales of around 200 to 300 copies a week of her new CD. Only exceeded by Andrea Bocelli with just a few more. These are just US numbers and don't included downloads, but it does show how classical sales are a tiny fraction of popular sales. So the 2cellos guys and other crossover acts are selling some multiple of what the serious artists are. But it is still peanuts. An artist like Hilary--the greatest violinist of her generation--makes perhaps (this is just a guess) $10,000 to $20,000 per concert. If she plays 100 concerts a year, she will be making in the low seven figures, one to two million. The sales of CDs and downloads will only add a trivial amount to this figure, probably less than the fee for a single concert. But she is a huge artist. A violinist of the next rank down probably makes $3000 per concert and only plays 50 a year, making $150,000. Again, CD sales would only add a trivial amount. Soloists in the middle rank and below barely make enough to live on. Most violinists have orchestral jobs, but they are not terribly high-paying.

As for composers, those numbers are really ugly! Commissions are paltry and rare, royalties from published music unbelievably tiny. Your only hope is either a university position or to have a day job. Philip Glass used to drive a cab and had his own moving company, well into his 40s.

Marc said...

Very interesting, although as someone who lives on more or less 15k per annum, mainly less, I smiled... wryly, ha.

Did you notice the New Yorker article, current issue, about 'the man who broke the music business'?

Am going to hear Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel tonight. I saw it once, thirty years ago. It intrigues me because for years it was, evidently, all the rage! so from the perspective of musical and personal archaeology, as it were, it is of interest.

Bryan Townsend said...

Very good point Marc. Let me go back to your previous comment as well. I think that the idea of taking a few years to make one's fortune--and I assume you meant, in the music business--before returning to making music seriously, is at odds with aesthetic reality. If you take aesthetics seriously, then you simply cannot force yourself to pander to the audience, which is what is usually required to make a lot of money. Hilary Hahn is a very serious musician, but she is performing at a level so distinguished that she can still make a lot of money. But, considering what kinds of money is earned by people in other fields operating at her level of expertise, it is still peanuts. There are thousands and thousands of high level executives making seven figures, but only one Hilary Hahn. But imagine that she decided to start pandering to the audience against her better judgement: I think that she would lose a good part of her present audience, even as she gained a new (and less loyal one). But my important point is that she simply can't do it. If you have a grasp of what the real aesthetics of music are, you just can't go out there and play crap. For a striking example, imagine Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Andre Bocelli's repertoire. Imagine Grigory Sokolov collaborating with Pharrell Williams. Imagine Gustav Leonhardt doing ragtime. They could no more do that than Andrea Bocelli could start singing Wozzeck or Metallica perform Beethoven string quartets.

Now things are fuzzier than I am implying: Lang Lang does do serious repertoire and I have seen a clip of a serious German baritone singing a Tom Waits song. But I don't think this weakens the basic principle. The aesthetics of music is rather complex, but there are some basic truths.

Marc said...

Well, while I can imagine that there might be someone out there who can or could sing both Schwanengesang and that suite from Parklife that's all the rage (how do the kids find new pop songs, these days? via broadcast radio? I doubt it-- I can find Pharrell on Spotify but is that how the target audience does it?), I take your point: why would he? it doesn't make aesthetic sense. Listened to albums by Jonas Kaufmann and Vittorio Grigolo not too long ago featuring songs from outside the opera repertoire: some of them weren't 'art songs' but genuinely 'pop', circa 1950... well, my memory is not reliable-- the point being they took well-written songs that are usually sung by lesser singers and sang them with all the advantages of their training and experience and it was lovely. I don't think JK could effect that transformation with a Blur track.

Marc said...

(You know that there is a live broadcast from the Philharmonie de Paris that Alan Ross was going on about last week? in about two hours, on Alan Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic. Joyce DiDonato singing Ravel's Shéhérazade; EPS's Nyx, some Strauss.)

Bryan Townsend said...

There are always exceptions, but they tend to fuzz up the aesthetic truth rather than contradict it. Yes, classical artists sometimes have done successful performances of non-classical repertoire (the Beatles, for example), but usually the result is a bit awkward. And vice versa. The most interesting example going the other way is Keith Jarrett's recording of the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, which is better than you would expect. But then he is rather an unusual pianist.

I just don't keep up with broadcasts, but that sounds interesting.

Christine Lacroix said...

Wikipedia says 'Épater la bourgeoisie or épater le (or les) bourgeois is a French phrase that became a rallying cry for the French Decadent poets of the late 19th century including Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud.[1] It means to shock the bourgeoisie.[2] 'Epater' in spoken everyday French means 'impress', or 'amaze', so I was surprised at your definition 'insult'.

Bryan Townsend said...

The phrase is quite common in discussions of the ideology of high modernism. A lot of artists intentionally were interested in shocking the ordinary middle-class.