Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Music Criticism

For some reason my previous post on music criticism entitled "The Practice That Dare Not Speak Its Name" has been one of the most popular on the blog. But no-one has left any comments yet so I'm not sure of the reasons. But that would seem enough reason to talk a bit more about music criticism.

As I mentioned before music criticism is at a low ebb. One reason I did not mention is that it may have lost its reputation due to the ham-handed efforts of its defenders--something that classical music itself may be in danger of according to Richard Taruskin as I discuss in this post. Taruskin is an indefatigable musicologist and to my knowledge the most formidable music critic of the day. Most of those labeled 'music critics' are really journalists who talk about concerts and promote events. Actual music criticism is the furthest thing from their minds. Taruskin is the exception. In one lengthy piece in the New York Times he takes apart a popular recent opera by a favorite American composer, John Adams. Here is the article. The composer responded in this piece. You should read both pieces in their entirety. The important quote from John Adams is this:
Taruskin has two modes of writing: his formal musicological work and his 'pop' pieces for the New York Times. In the latter he has made a speciality of character assasination. This makes good copy. It's sort of like watching those tacky 'true crime' shows on television: there must always be a body count at the end, whether the target is Prokofiev, Shostakovich scholars, or anyone else he decides to humiliate. The operative mode for reading his pieces is schadenfreude. Like any true passive-aggressive, he delights in besmirching not only a person's artistic credibility but also in calling into doubt one's whole moral character. I don't think anyone has taken Taruskin's attack on me seriously. I don't think Taruskin himself takes it seriously. It was a rant, a 'riff', an ugly personal attack and an appeal to the worst kind of neo-conservatism in this country. Its musical 'analysis' of my opera wouldn't have stood the test of any of his own PhD candidates. And his logic was astonishing. Those who read the article to the end were treated with the absurd conclusion that while the Taliban might be wrong in banning music, the Boston Symphony was to be commended by cancelling Klinghoffer. One was censorship, the other admirable 'self-control'.
 My conclusion after reading both is that Taruskin makes a detailed and fair argument and the fact that it discusses moral issues does not detract from it in any way. There are obvious moral questions involved. John Adams' riposte however, where he accuses Taruskin of character assassination, is actually a pretty good example of character assassination as he accuses Taruskin of "besmirching [one's] artistic credibility [and] moral character" and of launching "an ugly personal attack". He also called the analysis lacking and the logic astonishing. Now what I notice here is that in Taruskin's discussion of Adams' opera he cites many specific details such as specific scenes in the European vs the American version as well as details of instrumentation and harmony, all to support the points he makes. This is, in my book, good criticism. Adams, in his riposte, counters none of these specifics but just calls Taruskin a passive-aggressive character assassin. It is pretty easy to see who has the credibility.

So there is an example of music criticism. I'll return to this subject in the future.

1 comment:

Bryan Townsend said...

In the roughly two and a half years I have been doing this blog I have not removed a single comment but I have just done so now. The reasons are that the comment was obscene, insulting and anonymous. I suppose I should, following Taruskin, take this as an indicator of success--no-one bothers to viciously attack that which they consider inconsequential--but I don't think my other readers need to be subjected to it.

I have been marvelously blessed with intelligent and sensitive commentary. This was the exception.