September 10, 2017

Bye-bye, the baby in the bathwater

[The music is] bizarre ... melodically as well as harmonically, and avoids natural flow ...  [Vocal writing] is overladen with surfeit of harmonies ... and tricky intervals which are often very hard for singers to remember and intone. 

For ... melody we have searched in vain; nor have we even found any varieties of form, indicating an original fancy at work...  All seems worn and hackneyed and unmeaning.  ... if effect there be, it must be monotonous, and bizarre.

There is a vast deal of ugly music ... that offends the ear and rasps the nerves like fiddlestrings played on by a coarse file.

[The singers] all carry on in indistinguishable, angular swoops and shrieks. 
[The opera] boasts ... avoidance  - as if on principle - of any hint of beauty, expressive content or sensual delight...  [T]there is something singularly horrifying about this new score... It's a dehumanizing brand of art ... and to see it applied to the warm-blooded genre of opera is enough to chill the bones.
Reading the above excerpts from reviews of contemporary operas, you may feel sorry for the audiences traumatized by sadistic composers.  You may also feel grateful to the critics whose unflinching reviews must have prevented many music lovers from becoming additional victims of these musical counterparts of Marquis de Sade.  And why wouldn't you feel this way, if the composer in these reviews is made to look like the defendant in a criminal trial charged with multiple counts of fraud, vandalism, and intentional infliction of pain and suffering?  (The defendant used false promises of an enjoyable experience to swindle hundreds of people.  He lured these people into a large building where he held them captive for hours while subjecting them to various forms of psychological and physical torture.)

But then suppose you learn that the first excerpt comes from a 1793 review of the then present state of opera and refers specifically to the operas of Mozart; the second comes from a 1844 article on the operas of Verdi; the third comes from a 1907 review of the American premiere of Strauss' Salome; and only the fourth and last excerpt comes from a review of an opera (Elliott Carter's What Next?) which is contemporary for both the critic and yourself.  Would you still feel sorry for the audiences? Grateful to the critics?
     Or would you instead begin to wonder if there is any line of work where incompetence and arrogance are encouraged and rewarded as much as they are in music criticism?

I would, and here is why:  Initial encounters with new art music - 'new' in the sense that it represents a significant departure from the already familiar and accepted idioms - are more than likely to be perplexing, unsettling, challenging, or irritating.  Such feelings are predictable psychological consequences of disorientation - perceptual, conceptual, aesthetic - induced by what the late (and sorely missed) art critic Robert Hughes once memorably labeled 'the shock of the new'.  A music critic - especially today's music critic - who readily translates these feelings into the lack of artistic merit in the work under review is doubly incompetent.
     He is incompetent because he ignores the fact that important musicians - who have invested considerable time and effort in studying the new work, familiarizing themselves with the new idiom, and getting past the shock of the new - seem to have discovered something in the work that made them want to share their discovery with other music lovers.  At a minimum, the critic should try to understand (so as to communicate to his readers) what such motivating features of the new work might be, e.g., by studying the score, discussing the work with musicians known as the composer's advocates, and doing some serious background reading.
    This critic is also incompetent because he ignores the historical lessons of his profession which show that many of today's acknowledged masterpieces were initially derided by critics for being incomprehensible, irritating, bizarre, ugly, sadistic monstrosities.[1]
    And if this critic is fully aware of his incompetence, if he knows that he is utterly unqualified to review a certain work yet proceeds to do just that by turning his negative feelings into objective artistic defects of that work, the critic has augmented his incompetence with enough arrogance to be called by a special technical term, one which hopefully will appear in the next edition of the New Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians. This technical term is motherfucker.

If you are one of those gentle souls who believe (or hope) that there are no genuine motherfuckers among today's music critics, I would like you to meet Joshua Kosman, the author of the fourth review [2] and a well-credentialed music critic who has been on the payroll of the San Francisco Chronicle for the last three decades.  What makes Kosman special is that his long paper trail clearly documents his full awareness of being utterly unqualified to review performances of Elliott Carter's music.
     A good example is Kosman's review [3] of a pair of concerts celebrating Carter's centennial.  After acknowledging "the devoted sense of advocacy that Carter seems to engender in performing musicians", and also noting that the performances showed "artists clearly delighted and eager to dedicate themselves to making the best possible case for this music - and succeeding in doing so," Kosman says this:

As for Carter's music itself, I have long resigned myself ... to a state of bewildered incomprehension.

One can spend a lot of time contemplating  the implications of this remarkable statement.  For example, it does not seem to have occurred to Kosman (or to his editors) that the task of reviewing musical works for which one has "bewildered incomprehension" does not require a music critic, or even any kind of professional critic at all.  Any literate person for whom this kind of music is nothing but a meaningless succession of sounds would do just as well.  The fact that a major newspaper continued to employ such a self-professed ignoramus, instead of terminating him on the spot and issuing an apology to its readers, is enough to suspect the entire field of journalistic music criticism for being one painfully unfunny joke.

Which is what the owners of major American newspapers might have been suspecting all along, as suggested by the rapid elimination (or drastic reduction) of art music coverage as soon as the print media's traditional sources of revenue began to dry up with the rise of the internet.  My hope is that it won't be long before the media's coverage of art music disappears completely.  For this will finally guarantee that philistine attacks on this art will be confined to blog posts and Amazon reviews penned by aggrieved retirees with enough time on their hands to whine about the absence of hummable tunes in Modernist music, but never enough time to become more familiar with the music they so actively detest.
     Yes, when this day arrives a few truly competent music critics will have suffered the fate of the proverbial baby thrown out with the bathwater.  Their undeserved misfortune will be regrettable.  Perhaps they will find solace in realizing that the baby's bathwater had become so polluted, so toxic, that the baby wouldn't have lasted long anyway.

1.   None of this is new, of course, since my periodic returns to the historical lessons of music criticism (a, b, c) echo Charles Rosen's earlier observations on the often torturous progress of new works of art from their initial reception as incomprehensible, irritating aesthetic insults to their later status as venerated masterpieces.
2.  Joshua Kosman, "A Cold, Dehumanizing Opera: Elliott Carter's work premieres in Berkeley", San Francisco Chronicle, 13 November 2000 (online version).
3.  Joshua Kosman, "Elliott Carter Celebration", San Francisco Chronicle, 9 December 2008 (online version)]


Christopher Culver said...

"He is incompetent because he ignores the fact that important musicians - who have invested considerable time and effort in studying the new work, familiarizing themselves with the new idiom, and getting past the shock of the new - seem to have discovered something in the work that made them want to share their discovery with other music lovers."

Certainly there are musicians who love this music, and you can assume in a concerto that the soloist is playing this music because it appeals to him/her personally. (There have been times the dedicatee of a work was appalled by what the composer gave him/her, though.)

However, I am not sure this argument will really prove effective: haters of new music can easily find orchestral players who didn’t really want to play this music, but obeying the whims of the music director is just the price to pay for having a job in an ensemble. So, the haters can still claim that the music is anti-musical on the basis of actual musicians hating it, and those soloists passionate about it must just be deluded or whatever.

"For this will finally guarantee that philistine attacks on this art will be confined to blog posts and Amazon reviews"

Blogs and Amazon reviews are old-school. For years now, the most dependable source of philistine attacks on the art have been YouTube comments. In a way, that’s actually a shame. Back during the heyday of music blogging, a curmudgeon might have torn apart a modernist work, but he was writing at a length where he might have dropped some useful objective information about the work or performance along the way. YouTube comments force brevity and so all one gets are a million variations on the single sentences “This isn’t music” or “You’d have to be deaf to like this.”

Boom said...


I did not think of YT comments, probably because I avoid music on YT as much as possible due to unbearably poor sound quality of most offerings.

As for orchestral musicians, you might be right about some older ones - and in the past there were actually acts of sabotage on the part of orchestral principals when it came to difficult new music. But orchestral musicians, when they play in an orchestra, are not 'autonomous musical agents', so to speak. They are just very sophisticated musical instruments in a sense. So their attitudes in that capacity do not really matter.
But when they play chamber music outside - or as soloists - outside their orchestral duties, that is different. And one could point to principals in some world class orchestras who toured Carter's concertos as independent soloists because they love his music (e.g., James Sommerville of Boston SO, Emmanuel Pahud of Berlin PO readily come to mind). One could even note that members of the NY Philharmonic (which used to be a Carter-hating band by reputation) just played his Piano Quintet last summer as part of a chamber music concert at Sawdust in Brooklyn. One could also note that members of the Concertgebouw Orchestra have been performing Carter's Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Cello and Harpsichord (I have a live recording). I am sure there are more examples like that.

By the way, the San Francisco performance of 'What Next?' was conducted by Kent Nagano - one of the highest paid operatic conductors. Surely he could have made his money with less effort by guest conducting another La Boheme or Lohengrin somewhere, instead of mastering Carter's score and investing much effort needed to prepare a performance with singers and musicians who were in all likelihood not well familiar with Carter's idiom.