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A Cowboy Hangs Up His Spurs

On July 22nd via his PostClassic blog, Kyle Gann published a post titled “One Less Critic,” more or less announcing his retirement from music criticism. Writing for nearly thirty years in a number of publications, notably the Village Voice and Chamber Music Magazine, Gann has been a thoughtful, often provoking, and even, occasionally, a polarizing figure in discourse about contemporary classical music. He’s also been active in a number of other activities, first and foremost as an imaginative composer, a professor at Bard College, and a musicologist who’s published articles and books on a wide range of composers, including minimalists, microtonalists, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage. His book on Robert Ashley will be published this fall.

In his blog post, Gann writes, “Criticism is a noble profession, or could be if we took it seriously enough and applied rigorous standards to it, but you get pigeonholed as a bystander, someone valued for your perspective on others rather than for your own potential contributions.”

He’s not the first composer/critic to voice these concerns. It’s fair to say that those who write about others’ music potentially imperil their own. One’s advancement in a career as a creative and/or performing artist often involves blunting their candor and, upon occasion, judiciously withholding their opinions, delicacies which a writer (at least, an honest writer) can ill afford.

Certainly, I haven’t always agreed with Gann’s assessment of the musical landscape. In 1997, I first read his essay on 12-tone composers in academia, in which he likened those in grad programs studying with Wuorinen and Carter to be a wasted generation of composers, like lemmings leaping to their (artistic) deaths. At that time, I was a Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers: studying with Wuorinen and writing a dissertation on Carter! I didn’t transfer or change my topic.

That said, I respect Gann’s formidable intellect and, even when it stings a little, his candor.  I hope that during his “retirement” from criticism, he will find many new opportunities provided to him as a  composer. In the spirit of bygones being bygones, maybe some of them will be in collaboration with ensembles that, back in the day, got a rough review from him!

Comments

Comment from Christian Carey
Time: July 25, 2012, 9:38 pm

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz says:

We all love/hate Kyle, and his blog is must-read stuff. He’s been prickly and generous at the same time. I’ve sparred with him about the atonal composer scene back in the day, and yet he turned around and wrote a generous and loving profile of me for Chamber Music Magazine. The complexity and candor are just great … so time for more music!

Comment from David Toub
Time: July 26, 2012, 9:04 pm

Actually, Kyle and I have always been 100% in agreement with the appraisal of academic music and composers. His lemmings remark is just so much more eloquent than my own comments on the subject.

Comment from Christian Hertzog
Time: July 27, 2012, 3:28 pm

Kyle Gann pretty much pioneered an alt-weekly classical music style, one which used a conversational tone, had a terrific sense of humor, and at times really broke open what classical music criticism could be, an alternative to the staid daily newspaper classical tone. (I especially remember being blown away by his private-eye-story parody about the death of New Music). Reading Kyle’s work in the Voice was tremendously inspiring to me when I started to review in the 1990’s, and I continue to read and admire his writing. No Such Thing as Silence is the best book on contemporary music for the general reader since The Rest is Noise. I look forward to hear more compositions from him, at the same time as I mourn his critical retirement.

Comment from Dave Soldier
Time: July 27, 2012, 5:30 pm

Kyle, good for you!

It’s hard for critics to be anything other than reactionary, no matter their politics: they can only respond using the tastes they already have when they hear something new. Welcome to the tough real world, where one can only contribute by struggling to make work one thinks should exist — rather than only praise or disparage others making what they think they should exist.

We will still need writers to help music lovers find music and understand how and why its made.