Archive for the “Critics” Category

In a recent piece for Slate , musicologist Jan Swafford took readers on a little tour of contemporary music that has yielded a fair share of controversy. Mind you, that Slate is publishing a piece on contemporary concert music (or, as Swafford puts it, “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it”) for a general readership is a very good thing. But I wonder if we couldn’t do better than Mr. Swafford’s myopic, narrow-minded and patronizing article.

For the record—and right off the bat—let me state that I agree with Mr. Swafford’s ultimate message that “(t)he archetypal avant-garde sensibility was captured in the dictum ‘Make it good or make it bad, but make it new.’ I suggest that it’s time to take that attitude out behind the barn and shoot it. (Emphasis mine.) Standing in the middle of the sometimes interesting chaos and anarchy that is the scene in all the arts, I suggest in its place: Make it old or make it new, but for chrissake (sic) make it good.”

Let’s, by all means, stop worrying about categories and just care about the quality of the work presented. Categories will sort themselves out. This is something for future musicologists to do, not present ones. But Mr. Swafford spends the bulk of his article before this point doing precisely the hair splitting he is decrying (or have I missed the point? Is he really decrying the fact that none of the music he samples—save perhaps his own – is any good?).

Fine, you might say; he’s splitting hairs. Isn’t that his prerogative as a musicologist? Sure, I would say; if only he’d bothered doing more than just cursory research for examples that prove his point.

For example: in his definition of “academic brutalism” he cites an excerpt from Jefferson Friedman’s Eight Songs, a “real colonoscopy of a piece” that consists of transcriptions of songs by “the noise band Crom-Tech” which Friedman made for the Yesaroun’ Duo in 2004. On the basis of this piece alone, Mr. Swafford catalogs Friedman as an “academic brutalist.” While Friedman doesn’t appear to be associated with a university at the present time (shouldn’t an “academic” anything be involved primarily in academia?), a quick glance at Mr. Friedman’s music page on his website quickly reveals that he is far from an academic anything and not merely a “brutalist.” Sure, the particular example of Eight Songs Mr. Swafford cites is pretty brutal, but, from what I can gleam in a quick excursion into Crom-Tech’s work via YouTube, it’s a pretty faithful evocation of the original source material. Given that “aesthetic brutalists” (by way of Xenakis) “want to hurt you” one might be surprised, when one samples, say, Friedman’s 78 or his haunting (and rightly revered) String Quartet no. 2. Mr. Friedman, if anything, would fit in what Kyle Gann would call a totalist style (a problematic label as well, to be sure, but one which I increasingly find useful for music that has roots traceable to minimalism but also welcoming higher degrees of rhythmic and harmonic dissonance as well as influences from rock, pop as well as other “classical” genres), but mostly one is struck by its shear pleasantness. This is incredibly rewarding music to listen to that is far from hurtful and straying far from the pandering banality that can trap all but the most skilled composers of what Swafford calls the “new niceness” (seriously, what about the term Neo-Romanticism fails to apply here?).

I won’t even get into Swafford’s description of a “lecture by a young academic brutalist” whom he refused to name, but who has identified himself to his friends on Facebook (I’ll try to extend some respect to Mr. Swafford by continuing to keep our “young academic brutalist” anonymous in this forum, though I really hope he comes out with a more formal reply to the Slate article than a brief discussion on Facebook).

I’m writing for an audience of connoisseurs here, so it’s a little redundant of me to say that “contemporary ‘classical’ music, or whatever you want to call it” is a LOT of things far beyond the limited and limiting list of malformed categories Mr. Swafford has devised. And, to be fair to Mr. Swafford, I don’t think he’s suggesting that his list is exhaustive or representative of even a majority of the styles of concert music today. But it is disingenuous, patronizing and ridiculous to frame your explanation of the “new noises” in a tone that barely hides your contempt for this music. If this is advocacy, please, stop doing us any favors!

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Nothing for those slooow summer days like another round of “everything sucks/everything’s fine” wars… Courtesy of The Guardian, Joe Queenan kicks it off with an article on how he just can’t take any more, what we “high priests of music” have been pawning off as art these last couple-three generations or so… While Tom Service tells Joe he needs to unbunch his underwear a bit… Or is that Tom getting in a bunch over Joe’s blow-off?… Read both sides; and there’s plenty of room in the comments both here and there, to thoroughly reach no consensus or conclusion whatsoever. Ah Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…

Update: A propos this little dust-up, and also related to Frank’s opera post just above, venerable art-imp-rocker David Byrne caught Zimmermann’s Soldaten and writes about it on his blog. Along the way, he echoes a few of Joe Queenan’s criticisms.

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While Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise is winning awards over thisaway, its recent release in England gives a chance for the other side of the ocean to beat him up on it a bit. BBC3’s current Music Matters program (archived for the next seven days) has a pleasant chat with Alex which, as soon as he makes his exit, turns downright hostile. Poet James Fenton and writer/critic Morag Grant nicely rake him over the coals for a certain American myopia, reductionism and dismissiveness.

The “what about the Brits?” question doesn’t trouble me much (especially as Britten is pretty well covered), but many of their other gripes are the same ones I share. [note: If you want to go right to it, on the BBC iPlayer pop-up click the “15 min” fast-forward button; you’ll be right in the middle of Alex’s chat, and just before the crtic’s response.]

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Gavin BorchertGavin Borchert, composer and the Seattle Weekly‘s classical music critic, has an interesting take in this week’s rag, on current calls for jazzing-up or otherwise “slumming” the concert experience. A couple cogent paragraphs:

A couple of things puzzle me. First, the classical concert experience is, in all essentials, identical to that of dance, theater, literary events, or for that matter—barring the munching of popcorn and cheering the fireball deaths of villains—movies. Go to the performance space, buy a ticket, sit down in rows, watch and listen, try not to disturb your fellow audience members. Yet it’s only in conjunction with concerts that you hear complaints about what a crushing burden this all is. Second, why is sitting quietly considered such an unendurable ordeal? Millions of people do it every night in front of their televisions.


So what have we learned? Well, maybe people behave the way they do at concerts not because it’s an artificial standard imposed by ironclad tradition but because the music sounds better that way. Maybe listeners feel classical music most deeply when they pay quiet attention to it. Maybe sometimes not clapping is OK, and we don’t need to rush in and obliterate every silence. Maybe true innovations in concert presentation—new ways of getting music and music lovers together—will be concerned not with questions of formal vs. informal, loose vs. uptight, but with what setting best allows music to work its magic.

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If you haven’t read Galen’s rather lengthy piece called Imprecations and Exhortations: A Rather Lengthy Defense of Richard Taruskin over in the Composers Forum, you should do so immediately.  I’ve been taking a short nap for the past couple of days and just go around to it and it’s very thoughtful and very good.  (I say that because on my first day of journalism school as Horace Greeley and I were checking in, our first prof said “Never say ‘very.’ If you must, write ‘damn’ instead.”)  Damned fine work, Galen.

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I think you and your readers at sequenza21 will like this piece we just published, by Richard Taruskin: It’s a provocative argument that the dire situation in which classical music finds itself is being made even more dire by the sentimentality and unreality of some of the music’s most ardent defenders. Here’s a link.

Barron YoungSmith

The New Republic

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Norman Lebrecht is an entertaining writer who has never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  Come to think of it, he may have been the world’s first blogger–he adopted the sloppy research habit before blogs were even invented.  For years, he’s been planting verbal IEDs along the classical music highway, wiping out entire convoys of evildoers and occasionally fragging some innocent bystanders in the process.  So, it is with some smugness that one is able to report this morning, or the New York Times is able to report, that Stormin’ Norman has had a bit of a comeuppance.  The Brtisih publisher of his latest missle–Maestros, Masterpieces & Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry–has agreed to recall and destroy the book and apologize to Naxos Records Founder Klaus Heymann. 

Heymann had filed suit against Lebrecht for “accusing him of serious business malpractices” and for at least 15 errors of fact.  Penguin agreed to settle rather than go to court. 

For a much more reliable portrait of Heymann and his role as an internet music pioneer, see Alex Ross in this week’s New Yorker.

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Adam Kirsch, writing in today’s New York Sun:

The critic of the serious arts — poetry, painting, music — is addressing readers who are not just indifferent to new work, but feel justified in their indifference. The critic’s first job, then, even before he evaluates individual works, is to make the reader feel uneasy about his ignorance—to convince him that the art in question is vital and serious, deserving of complex attention. A reader who has always heard that classical music is dead must first be convinced that it is alive.


No critic at work today does this better than Alex Ross, who writes about music for the New Yorker.

Can’t say much for the Sun’s politics, but its arts coverage is spot on.

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CDOut my (Seattle) way, local composer and Seattle Weekly columnist Gavin Borchert this week offered up something titled “Small Apologies“. A few excerpts:

Not that I have anything against Tony Bennett or Norah Jones or any of the other recording artists whose work is propped up next to the biscotti, but I was wondering when Starbucks would get around to classical music. At last they have, a CD starring the home team: The Seattle Symphony and Starbucks Entertainment have announced their co-release of Echoes, containing newly commissioned works (!) from six composers [Bright Sheng, John Harbison, David Schiff, David Stock, Samuel Jones, Gerard Schwarz, with an older piece by Aaron Kernis], each one asked to somehow rework an older piece he (and they’re all “he”s) loved. As an opportunity for time-travel collaboration, a meeting of musical minds from different cultures and eras, it’s a great idea; as a concession to conservative classical fans who can’t take their new music straight, it’s dismaying. [….]

The fact that Starbucks and the SSO are giving seven living composers exposure is exemplary. What bothers me is the philosophy that seems to underlie the project, one endemic to the classical music business as a whole these days. Composers and performers alike so often present new work, whether strong or weak, innovative or comfy, timid or bold, with a tentative sort of hat-in-hand stance—emphasizing, above any other virtue the music might have, that it won’t be scary. Constant reassurance, even apology, is the tone, in media coverage, program notes, PR material, casting musicians as supplicants and listeners as 3-year-olds who have to be coaxed to finish their beets. [….]

There is an untapped audience for new classical music, but reaching them, I believe, will require a new approach. They’re the people who aren’t averse to classical music, who are interested in the arts in general, but who need a reason to give their time and money to us rather than everything else competing for their attention in our hypersaturated culture. Suppose the wheedling and cajoling with which we serve up music is turning them off. These people aren’t going to attend classical concerts or buy CDs unless they think they’re going to hear something they can get excited about. I don’t mean merely not offended, I mean actively thrilled. Which means, for heaven’s sake, we ought to start talking about something other than nonscariness, ought to start pushing aesthetic virtues other than accessibility.

The floor’s open…

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Tom Jackson over at Modernclassical writes:

Donald Rosenberg, the classical music critic and correspondent for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, gets the cover of the arts section Sunday with a primer on classical music, an article about the “beloved staples” which form the foundation of classical music. The headline graphic lists the usual suspects — Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach.

The big shock is when you turn the page and see a huge graphic accompanying the article listing Rosenberg’s picks for a representative sampling of the repertoire. Rosenberg lists just three works from the Baroque period and only four from the Classical period. The Romantic period lists 19 works, but for the 20th Century, Rosenberg lists 35 separate composers and works, including Ligeti, Lutoslawski, and Messiaen. It is a really impressive effort on Rosenberg’s part to educate readers about modern music. Subversive, almost.

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