I missed this little diatribe from Bernard Holland in the Times.  Thanks to Carmen Tellez for bringing it to my attention:

Unpleasant truths were another topic brought back forcefully by a concert at the Kitchen in September, by the fine young group Either/Or. Here was a program of 1960s arrogance and self-absorption, with people like Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff and Earle Brown as the main offenders. Listening to a collection of composers sharing inside jokes and private messages in music that reeked of contempt for the public made me get down on my knees and give thanks that an era so damaging to music was over. It didn’t drive an intelligent public away from classical music by itself, but it helped.

24 thoughts on “That’s Earle, Brother”
  1. Same thing going on in the jazz world. Market share down to 1% and no one willing to take the blame. In the end I think Holland got the basics right (no idea about whether these particular composers are to blame though).

  2. Steve – true, and I’m plunging into the new world with my usual reluctant optimism. However, there were some advantages to the print medium that we haven’t yet learned how to duplicate on the web. Space constraints are not, in themselves, a bad thing. 500 words is ridiculous (I complained that I felt like I was writing blurbs for TV Guide), but limiting my full-page columns to 1700 words made me sharpen my writing considerably. Without fail, every week I would let my imagination rage on up to 2500 words or so, and it was almost depressing to realize how much punchier and more engaging the writing became once I winnowed out the 800 I least needed. (First you cross out all the adverbs, then shoot the adjectives one by one…) And I alone know – along with maybe a few people who remember me from the Reader or Fanfare – what a turgid, colorless writer I would be today had I not worked for seven years with an exacting, linguistically brilliant editor breathing down my neck and making me justify every word. Great editing is labor intensive and too expensive for all but a few publications today. Alex Ross is probably not 100 times as smart as the Times critics (perhaps only 5 or 6 times as smart), but he reads 100 times as smart because the New Yorker edits brilliantly, gives him a good, reasonable chunk of space, does obsessive fact-checking (“Mr. Gann, Alex refers to you as a composer – is this true?” was a question I got by phone once), and really cares about the quality of writing they go public with. We don’t know how to duplicate that on the web, or can’t afford to.

    Look through my blog and you can see how obvious it is when I’m trying to replicate the polished writing of my old print days and when I’m just, ya know, blogging.

  3. At the same time, Kyle, the web does allow all these publications to make up for the lost word count and freedom to expand an idea: by using their own websites. Column space or even web-space isn’t an issue there, and there’s little reason not to get generous with it. If Bernard Holland is looking silly simply because his stuff is being eviscerated in the print edition, why not give him al the space he needs onine to show his smarts? I know in my old neck of the woods of Seattle, Regina Hackett, the Post-Intelligencer’s long-time art critic — who always seemed competent but a little flat to me — showed her true depth and verve when they gave her her own blog in the Arts section, free to expand on whatever wasn’t making it into the paper.

  4. I have a lot of respect for Bernard as a critic. The problem is institutional. As column inches grow fewer and fewer, and advertising becomes more and more powerful, it becomes more and more difficult to say anything accurately in a newspaper review. Paragraphs get chopped out at the last minute. Fad assignments are given out with no thought to the writers’ expertise (as happened with the recent minimalism fuss). Years ago the Times requested a 700-word piece from me (already way too short for include context), and, a half-hour before deadline, called to say I had to cut it down to 500 (some new ad had undoubtedly come in). The same thing used to happen with some regularity at the Chicago Tribune. Frequently finished articles disappear completely, the critic paid his fee for a piece of writing that got displaced by an ad or some breaking news. Under conditions like this, it becomes very difficult to sustain much pride in the accuracy of one’s expression. Cutting corners becomes almost a matter of self-preservation.

    I contrast this to the golden period of the Village Voice, now long since over. My editor and I used to spend 90 minutes a week poring over my column and making sure every sentence, every paragraph, the entire logic of the piece, glittered with color and lucidity. The first time I wrote a column in which he didn’t alter a word (Feb. 16, 1988), I felt like I had scaled a mountain and seen the ocean stretch out on the other side. Once the paper went free in the mid-90s, such intensive editing was considered no longer cost-effective, and discontinued. Fact-checkers were fired. Errors crept in. I could afford to get sloppy, and occasionally succumbed to the temptation. My word count shrank from 900/1700 to 700, then to 550. I started tossing off columns literally before breakfast. None of those short articles are reprinted in my new book, because I’m ashamed of them. They were as big a waste of paper as most of what’s in the Times today.

    Daily papers are always worse than weeklies in the editing-and-space department. The Times cut down its feature story lengths from 2500 words to 1200, and I don’t know what they are now. In other words, the problem is institutional. It is nearly impossible for any expert to sound intelligent trying to sum up a topic he knows a lot about in 500 words. The most brilliant critic I ever read (not in music), someone who used to educate and uplift me in the Chicago Reader every week, got “promoted” to a daily paper and became utterly forgettable and pedestrian. We have no idea how smart the Times critics are; we see them only through these little distorting lenses left in the greatly reduced Arts section. Double their word counts, increase their freedom to discuss topics they love, edit them within an inch of their lives, remove their fear that their writing will be torn apart or thrown away – allow them to remember why they became music critics in the first place – and we have no idea what they might flower into.

  5. Not to go all Chris Matthews here, but – for contrast, a Holland
    review from 1998 (my boldface, obviously, for emphasis):

    This was not the place to put Elliott Carter in his proper niche. There will be time to decide whether his music shines ahead to the future, or whether it is more like a brilliant taillight receding down an increasingly unpopulated road. These dicta, moreover, will be different according to the era that makes them.  As an example, Mr. Carter is a problem. Indeed, his remoteness from the public may have helped music down a blind alley from which it extricates itself with difficulty. As an individual, however, he is an acknowledged master.

    …And as long as good musicians feel the exhilaration of tackling

  6. This article reinforces the irrelevance of the arts coverage of the Times – I rarely read it – they don’t cover what I want to read and I don’t much like what they write. In fact, I usually only read it, as with this case, because they’ve said something God-awful. When you have reporters with agendas, whether it be Holland or Judith Miller, your credibility becomes compromised. Couple that with a reduction of column inches and you start down that slippery slope to irrelevance. It’s become more difficult to feel sorry for their dwindling subscription base. When I realized how skewed the Times had become (and how unresponsive to its readership it had become), I cancelled my subscription and got a broadband connection instead.

  7. Somehow it’s hard to believe that statements like this can be made creeping into 2008. I don’t know how critics somehow have this special talent of knowing exactly what a particular artist has in mind or what he/she was trying to accomplish. I would imagine that Holland has access the the Oracle of Delphi and a special deck of tarot cards which help him to see the intent and the secret inside jokes of Brown, Wolff, et.al. Can you buy these at Kmart? An interesting aside is when a great artist is given the opportunity to answer the critics notions and preconceptions: http://www.downbeat.com/default.asp?sect=stories&subsect=story_detail&sid=212

  8. Whatever else one might want to say about them, Wolff and Brown were pervasive and widely credited influences on the Downtown improvisation scene around John Zorn in the ’80s, a scene that did not have much use for Cage and Feldman. Cardew, of course, is a towering figure in the field of political music, closer in spirit to Eisler and Brecht than to his immediate contemporaries. To call any of them coattail riders or second-raters is to speak from a blinkered perspective, seemingly that of someone who knows the classical canon and not much else. I can well imagine that Holland might not have enjoyed these particular performances, and he has every right to say so. But to accuse these particular composers of “inside jokes” and contempt for the public reveals cultural illiteracy as to what they were about. Even within the brief confines of a daily-paper review he could easily have made his point without compounding the reader’s ignorance.

  9. **What quantifiable ill effects are we currently experiencing as a result of Earle Brown’s interest in open form?

    I think Earle Brown caused my asthma.

  10. There’s some irony in the sight of a critic who is, apparently, responsible to no-one for his opinions, but is given a great big bully platform for proclaiming them, saying that composers should be responsible to audiences. (That’s actually residual from something of Holland’s from earlier in the year–the article about how he didn’t need to prepare for his job, but composers sure had better for there’s). In this case also ironic to have a critic (this one, anyway) excoriating anybody else for his/her arrogrance.

  11. I agree with Tom Myron: Holland’s snark announces by implication that Cage and Feldman are now officially accepted into the realm of classical music.

    Of course, Holland may have just been saying that intelligent people were turned off by classical music back when the New York Philharmonic banned Beethoven and had those subscription seasons where they played nothing but Cardew, Wolff, and Brown all the time, year after year.

  12. “…made me get down on my knees and give thanks that an era so damaging to music was over…”

    What quantifiable ill effects are we currently experiencing as a result of Earle Brown’s interest in open form?

  13. I missed that one too. Sheesh.

    I’ve been ragging on Holland for years; so has Marcus Maroney. The money posting at my blog is here, but search for Holland if you want to see them all. Of course, I never did blog about that vile new-string-quartet review that started by enumerating the number of visibly pregnant women in the groups.

  14. It’s hard to think of three composers who are/were less arrogant or self-absorbed than the three Holland cites. In fact, most of their music brought in all types of crowds, while the music that really seemed to alienate audiences was the more academic type. Is BH just being a Heather, because he wasn’t part of the hipper crowd?

  15. The paragraph by BH was dumb. That’s perhaps the nicest thing I could say about it. Does this guy actually know anything by Wolff or Brown? I could accept, perhaps, if he just didn’t find indeterminate music/graphic music/whatever to his taste. But contempt for an audience? Really? From those two guys?

    While I will admit some of their more graphical scores might take a bit of an acquired taste, something like Wolff’s Lines or the Exercises might make him think differently. On the other hand, given that he’s supposed to be an informed “critic,” shouldn’t he have already acquired that sort of taste? And if not, then STFU already.

  16. if he hates this music so much, why did he review the concert? why did he even bother to go? does anyone know how this works? did his boss tell him to go and review this? or did he actually go to the concert, sit through these pieces he so clearly didn’t give a chance (or a 2nd chance) just to rip on them? seems incredibly petty. Or does he think of himself as the sociologist of new music and he just wants to take notes on how many things were wrong w/this audience as opposed to the one that goes and hears john adams…?? there is something amiss, and sadly i think it has to do w/the fact that he’s just as bad a critic as richard taruskin..

  17. I see this in the art business all the time.

    Having thoroughly depleted the ability to exploit the first-raters via season after season over-exposure(Cage & Feldman would be the examples here) well intentioned presenters (who, like today’s media outlets, must ceaselessly feed the beast) begin launching valiant, earnest attempts to hype the coattail riders, water carriers and second-raters of long-spent movements as themselves being further exemplars of the genuine article(s). These attempts are always aided & abetted by self-interested “scholars & critics” who face the same pressures from within their own venues.

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