Thursday, December 22, 2005

Music Criticism

There are too many jokes about critics to list, but my second favorite goes, "Nobody ever erected a monument to a critic."

OUCH! That had to hurt!

Kyle Gann (An official "disturber of the peace", to us Hobbits out here) started off what I consider to be a tempest in a teapot with this post about a particularly inane example of music criticism back on December fourth. Of course, I had to open my big, fat mouth in the comments with this:

"I simply don't understand the function of music critics. Unless they are composers themselves, I simply don't see that they have any basis for their self-serving "expertise."
I have a degree in jazz comp, and a degree in trad comp: I use a lot of "jazzy" materials in a trad comp context, and they create a completely different effect there. They do not remind me that they are jazz harmonies at all. But, I'm certain I'm a Philistine to any "edumacated" serious music critic. Thank God.


The idiotic critic singled out by Mr. Gann had complained about an added-sixth chord and brainlessly suggested that the sonority had a particular connotation. Of course - as any composer knows - context defines connotative associations in music: An added-sixth chord that sounds like a "jazz chord" in a swing tune (With it's swing feel and parallel voice leading) will not have the same effect in a prelude (With a straight feel and more traditional voice leading), for example. In fact, lay listeners with untrained ears will probably not recognize the sonorities as even being the same in those two examples. Simply put, the idea is preposterous.

Kyle's post (And my comment) lead Mark Geelhoed, who describes himself as a "Chicago Music Journalist" (Must be like Colombian Coffee: "The Richest Kind!"), to post this, and a more agitated Daniel Felsenfeld, who describes himself as a "Composer/Music Writer" (And an employee of "The Department of Redundancy Department", evidently... Oh! He meant that he writes about music. "Never mind!" - Emily Latella) to post this. Both on December ninth.

Now, I do object to Daniel's description of my comment post as "bile", because it was simply "spirited" in my opinion. If I had said something like - oh, I don't know - "Critics are zits on the ass of art who suck their livings off of the work of more noble men", or something like that, well then yeah: That would have been true bile eminating from a sincere spleen-venting cathartic episode. Compared to that, I think my comment was pretty reserved.

Then, Adam Baratz, who describes himself as a "Composer/Pianist" (Yay! Another guy with the actual balls necessary to perform his own stuff!) kind of summed it up here on December tenth.

Well, I've been waiting for the steam to clear from the teapot, and now it has, so I have a few words to say.

Over the years I have said the following things about critics at various times (I don't claim to have coined these, but I may have, for all I know):

"The only people who listen to critics are those who are too stupid to make up their own minds about something."

"Whoever said, 'Those who can't do, teach' must have been a critic trying to deflect attention from the fact that the real non-doers are critics."

"Critics have all the ego of a composer, but whithout any of the talent."

"Yes, opinions are like assholes: Critics have cornered the market."

And, the "zit on the ass of art" unmitigated bile quotation, of course.

As you have probably deduced, I don't think too highly of critics. But, I've mellowed of late. I can see where the layman might make use of intelligent and informed criticism to make purchasing decisions vis-a-vis one CD or another, or whether to go see a concert or not.

The problem is not only with the "intelligent and informed" part, or whether the criticism is intended to address the needs of a target audience who could actually utilize such evaluations, but the real problem is all tied up in the motivations of the critic.

Critics are "it's all about me" type people (And to be fair, so are composer/performers. At least, We are all about Us, anyway), and they are selling their opinions and analyses for cash. To sell them, they have to employ certain tactics: There's the "educated, informed, and widely-read beyond belief"-type who issues proclamations in an erudite tone from high atop Mount Olympus, imagining - I suspect - that his words have the impact of lightning bolts out of the hand of Zeus. Then, there's the agent provocateur-type who beats the pruning hooks of his opinions into swords on the anvil of his distain, supposing - again, just a wild-assed guess - that every performer, conductor, and composer is just cut to the quick by his mightier-than-the-sword verbiage. Between these poles there is a gradient of critics who combine relative strategies and tactics of each, but there seems to me to be a void at the center (With the possible exception of bloggers, who don't get paid much - if anything - for their efforts, and who definitely don't reach the eyes and ears of the audience who could use their advice most of the time).

No surprise, really: Who is going to pay for truely objective and rational evaluative opinion, right? Or, more to the point, who could convincingly and compellingly write in such a style?

I have always thought that composers are both the best and worst possible candidates to become critics: Too ego-filled and high-strung for the most part to pull it off (The composers I've met who are not ego-filled and high-strung usually aren't very compelling composers from my perspective, so perhaps those guys should become critics. I don't know). But, composers do understand music on a level that no performer, theorist, or musicologist can claim (I used to call musicologists "musical proctologists" years ago. That still makes me laugh! ;^)).

My proposed solution would be a group blog made up of music critics of all stripes in all of the major metropolitan areas of the country. Preferably there would more than one in each place so that blogging's famous ability to check itself would be in the back of the mind of every critic. This would mitigate against the more outrageous reviews, I think. You could sell this as a one-stop music review site for music lovers who are interested in reviews of CD's or shows (You could even expand it to be a one-stop cultural review site with critics outside of music). For the record, I want no part of it: I live in a county six times larger than the state of Rhode Island with a population of 10,000 - Not exactly a metropolis (Rhode Island has 4.5 million people... In 1/6 the area of Brewster county!). Besides, I would definitely become a lousy agent provocateur-type.

My favorite slam against critics? "Everybody's a critic." Precisely. No special skills are really involved at all.

You're not trolling, are you?"

Whatever gave you that idea?

It hasn't even got any hooks!


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