Sunday, June 17, 2007

Rich Critic, Poor Critic

I met Alan Rich, Los Angeles Weekly music critic, about 25 years ago. Seems that I see him at every concert I attend. We usually speak briefly, often leaving me to wonder what other things he's really thinking about.

Alan's reviews are available online. His column is called A Little Night Music. I recommend it highly although I don't always agree with him. He wrote some nice things about me, back in antiquity when I merited review.

Many of the music critics I read in these modern days have been lamenting the firing of other music critics whom I do not read. Alan took his turn at bat on this subject in this post under the heading "What I Do and Why". He wrote:
"A community’s musical life needs a spokesperson."
He doesn't really say why this is so. We certainly don't need critics in order to form our own opinions.

A door in Disney Hall
Every person who hears a musical event, be it concert, club or busker in the subway, forms their own independent opinion. Not everyone knows the words to express their ideas. Such vocabulary is learned through the corrupting influence of music education.

People who never studied music might find reading a post-concert review helps them articulate personal thoughts, whether they agree or disagree. For a critic to presume he writes only what the majority of the audience thinks, as their spokesman, is exceptionally pompous. No, Alan didn't actually say that.

Music reviews do help people like me who can't (or won't) attend many concerts. We can learn the basic facts of who played what, when and where. Beyond that a reader needs to gradually create a filter for each critic's arsenal of adjectival ordnance. Suppose he never wrote a decent word about Andrea Bocelli. You might not need to read his take on Sarah Brightman.

(Are there any female music critics out there?)

As Alan mentions, music reviews can also entice people to attend concerts they might not have known about otherwise. We pretend not to notice when a review praises an upcoming concert which has paid advertising elsewhere in the same issue.

chairs in Disney Hall's BP Hall
Critics do get the chance to speak truth to power in the the music world. This is good. When Leslie read the draft of this article she said that the music community does need spokespeople to talk to the "Pharisees, Administrators and Bean Counters." (Alas, she refuses to ghost-write Mixed Meters.)

Arguments about why certain parking garages should have certain concert halls built above them apparently paid off. (Can't find the link, but I read that Ernest Fleischman felt Mark Swed's LA Times music criticism helped get Disney Hall built. I hope that Mark's comments about how certain museums have mistreated certain chamber music series might actually cause certain administrators to make certain changes.)

Back to the point: no one of us who loves music needs to care what a critic thought of a performance or composition in order to have our own opinion. That's what I think and I seem to be repeating myself.

Anyway, Alan also says:
[Classical music] "comes cloaked in a certain air of mystery, which the critic is there to penetrate. Because it has a strong impact on emotions, it also generates a lot of nut cases who, these days, have access to the Internet, so that we have both not enough music criticism — or, let’s call it, “writing around music” — and too much in the form of blogs."
This seems to argue for a type of elitism where just a few people get to create the opinions and others consume them. With a blog anyone can talk back to bonehead reviewer comments. This is a good thing. Alan, are you listening? You trumpet your own refutations of other reviewers, for example Chris Pasles. But you decry the musical community's discovery of a way to speak for itself.

behind the curtain
Alan, now safely back in the third person, goes on to praise the Internet music blog with more readers than any other: "The Rest Is Noise" by Alex Ross. I've referred to it often on Mixed Meters. I recommend it highly although I don't always agree with it.

To me the title "The Rest Is Noise" has always trumpeted that very elitist attitude. It seems to say "I review only good stuff and every thing I ignore is merely cacophonous pandemonium."
  • Maybe that's not the intended implication of the title.
  • Maybe someone will suggest alternative meanings.
  • Maybe the title is explained in Ross' book "The Rest Is Noise. "
  • Maybe I'll give up writing a blog and find time to start reading books again.
  • Maybe someone out there thinks cacophonous pandemonium is the highest form of music. My apologies to that person.

Tim Mangan is another SoCal Music Critic whom I recommend but don't always agree with.

Rich Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Daniel Wolf said...

David --

I assumed that Alex Ross's title is a reference to Hamlet's dying words -- "The rest is silence", and that he, as a critic, was assaying an overview of a very noisy century, one in which musical life has been more complex than ever before. And given a high noise to signal ratio, that seems a reasonable task for a critic. There are other references there, to Cage (by emptying the word "silence") and to the economist/philosopher Jacques Attali, in whose book, Noise, insisted that our world had actually become less noisy, in terms of the presence of sounds of social life.

David Ocker said...

Which is of course a much more likely, intelligent, learned and relevant explanation than any I was capable of. Thank you Daniel.

Still, are you saying that the leading classical music blog is named with a reference to a Shakespearean allusion to the finality of death?

Can I continue this deconstruction to assert that calling a blog "The Rest Is Noise" implies the author thinks classical music is actually dead?

Are we to expect the next century (& millennium) will be less complex than the previous?

And every time anyone uses the word "silence" are we expected to discuss John Cage?

Do Musical Believers now assert that the nature of death has changed such that,in Hell, I will spend eternity forced to listen to my least favorite music: Richard Wagner, Joni Mitchell and La Monte Young?

Finally, will I conclude that I'm wasting any time I spend looking up who Jacques Attali was?

"The Rest Is Noise" gets almost three times as many Google-hits as "The Rest Is Silence" (which include this Swedish punk rock album.)

My answers: Yes, No, No, Alas, No, Dunno

Daniel Wolf said...

Actually, Hamlet's words about silence may not refer to his death so much as to his instructions that Horatio need not report more than what is necessary about how Elsinore Castle ended up with a pile of corpses. So it's not about death but rather about sorting out what's essential, and that seems like a good description of a critic's job.

Alex Ross is definitely not one of the "classical music is dead" crowd; yes, things will get more complicated (if not neccesarily complex); you can start wherever you want with a discussion of silence, but Cage started the discussion; there are many cults among musical believers, we all have different repertoires in Heaven but, more critically, in Hell as well; and Attali is a good read, but so is Pynchon or Paul Auster or Dashiell Hammett...

David Ocker said...

In my world-to-come, where I have loads of extra free time - I can't decide whether I should attempt to read Against The Day or return to Gravity's Rainbow yet again.

I couldn't finish Mason & Dixon, so starting into another new Pynchon novel holds no guarantee of reward for me. But I know I will fall under the spell of GR. It's an old friend. A classic, if you will.

(And I am familiar with Alex Ross' opinions of the life and death of classical music. Guess I should have added a smiley or something to my comment to convey my tongue-in-cheekiness.)

P.S. A brand new hardcover copy of Against the Day is selling on Amazon for seven dollars. And there are 152 used copies as well.

Patty said...

Here in San Jose (in the San Francisco Bay Area) we've had three reviewers who were women. Yes, they actually do exist.

The first, whose name I've long forgotten, was a champion of our conductor although she often made him angry. The second, Judith Green, usually said very negative things about us. The third was Lesley Valdes. She was also pretty brutal and, quite frequently, was trying to get into private meetings between management and orchestra. Hmmm. Maybe if she actually did get in we'd still be alive.

Naw. Not possible.

Of course none of these writers went on to become a famous critic. They all, though, seemed more harsh than the male critics we've had.

But isn't there one in New York? Anne Midgette?

Just rambling ....

David Ocker said...

Thanks Patty - I wasn't familiar with any of those names. Anne Midgette, it turns out, is married to another music critic. It's entirely possible I've read her work without noticing the by-line.

When I see video of nearly all-male orchestras from a half-century ago I'm struck with how many women have become fine orchestra musicians these days. (The Philadelphia Orchestra even hired a woman to play the tuba.)

So why is music criticism still so overwhelmingly male? My answer: dunno. I might speculate on the answer, but my initial thoughts are simply too flippant even for this blog.)