Friday, April 11, 2008

A critic migrates further

THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES, perhaps when my state of mind was more confused than usual, when I wasn't sure Phil Elwood and Alan Rich were in fact two separate people. I don't know that both were ever seen in the same place at the same time. I knew of them at the same time, over fifty years ago, in Berkeley; they were voices, commenting on their favorite musics over the radio from KPFA, Phil favoring jazz, Alan The Romantic Art Song.

And I knew of Alan as a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, where Lindsey took a music-appreciation class largely from him; one of her many attractions was her annotated pocket score of an F-major string quartet, Op. 59 no. 1, by a German composer considered important in the course. She was fond of Rich as an instructor, and I think I know why: as well as really knowing his stuff, he was very enthusiastic.

Is enthusiastic; is enthusiastic still. In the years since he's continued in what Virgil Thomson called "the music-appreciation racket" in the same way Virgil himself did, by writing freshly voiced, solidly considered, often memorably expressed commentary on the music he confronted. In the popular use of the word, "criticism": but I prefer the term commentary; I don't see why writing on politics and writing on the arts, when it stems from similar urges and expresses similar commitment to "values," need be called by different names.

For some time I've been putting off commenting here on Alan's book So I've Heard (Pompton Plains: Amadeus Press, 2006) . I meant to write about it together with Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, but my discussion of that book ran away from me last December; there wasn't room to bring the two AR's together. (I find a note I'd written at the time: Ross writes for an audience of himselves; Rich, for the rest of us.) And now I read in Daniel Wolf's blog Renewable Music that Alan Rich has been dropped from the L.A. Weekly, where he's written forever. (More background on this here and here.)

The L.A. Weekly is owned by Village Voice Media; they also own the (New York) Village Voice, which has also dismissed their staff music critic. The good news is, as I read on blogs, that Rich will continue to write on a blog. The bad news is that the print media and specifically newspapers, so handy to read on streetcars and at breakfast tables, continues to turn from engaged discussion of interesting and even significant subjects — the arts, for example — and opt instead for capsule reprints of news-service coverage of political issues, celebrations of the ongoing business of commercial athletics, and intricate wonder at the persistence of crime.

I continue to hear in my mind's ear a comment of Elisabeth Sprague Coolidge, the American patron who did so much for chamber music in the first half of the Twentieth Century: "My plea for modern music is not that we should like it, nor necessarily that we should even understand it, but that we should exhibit it as a significant human document." She was right on target with that remark: the arts are significant; they are the record of the most penetrating and far-reaching human activity, and the society — I started to write "culture," but forgo it — that ignores the arts demeans itself, like a smart well-to-do man who lounges around in rumpled clothes. (Are you listening, Charles?)

Alan, who I know well enough to have trouble calling him Rich, continually "exhibits" the music he runs across: and he runs across a great deal of it. He "understands" it, to the extent that it can be understood, whether it's conventionally analyzable, like that F-major quartet, or is best comprehended simply by considering it in its greater immediate cultural context, like the music of, say, John Cage.

And he likes it. When he gets worked up about something in what might be called a negative mood — which is less often than the contrary — it is because he cares so much about music that he can't bear some momentary stupidity he's run into. He cares about prose, too, as you can see in a review he published back in September 2006.)

A century ago the popular press, as we academics call newspapers, was full of contention and partisanship when it came to coverage of the arts. Newspapers published poetry, of all things, and confronted the arts. (It was the Boston Herald that published, in 1924, the anonymous
Who wrote this fiendish "Rite of Spring"?

What right had he to write the thing?

Against our helpless ears to fling

Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang bing?

And the to call it "Rite of SPRING,"

The season when on joyous wing

The birds melodious carols sing

And harmony's in every thing!

He who could write the "Rite of Spring,"

If I be right by right should swing!
But I digress, as usual.)

Today, when big-city dailies have often only one music critic, and big cities only one daily, the little commentary that passes for criticism is often pallid and reserved, afraid of being wrong, afraid even of being right, and the fun's gone out of the thing.

For Alan Rich the fun never goes out of it. I hope he continues to write; even as he approaches his middle eighties his voice is fresh and wondering; he retains his youthful enthusiasms for even such as Brahms in a way that almost makes you want to listen to them again, and certainly listen to them if you can borrow Alan's ears. His title, So I've Heard, is resonant; that So means a great deal.

In recent times, apart from his book I've read Alan only by way of forwards from a London friend; I don't know whether Alan will in fact blog his writings; I hope so. If so, another blog to read daily. And I respect the blog; it's a fine and useful thing. (And Clio knows without the resources of the Web, and such other blogs as Wolf's (cited above), my own musings would be much the worse informed.)

But the printed page, the pungent ink on its crisp newsprint, has an in-your-face immediacy no blog can touch; blogs are personally addressed, where the newspaper is inarguably Public Comment. Retiring a writer like Alan Rich — not that there are many such — amounts to stealing public property, and I'm sorry to see it happen. Oh well. Buy his book. He has a nice thing to say about me in it.


Ned Paynter said...

This is terrible news. I'm on Alan's mailing list but had seen no word of this, only a separate email with the publisher's address; I wondered why he'd sent it. I am only amazed that such an uncompromisingly intelligent commentator was allowed to continue for so long in a commercial paper.

Andrew Clemens, the senior music critic in the [London] Guardian, is another anomaly--a loquacious scholar who chats companionably to his equals.

John Whiting said...

I think I've been able to correct my signature.