Thursday, June 07, 2012

Critics and criticism

A FRIEND POSTS, via Facebook, Sibelius's famous remark about criticism:

"Pay no attention to what the critics say; no statue has ever been put up to a critic."

I commented: "Yes, well…", having spent a few years working as a critic of art and music. Whereupon another friend, still on the Facebook thread:

"Enlighten us, please, Charles, on what the best and brightest can contribute in their refections on the world of music."

I've always been impressed by a seemingly off-hand description of the nature and purpose of criticism that I read in the mid-1980s:
Criticism — the study of the meaning and value of art works
Joseph Kerman: Contemplating Music: Challenges to Musicology, p. 16

And here's a lengthy report I ran across while looking for Kerman's quote, written 32 years ago, but perhaps still interesting:

What music critics say about themselves
September 28, 1980
By Charles Shere
Tribune Music Critic

Something like 100 music critics were in San Francisco at the opening of Davies Hall ten days ago, gathered not only to see and hear the San Francisco Symphony's new concert hall but also to convene the annual meeting of their Music Critics Association. Most of the events of the meeting were significant only to those in the trade, but a few matters came up which might interest the layman — particularly the layman who reads music criticism.

At one panel, in which four composers made pleas for more responsive criticism of new music, Andrew Imbrie made the enlightening observation that while others in the music business may overestimate it, music critics seem to underestimate their own influence.

The truth is, we don't like to think out our influence much. It makes us nervous. We tend to think it shouldn't matter that much: we know what we think of most of the criticism we read, and hope that no one will take most of it very seriously.

We're leery of Nicholas Slonimsky's famous "Lexicon of Musical Invective," which is full of critical judgments, no doubt ignored in their own time, surviving only because they're so far off the mark. Make one mistake and you'll go down in history, but most of the time we seem to have very little influence on the direction music takes.

It's probably just as well. No one sector should determine the course of so important a part of the culture. On the other hand, the short-run influence we can exert is dismaying. Perfectly intelligent people form opinions of orchestras and opera companies, of composers and performers, of music itself on the basis of reviews read in only one or another of the area's many newspapers. They'd never dream of making political opinions, or shopping decisions, in a similar way.

The two most appealing items in the three-day meeting, then, were those which considered short-term influence by opening communications between critics and other parties among the musical scene — a panel on ethics and the composers' panel.

The ethics panel began out of concern for such nuts-and-bolts matters as libel and slander. (That's not properly a matter of ethics all, but of litigation: what has legal accountability to do with the moral standards of a profession?) It soon moved into two more public areas, however: "conflict of interest" and general competence — and those areas need to be discussed, publicly, a great deal.

"Conflict of interest," which seems to be a uniquely contemporary preoccupation, is in the air this month because of a remark Edo de Waart made in an interview published in the September KQED program guide. The conductor of the San Francisco Symphony was interviewed last April, just after a particularly negative review in the San Francisco Chronicle.

"It is too bad that this city, which deserves better, has a composer like Heuwell Tircuit writing reviews," de Waart told Alan Ulrich (who has the music desk at the San Francisco Examiner). "Somebody who gets frustrated because we don't play his works."

The fact is that each of the three major dailies has a composer working as music critic: Tircuit on the Chronicle, Michael Walsh on the Examiner, and this writer. There's plenty of precedent for this, going back to such eminent critics as Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz.

"It would have been too bad to have lost such fine critics (as they,)" Michael Steinberg pointed out to the critics. (The San Francisco Symphony's artistic advisor was himself a widely respected critic when he wrote for the Boston Globe.)

"Not that composers or critics of such quality are necessarily in evidence today. But I must admit that there's something about composers doubling as critics that makes me uneasy."

Harold Schonberg, until recently the chief music critic of the New York Times, confirmed that; that newspaper has an absolute policy against composer-critics. The danger, presumably, is "trade-offs": favorable press in return for performances.

But can't corruption take other forms? Isn't a non-composing critic as open to bribery, or as immune to it? What about picking up extra money writing program notes, giving lectures? What about the free seats themselves?

The real danger is that the public will suspect "trade-offs" where none exist: that's what's likely to happen as a result of the de Waart-Tircuit affair. And that because of a proto-paranoid fear of "conflict of interest" we may lose something much more important, namely community of interest.

About the critic's competence the issues are even more vocally expressed. Richard LeBlond, president of the San Francisco Ballet, raised the critic's obligation to be properly trained, to have background in the discipline he discusses.

He cited a music critic who admitted that lacked familiarity with the basic vocabulary of dance and that he felt it irrelevant to his reviewing ballet. When asked if he felt he could review a symphony without knowing something about classical music he refused to answer.

(LeBlond is particularly sensitive to this, of course: there's a long tradition of sending music critics to review dance, even though the two arts really have little in common. Would you send a blind man to review dance?)

Another of LeBlond's challenges to the critics — "You have the obligation not to be bored, not to be lazy" — tied in directly to the comments made by the composers at their panel.

"Listen for what will come next, not just the predictable expectation," Robert Hughes pleaded.

This challenge focuses on the double function of the critic. The traditional public role has been that of evaluator, arbiter: the writer who ]istens for the false note, the lapse of memory, and who totes up the hierarchy of great and lesser artists.

We do have to do all that, but it's basically a sideline activity. Our real function is to figure out what's going on — whether in individual reviews or collectively, in the anthologies of critical writing which develop over the generations.

Our assignment is to figure out what's going on, to see and hear it, perhaps to help others see and hear it, and only then to hook it up to something to make sense of it.

Before coming to the judgment (although perhaps simultaneously, since listening to music can stretch the present instant), we must respond to the intuitive quality of the moment, on its own terms and for its own revelation.

We work, as all musicians do, in a curious mode, neither analytical nor not analytical. We hear sounds and we hear them hooking up to other sounds; we listen to them only for themselves and at the same time as part of the context, the flow or language of sounds.

That's not as esoteric as it may sound. It's a common interpretive process — what simultaneous interpreters do at the United Nations, what mature parents or lovers do when responding to their intimates, what artists themselves do when mediating, somehow, between their sources and their work.

It doesn't work at all in a climate of suspicion, and it doesn't work very well in a polarized, us-and-them kind of adversary relationship. For the process to flourish it needs to operate as publicly as possible, even with public response to the critic. There are signs that organizations like the Music Critics Association are facilitating such publicity: We're beginning to talk to one another.
In another seven years, though, I'd had enough of practicing criticism — partly through discouragement in the wake of another Music Critics Association meeting, where the majority of the assembled "professional" critics seemed of questionable use. Next time here I'll post my final column from the Tribune.


Curtis Faville said...

In an era of increasing scarcity of public venues for debate, criticism and discussion, this backward look has almost a nostalgic ring.

Edmund Wilson believed that criticism's first function, was to educate and inform, and secondarily to provide guideposts to appreciation and appraisal.

Personally, I've always believed that the writing of criticism was the primary tool in the refining of one's sensibility--sensibility being the specific combination of feeling and thought, emotion and reason which is the special human aptitude. For those who must consume it, it can be an opportunity to enter into the consideration of culture at the highest levels. All the way from George Steiner's syntheses of philosophical speculation, down to the little movie-man in the Chronicle movie review, jumping up out of his seat with joy.

For artists and performers and people in the public eye, it's important to learn to deal with criticism, even censure.

If no one ever disagreed about the value of anything, then there would be no standards, and no aspiration. Personally, I welcome criticism. It's one of the best ways of learning. If no one ever described, or apprised, or estaimated, or condemned anything--what a pathetic world it would be!

Charles Shere said...

I distinguish between Criticism, which I think of as a public activity, engaged with an audience in mind, therefore agreeing to an extent with Wilson, and Contemplation, essentially a private activity, partly learned from particularly effective teachers (mine were Sidney Mellers, at Santa Rosa JC, and James Cline, at UC Berkeley), partly "instinctual", which is where/why I find Kerman's formula so persuasive.

In other words, Criticism is public Contemplation; Contemplation is silent Criticism. The public element, as you point out, leads to Conversation, which is always rewarding.

But let's not forget Horace, by way of Sidney; the purpose (or at least the function) of Poesie is to instruct and delight.

Northwest Concert and Events Blog said...

I agree with Charles, I'd rather say it as a part of their campaign to promote their personality and talent. It is much like showcasing themselves to the people to accumulate likes and fans.

Curtis Faville said...

I should say that there is no such thing as an ethically-free, or -neutral, notion.

To contemplate a thing is to see it through one's particular eyes. Each human being is a unique and very complex organization of experience, memory, feeling, and point of view. Just as there is no unbiased "news" there is no unbiased aesthetic (or perception).

We simply can't help having unique points of view. Every assertion implies an alternative. In the hierarchy of consciousness, everything is prioritized., and valued. Value, of course, is just a word, but it describes how we sort data for use.

Charles Shere said...

I'd prefer not to use the word "ethics" in this situation. The original discussion among the critics, forming the substance of the post these comments pertain to, was about perceived conflicts — e.g., critics taking jobs or money from organizations they wrote about, suggesting that they might favor such organizations. That has nothing to do with criticism, of course; it has to do with honesty on the workplace.

Bias is another matter. I always felt it imperative to suppress as much as possible my own taste preferences — for example, I don't like Brahms much — when reviewing a concert. You can describe beets easily enough without resorting to the vocabulary of disgust. But it's clear that any individual statement about any individual experience is going to reflect "one's particular eyes"; that each "complex organization of experience, memory, feeling, and point of view" is indeed unique. That's what makes any ensuing Conversation about
shared experiences so enriching; well conducted, it can't help but enlarge each participant's experience.

Curtis Faville said...

Ah, Brahms. Late flowering of Romanticism. Thick, treacly, clotted.

I remember I hated being made to play his pieces when I was a student. Of all the important composers for the keyboard, Brahms feels the least natural to the hand. He stretches and weaves chords and broken runs that make your fingers ache. But emotionally, he's pure Victorian ardor.

The symphonies, too, seem thickly orchestrated--and unimaginative.

What a delight--as an antidote--it is to play anything by Debussy, whose fingerings feel so natural, and seem to caress and float over the keys. And his orchestration--truly revolutionary--so subtle--

Still, the Hungarian Dances and Variations on a Theme from Handel--hard to beat those. That's grown-up music.

As an aside, your word verification program is maddening--the letters are very hard to make out.