The role of the critic: part II

Virgil Thomson: composer and critic should have opinions.

Virgil Thomson: dead composer and critic should have opinions. But no one else.

My thoughts on the role of critics and arts journalism have struck a chord with AC Douglas the proprietor of the blog Sounds & Fury. Douglas takes issues with my belief that critics should do more than tap out a few hundred words in a concert review and that the way forward for maintaining a critical dialogue about art and specifically classical music is to engage the audience. Douglas makes a number of startling pronouncements.

Douglas says:

“For arts organizations to look to and take in earnest the opinions of the arts world equivalent of pop culture’s Joe Sixpack to assess how well they’re doing artistically is a perfect prescription for artistic suicide. Joe Sixpack may be entitled to an opinion, but it’s entirely worthless to anyone but himself and his kind. To say the thing less generously, Joe Sixpack is not entitled to an opinion beyond expressing that he liked or disliked whatever it is he heard and/or saw, and, given the source, we all know just how worthless that sort of judgment is except to the one declaring it.”

In this one paragraph, Douglas gives the middle finger to the thousands (millions?) of people who go to classical concerts each year. More precisely he gives the finger to everyone who willingly pays for a ticket to hear some of the greatest music in the world. Curiously enough, every time someone buys a ticket they are making a value judgment and expressing an opinion. Apparently the opinions of the audience extend only to the decision to buy a ticket. By contrast critics often get free tickets and willingly level their opinions often with sparse humility.

For many of these people just going to a concert is an act of bravery. The intelligentsia have fostered the notion that classical music can only be really enjoyed by the learned few. Last year at a concert I sat next to a woman who had never attended a classical music concert before. I talked to her at intermission after she sheepishly asked me about the “rules for clapping.” She confessed she was having a good time. We talked about the pieces on the program – an all Mozart concert. She didn’t like the “Solemn Vespers” but loved the Piano Concerto Nr. 22. In a non-judging manner I pressed her to explain why she liked one piece and not the other. At first she didn’t want to tell me. She claimed she “didn’t know.” After my encouragement, she stumbled through an explanation as best she could. She said she liked how the “piano and orchestra talked to each other.”

It wasn’t that the woman “didn’t know” why she liked one piece better than another. She felt like she didn’t have the right or even an obligation to know. She was Douglas’s ideal audience member. Someone who sits patiently through two hours of music, buys a glass of wine at intermission, claps when the concert is over, and at the end of the concert quickly and quietly excuses herself from the genius of Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, and others.  Maintaining an audience dynamic like this is suicide for arts organizations.

She had never been to a live classical concert before but she bought a ticket and she had an opinion about what she heard. I’ll admit her explanation needed work, but I was impressed by this first-timer’s thoughtfulness.

This woman and her unadorned opinion about Mozart will never replace the chattering critical class. But her opinion does matter and it should be the role of the critic (music writer? contributor? blogger?) to focus her curiosity, help her learn about the music she is hearing, and encourage her to constructively speak up. It isn’t always the case, but people who are interested enough in a concert to buy a ticket have the strongest opinions about what they are hearing – I know I do. These are opinions worth collecting, nurturing, and shaping.

I may reveal too much about myself, but when I first started listening to classical music, I had a CD of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Nr. 6. One day, my best friend O came to my dorm room while I was listening to this CD and noticed the album was on shuffle. The movements of the symphony and the other compositions on the CD were being played out of order. I had probably been listening to classical music for about a week by this point. And was still getting used to the art form. He gently explained that the movements of a symphony are intended to be heard in order. I felt embarrassed but O reassured me that it is an easy mistake to make.

At that moment, if O had been sarcastic and insulted me because of my mistake, I probably would have thrown all of my classical CDs out of the window and given up.

Classical music and arts journalism doesn’t need any more cultural dictators. In the age of Infinite Diversions and Options, pronouncements that debase the examination of music and patronize the audience drive people away.  Who wants to be told they are stupid?  How does blind validation of the concert experience promote music? Critics who just critique will judge their way into obsolescence.

If the audience isn’t supposed to have an opinion about a concert and critics aren’t supposed to care what other people think about a concert then why should critics write anything? Would critics write for the edification of orchestra staff, music director, and musicians? I hope not.

Society reserves some of its harshest words for political partisanship. You are either too far right or too far left and we cast a wary eye on anyone who is too certain in their opinions. Politicians and the news media encourage the voting and opinion consuming public to quickly reach decisions with little to no introspection. Public political opinions are shaped from the top – by parties and personalities – without a genuine conversation between the providers, consumers and implementers of opinions.

This same staid, top down model is at work in classical music.  As Douglas says, the audience should never go further than saying they either liked or disliked something.  Forget about the why, that’s the province of better people. People who haven’t graduated with the right degree (what degree does one need to become a classical music commentator?), aren’t sharing their thoughts in the right forums (I heard second hand one local critic claim bloggers like me are not critics and we should keep our opinions to ourself), or form any opinion whatsoever lack worth. Douglas wants to preserve the classical music gated community and I want to bust it open.

The history of classical music is marked with moments of public outrage and riotous audiences. Classical music has shaped politics and politics have left an imprint on music. But now, as we drift further into the 21st Century, the intransigence among organizations, critics, media – the entire classical music industry – only encourages the audience to passively receive the world’s greatest music.

Milton Babbit once mused “who cares if you listen?” I do. I also care what people think, what they feel, and how critics, musicians, and the audience can learn from each other.


6 thoughts on “The role of the critic: part II

  1. Mr. Carstensen:

    Just to call to your attention that the S&F link you above provided is a link to S&F’s Main Page, not the permalink to the post to which you’re responding which post I’m about to update to give notice of your response.

    (Please feel free to delete this comment after reading as it’s just FYI.)


  2. great insights and well put. arts criticism (actually, cultural criticism in general) has historically been a top-down exercise, a model which runs completely counter to the rise of the internet and the democratization of critical participation through the explosion of all this unlimited “space” (blogs, sites, fb, twitter…) from which to shout. … Read Moreso yes, it’s time to reconceptualize the very idea of arts criticism before it completely loses relevancy and just becomes utterly patronizing. although i dont know anything about classical music, its cool to hear your site is leading the pack with a vision, or at least a spark for now, of what that new idea could be. bravo!

  3. I sincerely believe that an intellectual understanding of the technical side of a composition is utterly irrelevant to its emotional purpose. Perhaps it’s greatly fascinating to some people, which is fair enough, but for me it seems kind of trivial next to the fact of being profoundly moved on an emotional level. Of course, the intellect can aid the artistic purpose, so far as it can provide the framework for the composer to articulate himself, but then it counts for nothing without inspiration (which is where we get into the non-physical realm). It can also aid the listener so far as, if you have an intellectual understanding of music, you are more adept at actually hearing it and being aware of what it is.

    But again, this is not an end in itself, rather, once you hear, you can then be touched by the music if it has anything to say to you. Someone without an intellectual grasp of symphonic form or whatever will perhaps not be moved so easily, simply because the music may not “sink in” at first… but after a few listens, they too can “hear” the music, and without necessarily rationalizing what is going on structurally, the emotional message is available to them too. So the intellectual aspect helps in terms of decoding the sound on a physical level… as do ears, but the point lies beyond that.

    I don’t consider the structural architecture of a piece of music to be irrelevant, as I think it appeared to some people. Far from it, I think it’s extremely important. Utterly crucial. And to build the architechture of a large-scale work I’m sure would require great intelligence on the part of the composer. My point is, as far as the listening expreience goes, what is important is that the architechture is felt, and whether it is consciously observed is academic! Of course, this gets confusing if someone is conscious of the structural implications of the music, notices how much power this gives the work, then assumes that they feel that power because they are aware of the musical thought behind it. I would suggest that this power is accessible to anyone with a natural musical “ear” and the patience to listen, and that the relevant “connections” will be made on a subconscious level, which is where the visceral power of the music really operates. And musical “knowledge” is a different thing entirely from an ear for music.. although to confuse matters further, many people with a musical ear are likely to have acquired some knowledge… and then credit this knowledge with their ability to appreciate music beyond Britney Spears or whatever. I would suggest they could love classical music without this “knowledge”.. perhaps they would have had less motivation to listen in the first place, but again, I believe the emotion is communicated with or without “knowledge”.

    I completely disagree that music can only communicate on a superficial level without the necessary “background knowledge”. I would argue the complete opposite – what can be gained from a technical understanding of the score or the historical context of the music is incidental and superficial . The fact that these things can be “understood” without actually hearing a note should suggest that they are ultimately extraneous to musical communication. In my view it is that which can only be understood by hearing the music which holds its true power.

    Some people have suggested that an intellectual grasp of the music is necessary to fully unlock the emotional power. I think this is an illusion caused by the fact that the two often develop in tandem… but I don’t believe one causes the other, rather, they are both promoted simply by listening to the music in greater depth. Furthermore, such things are trivial next to the fact of being profoundly moved on an emotional level, and are really more conceptual details rather than musical expressions.

    I also reckon we shouldn’t place too much emphasis on the composer’s “intentions”… simply because composers don’t really understand how music works any better than we do. Of course they understand form and technique, but like the rest of us, have only intuition to differentiate between a dry and formal piece and something with real strength of feeling. The best music is not composed through some guy developing his own “grand scheme” of communication.. rather, it happens when the composer allows himself (or herself) to be guided by the universal communication of music… (i.e. be inspired, compose what feels right, without having to ask why)

    I’m not saying enjoying music intellectually is not valid.. but I am saying it is secondary to what music can really do.

  4. If Robespierre, Washington and Lenin couldn’t knock some sense in to the heads of “royalist thinkers”, Virgil Thompson should have been enough to cure anybody.
    I am, hoewever beginning to understand why “popular music” makes oodles of money while “classical” music begs in the streets.
    Music is what happens in the ear of the beholder.
    The the ear’s owner’s opinion of his own importance is the thing that is
    What a music education has done for my ear is to expose the pretentiousness, pomposity, inanity and silliness of much of what is called “good” music.

    Sign me Doug “six pack” Palmer

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