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July 18, 2005

Call Off the Attack Dogs!
by Douglas McLennan

Is it telling that my suggestion that critics take one another on more often was construed by several here as advocating that critics attack one another? Why attack? I was only trying to suggest that engaging in debates might be more interesting than the detached writing that so often prevails today. It needn't be nasty. How do you keep from getting stale if you don't have opportunities to have your opinions challenged?

A few here have suggested that classical music critics have narrowed their focus too much. If that's so, then wouldn't debating ideas in print broaden the field? Last week Tim Page wrote a marvelous obit of pianist Alexei Sultanov in the Washington Post that described what a polarizing player he was and giving quite a bit of context that helped explain why he inspired extreme reactions. It was the kind of context that helps you understand something about the tastes and fashion of the piano world. And it linked Sultanov to a larger narrative.

There are so many performers and composers, critics are constantly having to make choices about what's important to cover. Problem is, critics often forget to explain why this artist was important to pay attention to while this other one was not. Why did Tim spend the time on Sultanov while most critics did not? His piece helps you understand why.

But why is it often so difficult to discern a critic's world view of music? Isn't developing an aesthetic all about making coherent defendable choices? And shouldn't the reasons for those choices be on public display? I guess I'm just suggesting that in this era of global access to information (and opinion), that the lone voice doesn't cut it any more.

And Robert - you're quite right about my local papers - they each also have a pop music critic, neither of whom acknowledges the other. But surely let's not look to pop music criticism for a cure. There are some big exceptions to be sure, but the state of pop music criticism is at least as broken as classical is.

Posted at 11:48 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

Where did I put that periwig?
by Andrew Druckenbrod

I appreciate Norman’s warning, but I am just not sure, one, that most critics are as blind to the changing world as he suggests; two, that the field’s requirements are much different from good journalism in the past; and, three, that the ball is really in our court anyway.

Keeping up with a changing world is the responsibility of a journalist. It’s why the field exists. To really learn this from the inside, after I got a master’s in musicology, I spent three years as a copy editor and freelancer. It was invaluable for me. I don’t know how many others did something similar, but if you keep your eyes open, you usually learn the precepts on the job. Here at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I am constantly paying attention not only to what the beat requires, but also to what my editors are thinking and to what direction the wind is blowing worldwide.

I don’t doubt that some of my colleagues are stuck in their ways, but a vast majority of them are quite aware of the realities of this business -- the politics and the trends included, even if we sometimes lament them. In fact, to put all of the weight of this changing nature of newspapers and criticism on the music critic is not quite fair -- some changes are beyond the reach of the critic, no matter his or her ken. We just must keep faith in the notion that our knowledge will always be needed. And, yes, Norman, “sitting, night after night, in the best seats in a concert hall or opera house” should never have been enough to be a good critic! No great criticism was ever written by an out-of-touch journalist – it is, after all, the field of communications and society (I even write obits, for Pete’s sake). I don’t think that Armageddon is just around the corner, but if it comes, I would hope we will adapt.

Posted at 02:55 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

the world revolves, music criticism stands still
by Norman Lebrecht

I’m not going to argue which side of the Atlantic has better music criticism. It seems to me incontestable that a city with six daily broadsheets has more going for it by way of musical debate than a one-party town like New York where you need the skills of a Kremlinologist to detect distinctions of tone among Pravda’s critical team.

But that’s not what worries me most about the present state of music criticism. Almost 20 years ago I dropped in on a convention of US music critics in Washington D.C. Isaac Stern was guest of honour in place of Lenny Bernstein who was having some personal crisis and the general tone was one of helpless struggle against the forces of darkness – a bit like Harry Potter, really.

Someone stood up and said her editor was cutting review space and demanding that she write features about girlie soloists. There was much tut-tutting. The blessed Harold Schonberg, sitting beside me, was beside himself with mirth.

Harold, unlike the rest, was a real journalist - of the kind who knew what newspapers needed. He had started out as an ambulance chaser on the city desk before they found he played piano and sent him to review Horowitz. That’s how music critics used to be made. Michael Kennedy is another. As well as being music critic (and biographer), he was Northern Editor of the Daily Telegraph. When the southern edition was hit by a strike, he brought out the whole paper with the help of one other executive. Michael has just given up at the age of 79 and I fear we won’t see his like again.

I work with some outstanding music critics, brilliantly perceptive, dedicated to their craft. Just don’t ask most of them to think outside the box. Music critics, like the art they review, have turned timorously inwards, unable to fight their shrinking corner effectively because they have such little understanding of the pressures facing the editors who employ them.

They need to get out more – out of the concert hall and into the newsroom and features conferences where decisions are taken about the space they occupy. They need to bring to the table more knowledge of the world than is gained from sitting, night after night, in the best seats in a concert hall or opera house. It is no longer enough, and maybe never was, just to be a good music critic. Newspapers are morphing faster than ever and music critics cannot afford to keep their heads down.

Posted at 01:55 PM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (1)

More on newspapers underwriting the arts
by Willa Conrad

In response to Allan:

Good point about the firewalls newspapers set up between their foundations and daily pages; and, no, i have never heard of any editor applying pressure directly to a critic NOT to critique a given arts group negatively simply because they are funded.

But, don't forget you work in an unusual and unique situation; most newspapers give directly to their communities AND have foundations, yours does not.

This is more a subtle relationship I'm trying to get at: American news editors tend to feel protective of their local cultural environment. They try to balance that with a need for opinion pieces that cast a discerning eye at the very events they just previewed with such a splash of ink. In my experience, there's usually a good balance struck, but why do newspapers put themselves into the position of even appearing to have a conflict? They would NEVER do this, for instance, by having an owner's share in a local sports team, or make a contribution to a lobbyist at the local state house. Never.

When real news breaks, i.e., fraud, criminal activity, union strike, etc., they are all over it, as they should be. It's nice if they can afford an independent arts reporter, but frankly, very few papers (and mine is one of the lucky ones) can afford it, so the critics themselves play the reporter's role.

I have known stories to be discouraged or killed if someone high in the ladder felt it was too outrageous and unsupported an opinion; that's just good journalism.

Posted at 11:21 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

Observations about the observations
by Allan Kozinn

I have some comments on Peter's and Willa's observations.

First, I agree with Peter that keeping the reporting/feature-writing staff and the critical staff separate to whatever degree is possible should be the ideal. This was long the arrangement at the Times, but it began breaking down a couple of decades ago, and is only now being reconstructed, now that we have a dedicated music reporter. Even so, the critics still do features periodically. To the extent that we can choose to write about people whose work we actually admire, rather than whoever an editor sends us to talk to, this can be okay, particularly since we have the luxury of a staff, so that the person who wrote the feature won't then review the performance.

In terms of reporting, the separation is more critical. When I was freelancing for the Times, and writing only Sunday features, there was a good-cop/bad-cop dynamic with interviewees. In other words, you'd turn up, listen to the interviewee spout about what morons the critics were, and then, once they've got that off their chest, they consider you on their side and (whether that turns out to be the case) the rest is history. As a critic, it's entirely possible to trash someone one night and then call for a quote about a news story the next day -- that is, it's possible to summon the schizophrenia necessary for that -- but in my experience, it isn't always possible for the interviewees to do the same. There's no reason for them cooperate with you if they feel you've injured them, and I've had more than a few icy chats that probably would have yielded better information if I hadn't reviewed the person I was speaking with. A reporter who isn't a critic doesn't have this problem -- although boards and managements may be wary of them for other reasons.

Willa: the NYTimes Foundation contributes to lots of arts organizations, and sometimes their sponsorship is listed prominently in program books. I've never thought twice about saying the performance was substandard, if it was, and I've never heard from anyone at our foundation suggesting that we go easy on things they support. For that conflict to exist, the foundation would have to actually exert some sort of pressure. Are you saying that your paper's foundation does such a thing? Or are you simply saying that the mere existence of the foundation, and a knowledge of what it supports, leads to self-censorship? In which case, why should it? The success or failure of enterprises the foundation contributes to has no bearing on the business success of the (newspaper) corporation; it is purely a tax issue, isn't it?

Posted at 09:36 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

Who Cares If They Read?
by Robert Everett-Green

I'm pretty sure Doug is wrong when he says that the two papers in his town have one critic apiece. Surely they have at least two each, and the ones he doesn't mention probably disagree with the others about everything. Of course, they're the popular music critics. They have their turf, and the classical critics have... well, what do they have, anyway?

They have a shrinking readership, and a narrowing sense of their own purpose. They don't pay much serious attention to the role and function of music in the wider society. That subject was somehow given up in the Faustian bargain struck when rock music came along. "We'll give half of the music beat to some hairy person from Crawdaddy," the newspapers said, "and you can carry on as before."

That was fine, until someone noticed what we have all called the "greying" of the classical audience. Which also entails the greying of the classical readership. And what happens when this group becomes too grey to listen, or read, any longer? No lost tribe of classical-music fans is going to emerge to take its place. If there is to be a new classical audience, it will include a lot of people who have been listening to something else -- i.e. popular music.

The main orchestra in my town (Toronto) has recently devoted a lot of effort to building its under-30 program. Thousands have signed up, and I doubt that they include many recent conservatory grads. Are they, and people like them in other cities, going to start reading classical critics? Will those critics know how to talk them?

I doubt it, especially when I see classical critics suggesting that Yo-Yo Ma invented world music, or that "teeniebopper" is part of current slang (this example comes from Richard Taruskin's recent Oxford History of Western Music).

I'm not proposing that classical critics should start picking fights with pop critics about whether Coldplay's latest album was much better, or even worse, than the last. Most wouldn't know where to start, and there's nothing more complacent than the sound of a classical critic expressing wholesale contempt for pop.

I do think that classical critics have participated in the narrowing of their own turf (I'm saying "they," because my beat includes classical and pop). They assume that outside the concert hall, and that corner of the record store that still sells classical CDs, there's nothing for them to talk about. They've stopped thinking about the dynamic role of music across the whole society. Many don't even have much to say about new work, which was seen as the only thing worth writing about when critical music journalism got started in the nineteenth century.

It's not surprising they don't have much to argue about. If critics A and B both think their main job is to explain why Alfred Brendel is still an important pianist, and why the Hammerklavier is still a great piece, they can only argue as courtiers do, when trying to trump each other in flattering the king.

Posted at 09:33 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (3)

Another way to look at the American style
by Willa Conrad

The topic of whether American critics are more gray in prose, less opinionated and have less personality in print than British critics arose at the symposium, "Shifting Ears," hosted at Columbia University's School of Journalism last fall by the Music Critics Association of North America. In the end, the consensus answer seemd to be: yes, Americans have, for reasons no one could entirely explain, tended to hew to an agreed upon, arms-length style of writing about classical music since about the '60s. There are of course a few notable exceptions, but this tends to be the norm at major daily newspapers, and the rationale seems to be better credibility because text swept clean of the "I" pronouns feels more subjective somehow.

From my view, this is a collective view emanating more from editors, who are quite organized here, regularly exchange ideas, and meet cordially in annual conferences to exchange ideas and decisions. There is a disconnect; on the editorial pages, where writers do not even sign their work, there seems to be a goal of offering feisty, probing and intelligent views. When it comes to arts criticism, there is a palpable discomfort with any one critic being too much of a curmudgeon or too regularly a praiser of local arts.

Think about this: this could very well be because, in the U.S. anyway, almost EVERY daily newspaper maintains a foundation, has a top executive on important local arts boards (our publisher traditionally sits on the local symphony), and gives money regularly to local arts. I wonder if this relationship between papers and the arts they cover exists in England?

U.S. newspapers do this because it's considered correct to support and help grow the local cultural scene, which is viewed more or less just one step above a local charity like a hospital or women's safe house from domestic violence. Think about it: if a newspaper's higher executives, like so many at other corporations (and newspapers ARE corporate business), view donating money to local arts as part of being a good citizen in their community, are they likely to have the true will, underneath all the layers of hierarchy, to really apply their opinion staff to criticize the very organization they are financially supporting?

Interestingly, this does not necessarily apply to covering actual news about an arts organization (i.e., budget woes, fundraising victories, staff changes, mission changes); many papers employ an arts reporter who is expected to aggressively pursue news leads and write on them. In this regard, arts reporting is far ahead of, say, sports reporting.

God forbid my newspaper, or anyone's, should stop making the donations that make art and art centers possible. But this is really an important issue, and one worth pondering.

And by the way, that October symposium at Columbia was more than half underwritten by donations from several major North American dailies!

Posted at 06:03 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)

To criticise the critic
by Peter McCallum

I think one needs to be careful about slipping into the assumption that the health of music criticism can be measured by how much critics argue with each other in public. A well informed and intelligent debate on an important issue is certainly healthy, but an unseemly slanging match among a clique is not necessarily interesting for readers nor does it necessarily serve music well. The quality of engagement with the musical event is the most important thing and I don’t see why, at least in principle, a single critic is a one-newspaper city can’t offer criticism which leads opinion in a dynamic way over several decades. At a crucial time in Sydney’s history, for example, we had a theatre reviewer (H. G. Kippax) who shaped debate at a crucial time and managed to raise the next generation of writers on a much less parochial level of debate than had existed previously.

In Sydney there is one broadsheet daily which is city-based, the Herald, and one national broadsheet daily which reviews events from all the capital cities (meaning of course that less events in any one city are covered). The main paper of the weekend here is the Saturday edition and the Sunday papers are tabloids with heavy emphasis on a magazine and lift-out format, but they do run reviews albeit shorter. The daily tabloids do some events but the coverage is sporadic so a major event might get two or perhaps three newspaper reviews and perhaps some coverage in the suburban papers and specialist newsletters such as Opera Opera. But there are plenty of events where the Herald carries the only review, which can be invidious at times.

One further point. In my own writing I have come to the view that it is better to keep the arts writers who write profiles and background pieces, and the critics separate. It has the disadvantage that the critics tend not to be full time although having people who are not full-time journalists writing on the page does add liveliness through diversity of tones of voice. Keeping them separate means the critic doesn’t have to feel guilty about luring an audience to an event, and then telling them the next day that it was a dog. What do others find?

Posted at 12:35 AM | permalink | email this entry | Comments (0)