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July 20, 2005
"just" a features writer
by Colin Eatock
I spent the last week in Ireland – too pleasant a place to inspire many thoughts on a subject as dour as music criticism. And now that I’m back home (in Toronto), I find myself trying to leap into the midst of an ongoing discussion that’s galloping furiously in all sorts of directions.
I’m encouraged to see that some people have raised a few points about reviewing vs. features writing. I’d like to suggest further discussion. I’m a freelance classical-music features writer (the newspaper I usually write for asks me to review only when it is truly desperate). And my status as “just” a features writer has forced me to contemplate the ways in which music writing is categorized.
I often wonder if the model of the god-like critic with a quiver of thunderbolts and the power to bestow immortality is an idea whose time has left: it all seems so authoritarian and obsessively fussy by the standards of today’s relativistic cultural climate. Classical music coverage seems ripe for change – and I would urge anyone who doubts this to contemplate two things: a) that music got along just fine for centuries without newspaper music criticism; and b) that few newspapers today publish the kind of high society or religion columns that were common 50 years ago. (Indeed, many papers have dropped these subjects altogether.)
Could features writing point a way to the future? I hasten to add that I mean an approach to features writing that transcends People Magazine-style happy talk, or the kind of art-as-business reportage that offers no consideration of art as art. (“Palookaville Philharmonic Ends Season $273.81 in Debt, Plans Bake Sale”) Sometimes I try to imagine a hybrid, combining the feature, the review and what’s often called the “think piece.”
I suppose this blurring of categories would be considered heresy in some circles – and I certainly haven’t figured out just how it would work. But I’m curious to know what people on both sides of the Atlantic think of this idea. Is this a direction that music writing can/should/will take? Is it already headed in this direction?
Reporting and Ink Measurement
by Allan Kozinn
But Dan's contributions to our coverage show that this model (separation of criticism and reporting) can work if a paper is willing to commit its resources to it. I obviously can't answer for other papers interest or ability to do this, but any reporter on any beat has to learn the field.
Before Dan, we had some very good coverage of the institutions from Robin Pogrebin and other general culture reporters; again, if they felt thrown in at the deep end of a particular story, or wanted a reality check, all they had to do was call us. On a story by story basis, it's easy enough to give someone their bearings. They don't have to assimilate the secrets of the music world all at once.
I did our music reporting for a while, and while I have colleagues who absolutely love going after stories about the business side of the music world, I found it kind of tedious. I'm talking about strikes and budgets and financial crises and hirings and firings and management and nuts and bolts -- stories that, once you're written 10 of them, are the same with just the names and numbers changed, and in any case, are business reporting, not music writing.
My interest -- the reason I got into this -- is in writing about music and how it's made. The seamy underside of the music business, how it runs, and the creatures who run it -- let me put it this way: I read about these things because it's my job to know about it, but if I were "merely a reader," I'd read the reviews, because I want to know who's playing what, and how they're playing; and I'd read the profiles, because I want to know what people who make music have to say for themselves, but the business stuff -- nah. Not to disparage those who write this coverage or who like reading it. It just not the part of musical life that interests me.
I should add that this view not only doesn't represent the institutional view of my paper, but is markedly out of step with it. Howell Raines, during his brief and unhappy editorship, decided that what's interesting about culture is the money it generates, and he set about making the culture department a vassal of the business desk. That has been reversed to some extent, because the culture desk has editors who are sincerely interested in (and knowlegeable about) culture as culture, rather than culture as business. But business watching is definitely a part of the mandate, and it's here to stay.
About Baltimore: Yeah, I think it was calculated. OBVIOUSLY it was calculated: they went out of their way to leak the story, and even if part of it got away from them (the player rebellion), I think they saw/see that as all well and good, because like many institutions, they probably regard the measure of the column inches as the main issue. Moreover, they got enough ink -- and within it, sufficient praise of both the orchestra and Ms. Alsop -- to assure themselves that the Baltimore Symphony is a certified big deal, an orchestra whose goings-on are worthy of extensive national news coverage. I don't think they would regard this as a "minor media pop" at all, and I doubt they would agree that they have come off looking incompetent or disrespectful of their musicians: they had a majority vote, they claimed a sense of urgency, and in the end the musicians said they would fall into step, and in the end, if Ms. Alsop does well, all the negative stuff will fade away just as it does EVERY time there's a strike or protracted negotiations, with all their attendant weeks of coverage and extreme nastiness. Case(s)in point -- when you think of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the New York Philharmonic or the New York City Opera, what comes to mind? Is the musicmaking those institutions do, or do you still think much about the recriminations they and their managements hurled at each other daily during their most recent labor disputes?
And as a bonus, the orchestra knows that everyone will tune in again in three years, when Ms. Alsop's first contract is up for renewal.
Daniels All Around?
by Douglas McLennan
I agree, Allan about Daniel. And there are some excellent arts reporters out there. But how long did it take even for the Times to get a Daniel? Before him, things were not always at such a high level - and not because there weren't good reporters on the music beat, but because they didn't know the culture of the artform well enough. And how many papers have the ability to hire a reporter dedicated to music anyway? I'm sorry, but there are way too many silly stories written about the arts by people who don't know enough, even to report in a useful way. Aesthetic judgment is often a significant part of the reporting job (being able to sort out what's important and what isn't) and it takes a critic for that. Whether or not a critic wants to take on the reporting role or not is another question, but it seems to me that reviews are often helped by the context a critic can bring from also being a reporter.
But on to your other point: Do you really think the Baltimore Symphony plotted the coverage this week so they'd get more attention? Yes, one might make the point that Marin Alsop would have a tougher time because of these stories, but isn't it really the Orchestra itself that comes off the worse?
From the outside the orchestra looks inept at best, and calculating and disrespectful to its musicians at worst. Surely the orchestra has damaged its position with its musicians in the process, and with its dirty laundry on display for all, it can't be the kind of positive image the orchestra wants to portray in the community. If it was orchestrated (no pun intended) it was a pretty bush-league strategy and surely not worth it for the minor media pop.
Critics and Reporters and Being Played Like a Fiddle
by Allan Kozinn
I disagree, Douglas. I think Dan Wakin's coverage of the Baltimore situation in the Times has been quite good, and Dan is a reporter, not a critic. He is, however, someone who knows a good deal about music, plays an instrument (the clarinet) and is devoted to the subject. He also, should he need technical support, can call on the paper's critical staff to test his observations, although since his articles are edited by our music editor, Jim Oestreich, that happens automatically. The point, though, is that it's entirely possible to have a reporter who isn't a critic cover this field. It only requires that the reporter get to know the field, the people in it, and how it runs, and have technical support from the critics if necessary. And I think that's how it should be.
Personally, I have mixed feelings about the Baltimore story and how it's played out, because I think, basically, that we (all of us) have been spun.
The first stories appeared, before the board vote, because the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra deliberately leaked it. And they deliberately leaked it because they know that we prefer being able to give the impression of journalistic derring-do, rather than simply printing a handout, which is what the formal announcement would have been. Granted, the plain announcement would have had some play for a number of reasons -- first woman to get a post at that level, and a young(ish) American, etc. But by leaking, the Baltimore Symphony guaranteed themselves at least two stories, reported at a national level, rather than one: the "it's going to happen" story, and then the confirmation once the board voted.
Whether they counted on the orchestra rebellion (and they may have: surely they knew how the 7 orchestra members on the committee felt) is a moot point: the board was going to vote as it did anyway, but the orchestra rebellion stories simply kept the Baltimore Symphony in the news for all the intervening days between the "leak" and the announcement. Brilliant. One could argue that Marin Alsop may have been damaged here and/or the orchestra looked bad -- but not really. All the stories included considerable praise of her talents, and characterized the orchestra itself as quite good. Once things settle down, those are the things that will be remembered principally.
So really, this was all a brilliantly orchestrated publicity stunt. I'm not saying we should have covered it differently. We couldn't have, really: we had to cover it as it unfolded -- that's the deal, that's the job. But we should be aware that we've been manipulated.
I just thought I'd inject a cynical note here so that Norman doesn't have to do all the work himself.
Hear Hear for the Two Tims (and Daniel and Mark and...)
by Douglas McLennan
I agree with Donald about the two Tims. In fact, if you look around the US at coverage of the puzzling Baltimore Symphony story, several critics have weighed in with some conjecture about what to make of the situation.
But I think this is an example that belies Peter's earlier point about separating the functions of critic and reporter. The reason the reporting on this story has been interesting is because it is being written about by people who have a good sense of the context and can speculate. I wonder if a reporter or feature writer would do as well.
I appreciate the difficulty of mixing the roles, but the trade off seems worth it if the intent is to explain what's going on. Also, doesn't covering the world the music exists in in addition to the music itself give both the critic side and the reporter side the kind of broader perspective we were talking about earlier?
19th Century Vienna
by Peter McCallum
Regarding the question of the relationship between critical health and musical health, Vienna from about 1870 to 1890 is quite an interesting case study. The musical health seems unquestionable but the critical scene seems to be more of a mirror of the good and bad in society. Most Germans seem to agree that the critical reception - vilification almost - of Bruckner was shameful. Then of course there is Hanslick's review of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in which he said that one could imagine a type of music which actually stank (I've always thought there could have been a hefty dose of homophobia in this remark: it was just after Tchaikovsky's marriage debacle and it seems probable rumours were circulating though I don't have any evidence other than circumstances for this assumption). Worst of all was the way pro-Wagner critics happily exploited anti-semitism (which Brahms, to his credit, found totally unacceptable). Brahms himself was once criticised for his Jewish tendencies! I feel that critics need to remember this example, and also the complicity of critics in Stalin's oppression of artists. So as you can see, I don't automatically equate critical and musical health. Historically, in some cases, the criticism was not healthy, but the music endured.