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July 20, 2005

"just" a features writer

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?

Colin Eatock

Posted by ceatock at July 20, 2005 11:30 PM


I think perhaps that the criticism Eatok imagines, a "hybrid, combining the feature, the review and what’s often called the 'think piece,'" already exists--on a small scale--not in print, but on the radio. A local example from Cleveland: Frank Hruby, Jerome Crossley and I offer "Considered Opinions" on WCLV 104.9FM after performances of The Cleveland Orchestra, Red, Apollo's Fire and other local entities. Our comments often touch on all three aspects in our three-plus minute spots (can't have too much talking on a classical music radio station--and rightly so). Coverage is not in depth and it's certainly compressed, but one hopes it might spark listeners to investigate on their own--and, as we know, things one discovers for oneself are often the things best-learned.

Hmm. Much as I love print and consider it my daily bread, perhaps what classical music critics need to do is look for other venues such as Yes! CNN.
Can't you see it now?
"CNN brings breaking news. William Preucil, injured last season in a serious bowing incident, walks back onstage and reclaims his concertmaster position. [sounds of cheering]."

Maybe it's not classical music that's in danger of being ignored; maybe it's print.

Posted by: Laura Kennelly at July 21, 2005 07:14 AM

Colin raises some interesting questions. Personally, I have become less interested in traditional reviews where subjective opinion is king and more interested in the kind of analysis of a piece, of a plot, of reflections on a performance or insights into the world of the musician, the audience, the way music works, etc. Not the "business" of music (although that can be interesting) but the way it works behind the scenes. It may be that music needs not more business stories but more stories that tell us more about how things are working as reports in the sports or business sections do -- who thought about what and who can do what- and who's hot and who's not and why? What is Mr Boulez thinking right about now and why does it matter? And Zarin Mehta? And do the Americans suffer from a lack of access to European composers? What impact does the radio have on people's musical taste. What do people really want to hear? And why does it cost so much to go to a concert? Why can't musicians afford to go to concerts?
I think features, analysis, what's going on in music, including concerts - and also an overview of concerts;. This week there are 28 piano recitals in NYC and the repertoire being performed includes:Ades, Ndodana, Bach, Kancheli, etc,
THere could be a chamber music look out info center: news form everybody's favorite string quartets (all 150 of them) - who is learning what repertorie and who is commissioning which composer and who is looking for a new violist and what is happening in their residency. What does UNiversity of Illinois in Champagne Urbana do when composer X comes to town - and what is the impact of the residency of the St Lawrence Quartet in Stamford. More and more musicians are doing residency activity - maybe this is a newsworthy as the wrong note in the Eflat Brahms sextet.. People might actually be interested in this kind of information. It may be of more interest than an ongoing avalanche of appreciations of the performance of the second theme in the scherzo movement of the Shostakovich cello sonata. What are the kinds of things that you like to talk about in the intermission? What are the tid bits that you pick up? What about the special access that music critics have to the press office - there is surely information there that would be of interest to interested readers at least as much as the notes on stage. Not to say that the appreciation is not welcome. But it is only part of what we are looking for in music. THe concert experiences, the love of music, the appreciation of its importance and of the living, breathing musicians who make it goes beyond just the notes on the page, which we hope come off the page. There is also the deep appreciation of context of the creation or of the new context of the current performance, which can lead to a sense of the place of the music in its moment.

If music critics or writers could do a better job of communicating the breadth of the sense of music which holds ones imagination and which makes some of us come back for more and more of old, new and yet to arrive music and musicians this would be the great achievement.

Posted by: Barbara Scales at July 21, 2005 01:09 PM

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