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July 18, 2005

Who Cares If They Read?

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 by reverett-green at July 18, 2005 09:33 AM


Hi Robert,

This is as good a place as any to wonder at your juggling of classical and pop music. You may indeed have the best of both worlds. But what are these worlds? Are they two worlds? Many? Or just a very long continuum?

Now that I have a teenage daughter, I am exposed to more popular culture and pop music than I ever was when I was a teenager in New York. And while there is much that I can enjoy and appreciate for its skill, and pleasing qualities, I do not see much similarity between Pop and "Classical" music. It seems to me that the approach to tonality, to rhythm, to the human experience, to thought, to anything I care about - is categorically different in classical (or composed or concert) music than what it is in pop music. At the very least we can define the two as having characteristics which at the extremes are quite different. And while there may be some work which overlaps on the Venn diagram, the similarites are less interesting than the differences.

So aside from the fact that you have a lot of fun, and can speak a language that my daughter can understand (which is no doubt of great value and more than I am able to do at times) what is the sense of being a critic of classical and pop music? What is the benefit toyour readers? to the musicians of either form? What have you learned about music from being a critic of both (or teh continuum of) forms?

Posted by: Barbara Scales at July 18, 2005 07:14 PM


You ask "what sense" there is in writing about both classical and popular music. At a personal level, this is easy for me to answer. I write about all kinds of music because I'm interested in all kinds of music.

To me, it makes less sense to fracture the field than to encounter it whole. I don't know any dance critics who would refuse to write about Salvion Glover or Lar Lubovitch just because the principles underlying their work are so different from those of ballet.

I know that my classical background has had a big effect on my writing about pop. Most pop critics are Aristotelians. They tend to describe what they're hearing in terms of existing genres and the works of other, more established musicians ("reggae meets thrash-metal;" "Beatles-like"). They don't tend to listen all that closely to the sounds they're hearing. That's something that my years of classical experience, especially with new work, have trained me to do. As a result, for better or worse, my reviews aren't like those of most pop critics.

I'm sure my pop listening has affected my classical writing, though it's harder to say exactly how. Classical critics are mostly Platonists. They relate everything to a fixed ideal, either a score or a "definitive" earlier performance or both. Only when they write about new work do they adopt the Aristotelean attitude ("quasi-impressionist," "Stravinskyan," etc). Fixed ideals imply a fixed universe. My experience with the fluidity of pop has confirmed my belief that a "timeless" music culture is a contradiction in terms. Probably it has also encouraged me to think more sociologically about classical culture, and to question its very conflicted attitudes towards pleasure and the body.

As for what this does for my readers, I can't say. All I can do is to write as well as I can about things that capture my interest, and hope that someone will find the result worth reading. I would be curious to know how many look at pieces from both sides of the "great divide." I suspect the proportion is larger than you might think. The "classical audience" is no longer a community unto itself. When I asked Adrianne Pieczonka what was on her iPod, just before she sang Sieglinde with the Canadian Opera Company, she said "The White Stripes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs."


Posted by: Robert Everett-Green at July 21, 2005 02:52 PM

I love the idea that there is no more connection needed btween pop and classical music other than the fact that they are both music. There are so many connections that are ignored or denied simply because these artificial barriers have been erected between genres.

As far as the benifit to your readers of writing about more than one area, I would say (as one of them) that I love having the sense that you know how every piece you write about fits into a larger picture - not just within the history of a genre, but where it fits in TODAY's musical world.

If nothing else, perhaps the people who read your reviews of the latest White Stripes album will also turn to read your writing on the latest TSO concert.

I am curious, though - have you ever had an editorial problem with your language being too "pop" for a classical music review? Or to eriudite for a pop music review? Do you try and adjust between the genres?



Posted by: Claire Blaustein at July 22, 2005 02:11 PM

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