Separate Worlds

Thinking about Anne’s article, referred to (not “referenced,” which isn’t a word) below: I guess what I took most from the Critics Conversation was that music critics and composers have come to live in much more disjunct worlds than I had realized. I sit around with the composers I know and talk about how the big thing today is that minimalism has opened up this new space which allows for new, less European formal ideas, and for exploration of all kinds of tempo complexity, much more audible and meaningful than the old kind – and they nod their heads and say “of course,” as though I were stating that the sky is blue and the grass green. And I say the same thing to critics and they act as though I’m describing some impossible fairyland where the birds have four wings and the rivers run with chocolate milk and maybe they’d better be careful because the voices I’m hearing in my head may direct me to do something violent. I thought, back in the ‘80s, that almost every composer knew a newspaper critic or two, and that despite differences in viewpoint, we were at least dealing with the same reality.

I suppose what happened was that, from the ‘60s on, a new music scene grew up and vastly expanded that has nothing to do with the orchestra world; and arts editors have a way of keeping classical critics focused on the local orchestra. I once applied for a job with the Grand Rapids Press, if you can believe that (this is obviously a very old story), whose arts section had just been placed under the purview of the sports editor. And in my youthful naivete I incensed him by suggesting that there might, on a given week now and then, sometimes be something interesting to write about that would supercede the Grand Rapids orchestra. This was not acceptable. The orchestra’s every performance would be reviewed. So if you’re not writing for orchestra, your name is unlikely to ever float before the faces of most critics – and as John Adams keeps saying, most of the interesting composers are not writing for orchestra. And the critics never realize that most composers inhabit a completely separate reality, because there are a few composers getting played by orchestras, and they see one take a bow from time to time, and they not unnaturally, but wrongly, assume that it’s the best composers who are breaking into the orchestra circuit. So when I say that those visible composers are just the tip of the iceberg and the rest of the iceberg is more interesting, they think I’m totally off my rocker.

Getting the critics to talk to each other was a neat trick. Maybe we could get the critics and composers to talk to each other – though if you only include the composers of orchestra pieces, you’ll only reinforce the status quo.

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