A Short History of my Subjectivity

Composer-songwriter Corey Dargel, of whose music I am unabashedly a fan, asks a question, with regard to my anti-objectivity post, that I feel like answering: partly to defuse a myth that’s growing up around me, partly because I’m supposed to be writing a very dull departmental report filled with statistics, and would rather be doing almost anything else:

What are the advantages and/or disadvantages to being entrenched in the scene you are writing about? Have you ever second-guessed your ability to maintain a “critical distance” from your subject matter, or is that just a fancy term for objectivity?

I think there’s a perception growing that when I became the Voice new-music critic, it was a tremendous boon for all my composer friends because they were all hailed as geniuses. The reality is, when I came from Chicago in 1986, I didn’t know anyone in New York. I was as “objective,” as “unentrenched,” as a Borneo tribesman would have been. For the first couple of years my family was still in Chicago, and I didn’t even have a friend who could put me up in New York; I stayed at the 23rd Street YMCA for $26 a night. Downtown (you will please excuse the expression) composers hated me because I wasn’t part of the scene. They complained that I was presuming to judge them without (as Elliott Sharp once put it) hanging out at their rehearsals. I was too much an outsider, too “objective.” So you will understand the curious irony that now, like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, by the end of the book I, who never even lived in NYC except for eight months in 1992, have somehow become, in the new-music public mind, the quintessential insider.

I was loathe to make friends my first several years as a New York critic. Some may remember that I was always the last to arrive at a concert, and that I shot out like a bullet before the final applause ended. I started cautiously getting to know people, but never acted too friendly until I had heard a lot of a person’s music. I never wanted to find myself in a position of being personally beholden to someone whose music I didn’t like. One by one I found people whose overall talent impressed me, and whose musical aims seemed healthy and progressive, people whose musical instincts I came to implicitly trust.

Like Meredith Monk: her music has blown me away, brought me close to tears, again and again and again. If I have the great luck to become friends with her, why would I turn it down? If she were to produce a piece now that I didn’t like, what would it matter? Every brilliant composer has written an occasional dud (except for you, Corey – I love everything you’ve done so far, but you’re still young). When one of my friends, one of the composers whose music I strongly believe in – and those are virtually synonymous – writes a piece that doesn’t work, I’m as disappointed as anyone. I often just didn’t write about it; or else I’d pass over it as, “well, not their best work.” One likes a composer not only for the quality of his or her each individual work, but also for their aesthetic aims, their overall vision, their insight into what music needs at the moment. I never became friends with anyone on the (you will please excuse the expression) Downtown scene before getting a pretty complete idea of their aesthetic aims and vision. I’ve written the occasional negative review of a friend’s piece, and more often a positive review of music by someone I personally dislike.

Due to various contingent circumstances I have several dear, close friends who are (you will please excuse the expression) Midtown composers. They are all aware that I’m not much in sympathy with their aesthetic aims, nor they with mine, and we have wonderful conversations figuring out why. Some of those conversations have been grist for this blog. When they do occasionally write a piece I truly enjoy, a “crossover” piece if you will, I’m eager to record the fact. But I have never in my life come to feel that I had overvalued a piece of music because I liked, or felt loyal to, the person who wrote it. Hell, I know where the flaws are in my own music. I thought my recent review of my own Long Night CD was deadly accurate, both positive and negative. Just last week I named to a friend what I thought were my four best pieces, and he thought I was dead on.

Performances of my own music in New York in those years, and I mean prior to 1997, were very few. John Kennedy and Charles Wood surprised me by giving my first NYC performances in 1989, but after that there were only a handful, and most of my performances were in Philadelphia and on the West Coast. Composers even told me that they’d considered programming my music, but didn’t want to be seen as “sucking up to the critic.” The number of people who supported my music, to whom I arguably owed favors, was, and remains, extremely small, and the majority of them – like Joseph Franklin and the Relache Ensemble, and Sarah Cahill – weren’t in the scene I was reviewing. Of the hundreds of musicians I wrote about, five or ten gradually became close friends, and on the rare occasion I ended up writing about a friend, it was always someone whose music I had championed before getting to know them. I simply continued developing points I had already made before meeting them.

By 1997, reviewing was quickly declining in my life. I began teaching full-time, the Voice cut me way back, and soon I was writing more scholarly articles than journalistic ones. The scholarly articles were analytical, not evaluative, and required extensive familiarity, not “critical distance.” I let down my guard, and relaxed into being just friends with a lot of wonderful composers whose music I had praised years earlier. I also gave up writing negative reviews, only positive ones about stuff I liked. So the perception that I was “entrenched” in the (you will please excuse the expression) Downtown scene between 1986 and 1997, the years in which I took on an explicit role as aesthetic judge and tastemaker, is a humorous illusion, one that would have surprised anyone involved, had it been expressed at the time.

So what is it that seems so “subjective” about me as a critic? There is one big difference between me and all the other classical music critics. Every other classical critic in America, without a single exception that I know of, has one thing in common: they all trust that the classical music world does a pretty good job of rooting out who the best composers are. They all assume that the composers who fight their way to the top, who get the most commissions and performances, who have the most presence in the orchestra world, must be, by and large, the ones who write the best music. They all assume that the composers who don’t get heard about much must not be very good. They all assume, in other words, that the Daniel Gregory Masons and Leo Sowerbys and Howard Hansons of our day are the only composers worth serious consideration, and that no latter-day Charles Ives’s or Harry Partches will ever emerge. They don’t do the homework that I consider basic to a music critic’s job, and scour the periphery of the music world for great composers who might be overlooked. They don’t consider that there are plenty of ways to get celebrated as a composer without writing great music. They don’t doubt the public illusion.

In other words, they buy into the system, and they play the game. Some of them want the big critic jobs – which you get by proving you understand Elliott Carter, not by waxing eloquent about some unknown genius whose CDs no one can find. (When Ed Rothstein was retired as chief critic at the Times, the Times asked me and Paul Griffiths, great champion of the Darmstadt High Modernists, to both apply for the job. I did. Guess who got it. Figure out why. And then tell me why no one calls Griffiths “subjective” for having written the libretto to Elliott Carter’s opera, which is a closer collaboration than I’ve ever had with a composer.) They want to interview big-name conductors. They want to feel important, part of the visible music world – and you don’t get there by befriending composers whose major performances are at Roulette. And so they train themselves, or come to believe, that the music they really like, the music they can intellectually approve, is the music that is celebrated in that world. Oh, not every piece and not every composer, they’ll exercise a little free will within the choices given. But they will not deny that Thomas Adès is a young genius. They will not argue that Elliott Carter’s music is not music for the ages. They will applaud Jennifer Higdon’s orchestration. They will not reject the range of choices offered, nor will they pay serious attention to choices not offered. That’s what’s called objectivity.

And what about me? I’m subjective. I am no respecter of awards or reputations. I rely completely on my ears, my heart, my brain, and when the Pulitzer committee or the Times music section contradicts my inner voice, I say to hell with the Pulitzer committee or the Times music section. Had I wanted to be loved (you will please excuse the expression) Downtown in 1986, all I needed to do was hop onto the John Zorn bandwagon. Instead, I didn’t like his music, and fought him all the way. Some of the composers who became somewhat known in the ’90s did so because I championed them – it wasn’t that I championed them because they were big names on that scene.

One of my most unusual personal qualities has always been, since childhood, an absolute imperviousness to peer pressure. I took it to such an extreme that it was a failing in many respects, and an obstacle to my social life. A student once asked me, “You don’t know what it’s like to be intellectually intimidated, do you?” With a surprised grin, I answered, “No, I don’t.” And so, somewhat arrogantly perhaps, I have put together my own musical Pantheon completely from my own aesthetic judgments, influenced of course by my own perceptions as a composer, but without regard for fame or friendship or self-interest or credentials or “objective” reinforcement from the established commercial world of classical music. That’s why I’m a “subjective” critic. My opinions must come from the fact that I’m “entrenched.” To have your opinions formed by the social world you want to be accepted by is to be “objective.” To form them yourself, and then take the consquences, is “subjective.”


  1. lawrencedillon says

    You must get so sick and tired of explaining all of this.
    Any of your aesthetic positions, like anyone else’s, can be argued and criticized. But anyone who has read reasonably substantial portions of your critical output has to be impressed with the preponderance of composers you have championed who cannot possibly benefit your career in the least.
    Take Kyle Gann to task for his opinions, for his stubbornness, hell, for his drinking habits, if that makes you happy — but never question his passion or his integrity.

  2. Ed McKeon says

    You’re right, ‘true’ objectivity is illusory. But what you’ve written here is at least reflexive (which is more than can be said for many others): good criticism also reveals its own logic and what drives it. It would be interesting to expose that degree of honesty in other critics too…

  3. says

    Well, I sure wish there were more critics who’d take up positions this way.
    I suppose most critics do not brim with the kind of creativity it takes to get a new story out on their subject, so they become Reactive Critics rather than Creative Critics. In order to be a Creative Critic, one doesn’t just have to have an original point of view on the subject itself; one has to bypass the existing systems of distribution and find the other channels. Re-describe the infrastructure of the arts world. Economical deconstruction. And it’s already so complex to deal with the quantity and seeming variety of the art that is offered through the dominant channels…
    Seems to me this hacker-like mentality is something more often seen in people who are naturally desperate for the different, typically active but not extremely famous artists.

  4. says

    Extremely well said, Kyle. I would extend your comments about critics’ “trust in the system” to the realm of performers as well. Of course just because a composer enjoys critical renown doesn’t mean he/she is not deserving of it, but I know you weren’t implying that. In any case, piling on to the hype of an already well-known artist takes less effort than “scouring the periphery,” and is probably less satisfying in the end.

  5. says

    Mostly true. I doubt that the best critics/journalists want to be visible parts of the scene. The others? Forget ’em.

    Part of the reason that Jennifer Higdon must be written about is precisely because she’s in the orchestra world. Readers see her name, she’s news, so she must be written about. Not praised, just not ignored.

    As for me, I scour and look around for what’s new. Still waiting for that chance to write about Marco Stroppa. Sure he’s a prize-winner and did the IRCAM thing, but how well-known is he here?

  6. says

    this reminds me very much of a short dialogue written by Mark Twain on the subject of objectivity vs. subjectivity entitled “What is Man?”
    It presents both sides qute thoroughly, but ultimately you are in good company, Kyle…

  7. says

    Another one of the most fundamental problems here is the belief by most people that an objective standard of musical quality exists, and that those objective standards can be divorced from personal taste. Many of the people who hold those beliefs (including many critics, I suspect) also believe that music critics have special training that allows them to accurately assess the goodness of the music they critique in an absolute, non-taste-driven way.
    Ultimately, people end up believing that critics are analogous to scientists — they they have access to truth and we should simply trust them. This is, I think, the underlying reason for the belief you mention that the classical music industry reliably elevates the best composers to prominence.