The Man in the Single Hat

Frank Oteri has asked for my reaction to an article by artist/critic Matthew Collings about the experience of being an artist/critic. It starts out, “For a long time I’ve led a double life. I’ve been an art critic and an artist.” Well, the experience he describes isn’t mine. I get a little pissed off when people describe me as “wearing two hats.” Literally as well as figuratively, I only wear one. “Kyle Gann” is a construction of musical and other experiences reaching back into the 1950s, and those experiences condition every article he writes as well as every piece he composes. I don’t draw on one set as a reviewer and a different set as a composer, and I have never had the experience of moving from composition to reviewing, or vice versa, and feeling, “OK, now I’m a different person, or have a different point of view.” To keep these functions separate would emasculate both. My life as a reviewer has had a salutary effect on my music, and I’ve always felt that my writing started to suffer when I wasn’t composing enough. Of course, the composer KG rarely composes according to the directions of the critic KG, but that’s because one is the function of the subconscious and the other of the conscious – and I’m as much at the mercy of my muse as anyone. In fact, I’ve even written reviews that ran away with me and seemed scary-crazy when I wrote them; I’d screen my phone calls the day they appeared in print, but these are invariably the ones I got the most praise for. I do hope that after I slough off this mortal coil my work gets considered, if at all, as a unity, even if one containing contradictions. The keys to my music are in my writing, and vice versa.

So is there anything I can add to this dialogue besides, “Baloney!”? Well, there is a critical function which, in many young composers, sets in too quickly and makes composing difficult. With half my composition students I have to tell them to turn off the critical voice in their heads long enough to get enough notes down, to see how the piece is growing before you start chopping it up evaluatively. I was particularly susceptible to this as a young man, with an aggressive superego that would damn anything I did before it could get off the ground. Perhaps that had something to do with my penchant for criticizing. But the balance between taking creative chances and self-criticism is one that every creative artist has to work out for himself, regardless of his day job. Right now there’s nothing I want to do more than quit being a critic – not at all because I think writing criticism detracts from my composing, but because people treating me as a critic quite definitely detracts from their treating me as a composer. I can handle the contradiction just fine. It’s others who can’t.

UPDATE: On reflection, I’m not sure this disagrees with the original article, because I can’t tell for sure what the point of the original article was. I was asked to respond, and these sentences flew to mind.

Comments

  1. says

    “Well, there is a critical function which, in many young composers, sets in too quickly and makes composing difficult. With half my composition students I have to tell them to turn off the critical voice in their heads long enough to get enough notes down, to see how the piece is growing before you start chopping it up evaluatively.”
    As I’ve said before on a variety of occasions, I suspect that the spectacular failure has more value to certain critical parts of the learning process than does the modest success. But most young composers are so afraid of failure that they don’t take risks, limiting themselves to modest success and modest failure and missing the opportunity for growth that comes from spectacular failure and the opportunity for spectacular success.
    This same principle can of course also be applied to the programming decisions of presenting organizations from orchestras to movie studios.

  2. says

    I’ve never read a better brief summation of what it truly means to be both composer and critic. The bit about other people not being able to handle it is dead on. In my case, last year, the “other people” turned out to be my bosses at the paper where I worked! Thanks for some great observations, Kyle.