[UPDATED BELOW, + FINAL UPDATE] Literarily, if not always musically, I am something of an Anglophile, a frank worshipper of that scepter’d isle, that earth of majesty and seat of Mars, the land of Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Dickens, and Trollope. But I have now had three book reviews from English critics, and they have been appalling in their incompetence.
The first was by composer Thomas Adès, who reviewed my Nancarrow book for the London Times. He accused me of having squelched, for some nefarious reason, the third of Conlon’s Three Canons for Ursula. In fact, Conlon had told me he had given up on the third canon as too difficult; he showed me a sketch, and told me to disregard it, though apparently he completed and released it later. Adès also noted that Study No. 31 was the only one whose tempo canon lines didn’t converge until after the piece was over, and puzzled over why I failed to notice the fact; meanwhile, the diagram of that study, on page 31 of said book, is accompanied by the note, “the only canon whose convergence point lies beyond its temporal frame,” and I reiterate the point in my fuller discussion of the piece on page 129. Overall, Adès’s review contained more mistakes than my entire book.
The second was even worse, a review in Music and Letters by some hack whose name I have taken the trouble to forget. He claimed that for me, every Nancarrow work was a masterpiece, and that I conceded no faults to even the least offerings of his output. Actually, about half of Nancarrow’s works I characterized as “merely experimental,” or “not his best work.” (And I was more generous than Nancarrow was to himself, who was more self-critical than he needed to be.)
And now a purported Englishman yclept Nikil Saval [UPDATE: turns out he’s Asian-American from California, but it’s the lousy editorial policies of English publications that are at issue] has reviewed my book on Cage’s 4’33” in a magazine called The New Statesman. Mr. Saval claims that in my book I say that Cage explained the piece to the audience before its premiere; that the piece was met with polite applause; that I compared that premiere to the premiere of The Rite of Spring, forgetting that Stravinsky’s work precipitated a riot; and that I claim that 4’33” blurred the difference between art and life. Of course, I wrote none of those things. The first three are patently untrue, and the fourth an opinion to which I would not have committed myself.
I have had American critics disagree with things I’ve written, sometimes snidely, but no American reviewer has yet made up things I never said (or claimed that I didn’t say things that I did) in order to chastise me for them. I never wanted to generalize based on only two examples, but after three out of three, I am moved to conclude that English book reviewers are perhaps the most incompetent and mendacious book reviewers in the world, or at least to ever disgrace the English language. And I wonder how a country that has produced such a glory of literature can abide such pathetically low standards in its literary magazines.
UPDATE: I did a little checking on Saval. He’s a grad student in English at Stanford, and a fan of Brian Ferneyhough, the big composer at Stanford and someone absolutely unsympathetic to Cage [or perhaps not – see comments]. This sheds a little light on why Saval would waste his time reviewing a book about a piece he obviously didn’t respect in the first place. I hope his idol gave him a pat on the head. Whether Saval is man enough to print corrections of his misstatements, I’m waiting to see. [UPDATE: He never did, the little weasel. Not a true critic.] I, meanwhile, while still wondering why English magazines have such low standards, must retract my generality about English critics.
FINAL UPDATE: Let me be clear: this is not about me getting a negative review. I’ve gotten negative reviews in the last few years and have never mentioned one on this blog before. This is about professional ethics. I have said here before that when critics make factual errors, they need to be called on it, to keep them honest. When you get caught on a factual error, you automatically print a correction, no quibbling about it. I followed that rule as a professional critic for 23 years – indeed, my editors would never have let me do anything else. When I brought a couple of factual errors to Saval’s attention, he quibbled, and admitted I hadn’t written what he attributed to me, but thought it was close enough. That would not have been acceptable behavior at the Village Voice in my day, and if it is acceptable at The New Statesman, I’ll never look at The New Statesman. It was at that point that I wrote the blog entry. Had he responded professionally and responsibly, you would never have heard about it. A critic who is not embarrassed about factual mistakes and who will not reflexively correct them is a disgrace to the profession, and should be called out.