There Will Always Be English Book Reviewers, Unfortunately

[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.


  1. says

    Don’t take it personal. English critics are paid very poorly. So they don’t really bother to read the book. They figure that no one else is going to bother to read the book, especially if it’s from a foreigner. And Americans are a few notches below Canadians.
    But the New Statesman is not noted for its music reviews. Especially if the book’s not about Elgar.
    “England is the land of mediocrity.” I believe Delius said that, which is why, after Florida, he moved to France.
    But just wait til they get around to reviewing your “Planets”!
    KG replies: Yikes! Hadn’t thought of that. But they probably won’t. I’ve been paid pretty badly for reviewing books myself, but when doing so I invariably place in my text the page number of every reference I make to make sure I don’t falsify anything, removing them only in the final edit (if it’s not a footnoted article). Even when paid badly (as here on this blog, for instance?) I had my reputation to think of.

  2. Ben Richter says

    My friend Ben Skipp is an English critic and a professed fan of yours. Send him a copy next time.
    Here’s his Alex Ross review.
    KG replies: One would like to think that it’s not necessary for someone to be a fan to simply represent the facts in one’s book correctly, but it’s sadly sometimes the case. But that’s nice to know.

  3. Richard says

    Hey Kyle, don’t take it personally. Brits just hate us uppity colonials. Keep in mind that to them, the US is “Das Land Ohne Musik”!

  4. says

    Professor Gann: I’m a friend and colleague’s of Nikil Saval, who is neither English, nor mendacious, nor a hack. He’s an extremely intelligent young writer who, unlike all the other reviewers apparently, didn’t think very highly of your book. It happens. As to the supposed misrepresentations, Nikil addressed these in the comments at the NS. The only one I’m competent to judge from a quick search-inside-the-book on Amazon is the bit about Stravinsky. You insist you did not compare 4’33” to Rite of Spring. On page 3 of your book, however, one reads: “After four minutes and thirty-three seconds had passed, Tudor rose to receive applause–and thus was premiered one of the most controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential musical works since Igor Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps.” That’s a whole lot of adjectives–and it sounds like a comparison to me.
    KG replies: Nikil stated that I compared the *premiere* of 4’33” to the *premiere* of The Rite of Spring in terms of audience reaction, which I did not; and also that the 4’33” premiere was met with “polite applause,” which it wasn’t, and I explicitly said otherwise; and that I must have forgotten that The Rite caused a riot, which I didn’t. As the saying goes, he, and you, are entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts.

  5. Thomas Schuttenhelm says

    Dear Mr. Gann: I too have been a target of their critical arrows, for my book on the Selected Letters of Michael Tippett, and preface this all with a confession that I am an Anglophile myself, but often become puzzled at their anti-Americanism, which reached a peak when I was researching my book. When I handed the final manuscript into the publisher they told me no one would read it because it was edited by an American, so they insisted on having a proper Englishman write a foreword. I agreed, except he chose to criticize me and call me a liar in my own book! Oddly, as the editor of the collection, I was powerless to stop it. In my extensive research for the book, I interviewed countless people who knew the composer. Some were cooperative. Others were reluctant to share personal details because they felt Tippett wouldn’t have wanted these details to become public. I respected their choice, and even wrote about it in my Introduction. But the author of the Foreword somehow channelled Tippett from the dead and proclaimed that I was wrong in my ‘conclusions’. I am certain this person never spoke to the people I interviewed. I maintain their anonymity but often call on them to corroborate details that I find from other sources, which they are happy to confirm or correct. Another example comes from the timeline in the back of the book. I submitted almost an identical timeline. The publisher said it simply wouldn’t do, and hired out for a third party– a proper British researcher, to create another one, and by simply adding two items to the exact same timeline I submitted it became “infinitely better.” And then the British press had a field day with all of these conflicts, accusing me of not doing my research. Needless to say I’m not publishing anything with that press anymore. Cambridge University Press, where I have a brilliant editor and very supportive reviewers, will publish my new monograph on Meaning and Interpretation in the Orchestral Music of Michael Tippett, due out sometime in 2012. Sincerely, Thomas Schuttenhelm

  6. brett says

    Yeesh, that’s inexcusable! Did you send in letters to the editor demanding that corrections be published? If so, any response so far?
    Do you think there’s some agenda behind the misrepresentations? It’s hard to understand why someone would go to the trouble to fabricate such straw men.
    So sorry to hear all this. It’s hard enough to get books like this reviewed at all, and outrageous when they’re so inaccurate.
    KG replies: The only agenda was that he clearly thought 4’33” was a stupid piece, and wasn’t going to bother reading closely enough to absorb another opinion. That’s fine, he can hate 4’33”, and he’ll be in good company. He can dislike my book for taking Cage seriously, or for having not enough pictures or too many commas. But he can’t misrepresent the facts.
    And no, I didn’t write to the editors. My editors always made it clear to me that when you’re caught in a factual error, you apologize and issue a correction, immediately, no fussing about it. And I always did. I’m waiting to see if this writer has that kind of basic professionalism. Writing to his superiors is a kind of punitive thing that I’m not interested in pursuing in this case.

  7. says

    But for Gessen’s presence here reminding me of Saval’s association with my bête noir I wouldn’t have read his review; how superficial it is! Among other things, how does the variety of Cage’s interests militate against Americanness in his music? The fifth paragraph brings one bit of speculation forward to substantiate Saval’s, uh, struggle to portray Cage as a petty provocateur. Etc.; the fact is the review is so substanceless it hardly matters whether he read more than the first five pages.
    KG replies: Thanks for saying it. As the victim, I can correct the misrepresentations, but it would seem like sour grapes for me to comment on the writing quality.

  8. says

    I, too, was a bit surprised by the tone of this review when I first came across it. (Haven’t yet gotten to reading your book so I can’t comment on errors)
    But I have a question about your update – I didn’t know Ferneyhough was antipathetic to Cage. Are there sources for this?
    Certainly of course Ferneyhough’s own position contrasts with that of Cage. At the same time of course he’s happy to use the poetry of someone like Jackson Mac Low, and you do find him saying things like this (in a 1977 interview):
    “I am a very catholic acceptor of much stylistically which I myself, by reason of my particular inclinations and background, do not see as being appropriate to me as a composer. In Freiburg recently I planned an entire evening-filled Cage concert with precisely timed simultaneous performances and readings – I even made a version of *Mesostics for [sic] Merce Cunningham* for myself to perform with electronic transformation. But I see my own role dead center in the European tradition, utilizing the tools of western consciousness, and that excludes as much as it offers…”
    KG replies: Interesting. Perhaps you’re right. In general the New Complexity people have expressed plenty of contempt for the more experimental Americans, and in my personal experience with Ferneyhough he’s seemed to look down his nose at anything American. But it still seems logical that a crusading Ferneyhough defender would take pleasure in attacking a book for its having taken Cage seriously. It would certainly be nice to think that Ferneyhough himself wouldn’t.
    I was just trying to parse why someone would make an “argument” that instead of explaining Cage’s intentions I should have examined the “ideas” of people who wrote in on the internet to protest the BBC performance. I figured at first he was a total unsophisticate, but his Ferneyhough defense sent me in a different direction. Maybe he’s just a moron.

  9. John Shreffler says

    Ferneyhough likes Cage or did as of 1983 anyhow. He came to Harvard to deliver a talk, which I attended. After the talk, we chatted. At the time, I worked in record shop in Harvard Square and had built up a big contemporary section. Briann came by the next day. At the time I had a reissue of the Avakian 1958 Cage Retrospective (an exact copy of the original I was told). When Brian saw it, he got very animated and said that it had been important to him and that he was trying to [do] the same thing by writing more notes than people could play.
    KG replies: Glad to hear it. It was too facile a speculation on my part, and unmerited. I’d remove it, but the conversation has grown up around it.

  10. Samuel Vriezen says

    I can kind of imagine how your speculation comes about, certainly against the background of American music (where European, post-expressionist type complexity is connoted with a certain kind of high-end university academicism)
    However, in European contexts the picture is different. I remember talking to Steve Martland who told me he used to be friendly with Richard Barrett – not because they share anything in terms of musical preference, but they could recognize a common enemy: the type of middle-brow supereducated Eton/Oxbridge/London Sinfonietta upper middle class culture that they were both against, Martland from his Lower Class type perspective, Barrett because of a radical left-wing political stance.
    Perhaps that’s a very British type of alliance. In the German context, it gets different again, I think (Ferneyhough is something of an honorary German composer!) because they tend to interpret Cage theoretically, as an intervention in the Western classical tradition – a view that Feldman already seems to be rejecting in his essays.
    Generally, I think it’s worth pointing out that quite a large part of Cage’s music gesturally has taken after post-expressionist models; there’s another link with Ferneyhough. Certainly some of Cage’s 70s works (I’m particularly thinking about his Etueds) were about very similar things as Ferneyhough’s works – complexity, virtuosity, difficulty, “effort music” seem to have been in the air at that time.
    KG replies: Well I’ve always said that about Cage’s music of the ’50s and ’60s, that it accepted the parametrical definitions of serialism. His music of the ’40s, though – which I perversely call proto-postminimalist – is in a more American tradition, along with Harrison, Cowell, and Hovhaness. And 4’33” is right in the middle. I still wouldn’t be surprised if some Europeans who love Atlas Eclipticalis draw the line at 4’33” (let alone In a Landscape). And the stupid article wasn’t by Ferneyhough anyway, but by an American Ferneyhough fan, and American Ferneyhough fans do tend to be high-end university academics. But I suppose the simpler explanation is just that he read sloppily and reviewed the book from his feeble and prejudiced memory. I always tell people, in a book review, support your points with quotes from the book – otherwise you’ll get into trouble.

  11. says

    “Oh, [mild expletive]. I rechecked my sources and it turns out that you’re right. Thank you for pointing my little error out to me. I’ll fix it right away.”
    There. That’s not so hard is it?
    KG replies: One would think. But he made so many mistakes in one article I guess it would be too embarrassing to admit them all.

  12. Bob Gilmore says

    hi Kyle,
    If it’s any consolation, the collection of Ben Johnston’s writings that I edited a few years back got incompetent reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. One American reviewer criticized me for not having written a biography of Johnston, which struck me as like criticizing a screwdriver for not being a spanner (besides which the book DOES have a 14-page biographical chronology, the most extensive so far published on Ben). An English reviewer complained that too much of the book was just for “tuning geeks”, neatly dismissing thousands of years of human endeavour just because he’s too stupid to understand it.

  13. says

    It’s a shame that these reviews all seem to be mostly about displaying the writer’s supposed intellectual muscle.
    KG replies: One could say the same about quite a bit of music, where the sin has even worse effect. I showed off too much intellectual muscle myself in my early days. But I got my facts right.