main: April 2006 Archives

Sarah Cahill alerts me to an internet radio program from Other Minds, in which Richard Friedman plays works from the concert of music from the Cold Blue label at REDCAT last February 18. The program opens with two of my Private Dances beautifully played by Sarah - and then the rest of the music, by Michael Jon Fink, John Luther Adams, Larry Polansky, Rick Cox, and others, is absolutely lovely. I am honored to be in such incredible company. Go here, and click on Program No. 61 in the upper right-hand corner. Limited time only.

April 15, 2006 11:20 PM | | Comments (1) |

My father sang in church choirs most of his life, and his favorite pieces were Handel's Messiah and Beethoven's Ninth. Once he sang in the chorus for the Dallas Opera production of Boris Godunov. Along with the Steinway baby grand he bought me when I was 15, which stands in my living room today, such was his contribution to classical music. He was an accountant for Mobil Oil, and spent the last three of his 29 years there as an office manager in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Having grown up dirt-poor on a farm in what is now a rather stylish section of Dallas, he landed at Omaha Beach three days after D-Day, and was a corporal in the 7th Armored Division under Patton at the Battle of the Bulge. He heard the gunfire of the massacre of American prisoners at Malmedy as he was frantically trying to fix a tire on his halftrack.

Luckily - since I was stubborn - he attempted his paternal duty only once. In my last year of high school he warned me that to be a musician was a difficult and insecure life. What would I do about retirement?, he asked. As an artist, I replied, I had no wish to retire. It seemed to me, at 17, unwise to plan one's entire life around retirement. But Dad eventually retired at the age of 57, and enjoyed his leisure for 23 wonderful years. On my side, I know that he sometimes hated going in to work - whereas I, in my often financially precarious adult life, have never once woken up and had to go do anything for a living that wasn't music-related. The jury on who won that argument is still out. Meanwhile, my son's middle name is Marvin.

Dad died Saturday, and we buried him Monday, in Frisco, Texas.

April 13, 2006 11:39 PM | | Comments (19) |

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 Ad├Ęs 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."

April 1, 2006 3:18 PM | | Comments (7) |

I have sometimes been described as a critic who refuses to observe the usual professional standard of objectivity. That fit the paper I wrote for, of course, since the Village Voice was always known for its "advocacy journalism." I never figured out what "advocacy journalism" meant - or rather, what was supposed to be the alternative. I always advocated a healthy, lively, diverse music scene, whereas if I had been a truly "objective" music critic, I suppose, I wouldn't have given a damn whether new music concerts thrived or ceased to exist. In any case, this excellent article by Michael Kinsley at Slate perfectly expresses my feelings about objectivity, that it is a self-delusion, an unattainable goal, and a goal that would be inhuman if obtainable; that it is a dishonest foundation on which no truth can be erected.

Nobody believes in objectivity, if that means neutrality on any question about which two people somewhere on the planet might disagree. May a reporter take as a given that two plus two is four? Should a newspaper strive to be open-minded about Osama Bin Laden? To reveal--to have!--no preference between the United States and Iran? Is it permissible for a news story to take as a given that the Holocaust not only happened, but was a bad thing--or is that an expression of opinion that belongs on the op-ed page?....

Opinion journalism can be more honest than objective-style journalism because it doesn't have to hide its point of view. It doesn't have to follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion and then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity. All observations are subjective. Writers freed of artificial objectivity can try to determine the whole truth about their subject and then tell it whole to the world. Their "objective" counterparts have to sort their subjective observations into two arbitrary piles: truths that are objective as well, and truths that are just an opinion. That second pile of truths then gets tossed out, or perhaps put in quotes and attributed to someone else. That is a common trick used by objective-style journalists in order to tell their readers what they believe to be true without inciting the wrath of the Objectivity cops.

Factual accuracy, he points out, is something different, and is vitally important. But objectivity is, after all, the principle on which Republicans have managed to finagle equal time for creation science whenever evolution is mentioned, as well as the principle by which the Pulitzer Prize winners continue to be presumptively regarded as America's greatest composers. If "opinion journalism" indeed becomes the norm, maybe I'll suddenly find myself in fashion.

April 1, 2006 11:07 AM | |

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