Classical and pop reviews (2)

First, I’ve taken out the “vs.” — as you might have seen it in the title of my previous post on this topic, which was “Classical vs. pop reviews.” I’ve learned a lot from the comments that contentious (and controversial) post of mine got, and especially from the people who disagreed with me, sometimes very sharply. My thanks to all of you. You helped me understand exactly what point I was trying to make, and how to make it more sharply, and with more courtesy.

So let me start again. There were two things I definitely was not meaning to say. I wasn’t saying that classical music is better than pop music (whatever that might mean), or that pop critics are better than classical critics. My point was far less global than either of those statements, and I’m going to restate it in a simpler, more formal way:

Imagine a pop show and a classical concert, both equally serious. Suppose they’re reviewed by pop and classical critics of equal ability. The pop review, as a rule, will be more compelling for general readers, because the music will be connected to the world outside, and the review will show that.

(Of course, some people can’t imagine pop music being as serious — or thoughtful, or deep, or however you want to put it — as classical music. So if I want to be even more rigorous, I’ll say that the seriousness of a performance should be measured by the critics themselves, apply the usual standards of their fields.)

Individual reviews can demonstrate what I mean by this, but they can’t show that the contrast is true as a general rule. The only way to do that would be to read lots of reviews, for instance all pop and classical reviews in the New York Times over a couple of months at the height of the season. I’d choose the Times because the critics in both fields are quite good.

There were objections to my original post, and I’m sure there would be many of the same objections to my revised thesis. Here are some, with my responses:

Pop music is crap, and pop music criticism is crap. That’s a conversation stopper. I’m not going there. This is a larger discussion, for some other time.

Most pop music shows aren’t serious. People like Britney Spears are the pop music norm. How do we know this is true? Has anyone taken a census of pop events, and then counted how many were serious? I suspect, actually, that there are far more small and serious pop shows each year, in any city, than large and empty ones with silly stars. Certainly that was true when I was a pop music critic in Los Angeles late in the 1980s. But quite beyond trying to count the uncountable, I’d reply that the objection here is meaningless. You can define the pop music norm however you like. But the fact remains that there are many, many, many serious pop shows and records. Just read the Times critics day by day, and see what they review. Or read The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, and see what serious pop critics have to say about every important musician and trend since rock & roll emerged in the mid ’50s. And besides — since pop critics can find serious cultural meaning in just about anything they review (and why not? how could someone be a huge pop star without touching some cultural nerve?) they can write serious reviews about shows that someone else might say aren’t serious.

Classical reviews aren’t likely to talk about connections to the outside world, because many classical pieces are instrumental, and thus don’t have lyrics that can make these connections. Or because pop musicians mostly write their own songs, while classical musicians play music written by others. Or because so much of the music played at classical concerts comes from the past. This excuses the problem I’m defining here, but doesn’t solve it. That is, we can say, if we like, that classical music reviews shouldn’t be expected to do what pop reviews do. But still pop reviews will (if I’m right about this) be more interesting to general readers. And at a time when we want more attention for classical music, this doesn’t seem helpful.

This objection to my point, then, actually raises a challenge for people writing about classical music. If we can’t expect classical music to connect readily to the outside world, what exactly does it do? What, exactly, is valuable about it? I’m

not — repeat not — saying it relating to the outside world is the most important value classical music might have, but what is classical music doing for us when we listen to it? Of course it’s doing something very powerful. But how would we define that — and, most important for the point I’m making in these posts, do reviews convey what the power and meaning of classical music might be?

Certainly we’re not immersed in classical music because we want to check whether the latest pianist to come along really knows what to do with Beethoven — whether her tempo in the slow movement of some sonata really is correct or not. And probably we’re not so deeply tied to this art because some work can be called “magnificent,” or because we identify a particular emotion inside some classical piece. We can go to the movies and get emotional. I think we’d say that the rewards we get from classical music go pretty deep. But I’m not sure we could say that reviews of classical concerts normally convey how deep and powerful those rewards can be. Whereas pop reviews pretty accurately convey what we get from pop, which among other things might mean — I think it does mean this, actually — that pop reviewing is easier. My own experience, writing both pop and classical reviews, is that I’ve had to work much harder to say what’s powerful in classical music.

I should really end here, one good rule for writing being to end with the strongest, most imoprtant thing you have to say. But I’ll add a footnote. I don’t think the lyrics are as important in finding the meaning of a pop song as many classical music people think they are. There’s a lot of cultural meaning purely in the sound of any music, and this is something pop critics talk about that, and certainly live out in their reviews. They don’t hesitate to draw meaning from the sound, let’s say, of the opening instrumental riff of a song. And not only that. An entire recent school of pop music, or maybe I should say a collection of schools — dance music in all its varied forms — consists mainly of instrumental pieces, in which pop critics don’t hesitate to find all kinds of meaning.

Nor has the classical music world hesitated, in the past, to find meaning in how music sounds. Look at the reactions to Beethoven, in his time, or to Wagner, or look at the resistance to modernist music, or the rejection of Sibelius by serious critics (hard to believe as this may be) before 1950, or the dismayed reaction to Vivaldi — his flamboyance, some people thought, could threaten civilized life — among musical conservatives in England in the 18th century. They were talking about his concerti, not his operas.

Nobody in France at the turn of the 20th century could miss the meaning of the new sound of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun. And early 19th century critics and aestheticians thought that instrumental music had far deeper meaning than vocal music, precisely because its meaning couldn’t be put into words, and therefore could go deep into the human soul. The very new, very modern, almost shocking sensuality of Afternoon of a Faun, I’d think, might actually have been more tangible, when the piece was new, than anything conveyed by the libretto of Pelleas et Melisande, another Debussy piece that had wide impact in its time.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says


    No surprise that I agree with your point here and in the earlier, less circumspect post. But in one or two places here you veer toward the clubby, categorical assertion of classical music’s value that you’ve astutely criticized on other occasions. “Of course it’s doing something very powerful,” you say of classical music in this post, and “I think we’d say that the rewards we get from classical music go pretty deep.” I’d like to think so too, and obviously it is true for certain people, certain pieces, certain performances, under certain circumstances, etc. But if your smart Martian took a look at the sleeping subscribers one invariably sees at classical concerts, the unsmiling faces during the applause, the dour or simply professional expressions of the musicians and even most conductors during most performances, he might wonder (just as he might wonder reading those inward, technical, fastidious newspaper reviews) whether classical music is precisely about not feeling anything powerful, but instead about having a controlled, formalized, semi-emotional kind of aesthetic experience. What might be going on in that gap between how we talk about classical music’s power and how it appears to be experienced by large numbers of people both in the audience and onstage? (I grant that those people may differ from your readers, most of whom surely do feel deeply about classical music.) To answer that question we would need to pay your Martian – or better yet, a sociologist or anthropologist – to conduct a truly objective study of classical music audiences and their experiences, one not colored by the normative values or advocacy imperatives of the classical music field. One of the great contributions you’re making with this blog, Greg, is showing us how to step outside the assumptions of the field so we can see it clearly: as strange and contingent rather than normative and necessary. Now all we need is a funder for that research study…

    I’d volunteer to be that Martian. I do know some studies of the mainstream classical audience (focusing, for instance, on orchestra subscribers). One of these studies, absurdly, was kept secret! Though it showed nothing harmful — only the usual things that people say about the music being inspiring, uplifting, spiritual. And one fascinating detail — that a surprisingly large percentage of these music-lovers also go to the theater, but get upset if the plays are about unpleasant subjects. I think that says something about what the same people expect (and don’t want to expect) from classical music.

    I’m grateful for your critique of my uncritical phrasing. I noticed, when I wrote the words you quoted, that I might be doing exactly what you said I was. I feel that I don’t often enough express my own enthusiasm for classical music, or even show that I like it. So this was, among other things, an attempt to do that. But you’re right — I strayed into the opposite problem, of apparently uncritical acceptance. The larger problem I tried to address is still there, of course. Does classical music criticism — and other writing about classical music — adequately convey what can be powerful? (Trying for a better phrasing here…)

  2. says

    Well Greg, I agreed with you before, but I admire your chutzpah in renewing the controversy.

    It seems obvious that even the most serious pop artists can achieve an emotional connection with their audience (and critics) more readily than their classical colleagues. The genesis of the style is more recent, the music is often lyric-based, the harmonic language can be less complex or daunting, the subjects more contemporary and relevant. And usually it’s a lot louder, too.

    So how can classical musicians bridge this wide gap between their more arcane art form and today’s distracted (not the critics-they are never distracted), culture-soaked music audience? If the goal is to provide a emotional context and listening environment relevant to now–and I believe that’s what needs to happen– then we need to dump for once and for all the old, worn out conventions: horrible, dry academic program notes that very few people read or even understand; awkward, brief pre-performance statements by artists who have obviously not given a moment’s thought to their subject; largely irrelevant anecdotes about a composer’s life (“Schubert was only 15 when he wrote this quartet, and composed the entire third movement while sleeping”). And much has already been said about the evils of penguin suits and hushed, uncomfortable concert halls. The specter of classical artists desperately attempting to “crossover” into popular styles seems to be breathing it’s last gasp, thankfully. So what remains?

    If we’re going to talk to the audience, then talk to them like human beings. Know what it is we want to express and convey it colorfully, with metaphor and precision. Don’t be afraid to make music “about” something, because in the end that’s all there is to take away from the experience. If talking isn’t appropriate to the work, then make darn sure that the concert environment doesn’t destroy it instead. Silence the board member’s introduction, play around with the lighting, throw some pillows on the floor if the seats are uncomfortable. Encourage questions or dialogue after the performance.

    If we simply expect the critics to read our minds, I think we can also expect the possibility that they will miss the point entirely, and provide the kind of disconnected coverage you are decrying.

  3. Brendan says

    I think you have some good points but I also have some problems with this. I’m going to start with where you say “pop reviews pretty accurately convey what we get from pop.” I’m not sure why you believe this to be true.

    The bit of the Gil concert review you quoted doesn’t do this at all, unless you think that what we get out of Gil’s music primarily is the idea of “broadband technology as an empowerment issue.” I’ve only heard Gil’s 60s stuff but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. If it were, the music would be interchangeable with an essay on how broadband technology could help Brazil (and the basic point, as far as I can tell with the review, would be really simple, if true and important). The reviewer is basically throwing in an interesting tidbit about the content of Gil’s lyrics which is secondary to the experience of the music.

    Now, in this post you talk about how the meaning of pop music isn’t all that closely tied up with the lyrics, but that the music itself can carry meaning, and I agree. So look at the section of that same Ratliff review where he talks about the music (sorry for the long quote):

    Through much of the set, the curiosity and generosity in Mr. Gil’s words and ideas didn’t get into the music. Isolated from his surroundings he is a stupendous performer, putting a wide vocal range in the service of beautifully articulated Portuguese, filling the spaces with percussive cries and chants. When you could hear him play rhythm guitar over Banda Larga Cordel’s other two guitarists (one of them is Bem Gil, his son), he showed you how good he was at that, too.

    The band, though, was doing a Brazilian version of foursquare rhythmic professionalism, with keyboards simulating strings in the funny philosophical song “Não Tenho Medo da Morte” (“I’m Not Afraid of Death”) and wooden flute sounds in the baião-chachado “Não Grude Não” (“Don’t Stick to Me”). The show included uninspired reggae versions of the bossa nova standard “Garota de Ipanema” (“The Girl From Ipanema”) and George Harrison’s “Something,” as well as pickings from Mr. Gil’s own work since the late ’70s, mostly not his best.

    In an encore, a spindly funk version of “Toda Menina Baiana” (“Every Bahian Girl”) — like Prince with a touch of a samba groove — everything worked. So much of the show seemed to separate theory from practice. But here everything was in sync, and the whole house moved to it.

    In some ways this is a lot like the classical review you quoted in your earlier post, talking about technique. Ratliff does suggest that more of the “curiosity and generosity” of Gil’s ideas could have made it into the music. He doesn’t explain what that would mean, and when he turns to the moment where “everything works” he has dropped the idea entirely, saying only “everything was in sync, and the whole house moved to it.” Which as far as I’m concerned is a perfectly good way to talk about a concert, but doesn’t do what you seem to want or what Ratliff himself hinted at earlier–to elucidate some kind of connection between the music and something extra-musical that gives it meaning.

    The lesson, for me, is that it’s nearly impossible to explain in words what anyone gets out of any kind of music, pop or classical. I’ve never seen a review that did; I don’t think it’s what anyone expects of reviews, and I don’t think a reviewer can convince anyone the music he or she is reviewing is worthwhile (except maybe by comparing it to some music the reader might already know, as Ratliff does: “lots of variations on samba and baião, “overriding tastes of reggae or disco or rock”). The experience of hearing music doesn’t translate very if at all, into words.

    There are a couple of ways reviewers try to get around this. One, which you see more often in classical music (though not in that Central Park concert review) is with a profusion of description: technical details, lots of adjectives and metaphors. Sometimes this works but usually not.

    Another, which seems to be trendy in pop music criticism since the 60s or so, is this vague idea that we need to understand music in “context,” which doesn’t mean anything. The question is what context, and how does that context interact with the music and with the listeners? Ratliff certainly doesn’t know. I actually think Ratliff’s attempt to place Gil in context is pretty worthless, whether or not it might impress a Martian. That Gil is Brazil’s minister of culture, or that he favors more broadband access, have little to no bearing on my experience of his music and I can’t imagine they have much on anyone’s–maybe not even Gil’s.

    (That said, Gil’s role does raise some interesting questions about what it means for an artist to be employed so directly by the state, about the relationship between corporate power and art, and so on–which, again, I don’t think have much to do with anyone’s actual experience of the music in question, but which Ratliff also completely fails to address. His commentary is actually really shallow.)

    That’s a trenchant critique of Ratliff’s review. Very acute.

    But I didn’t claim that this review alone could establish the value and power of the best pop criticism. Note that in my latest post I said we’d have to read a lot of pop criticism to see whether my point makes sense. And note, too, that I made only modest claims for the Ratliff review. My point was only that it connects Gil and his music with the world around us. How well it does this would be another question. One thing we’d get, I think, from reading many pop reviews is that the music constantly gets located in a larger context. But I guess I’d better cite some more examples. Thanks for prodding me!

  4. says

    I don’t agree with Peter Linnett’s comments

    about the appearance and behavior of classical

    musicians at concerts or of audiences.

    Audiences are often wildly enthusiastic

    about performances and cheer lustily after a

    great performance. The musicians appear very

    happy and gratified at the reception.

    I’m a veteran of playing countless concerts

    and have never gotten the same impression of them as Mr. Linnett. As well as going to live

    concerts and seeing them on TV etc.

    Classical audiences don’t go to performances

    as a formality; they genuinely want to go.

    There is nothing wrong with being a fan of

    pop singers or rock bands etc. I don’t mind

    the least bit. But I wish that people would stop judging classical music by the standards

    of pop and rock.

    The reason we play classical music from the

    past is because it exists and audiences

    love it. Pop and rock have simply not been around as long. Will people still listen to

    pop and rock music of the present 200 years

    from now? Who knows ? And the popularity

    of classical music from the past has in no

    way prevented new music from being heard at

    concerts. And just look at all the new operas

    that have been performed recently.

  5. says

    (Greg, this turned into a very long reply. I wasn’t sure if that was appropriate for a blog, so I also posted it as the latest entry for my own blog, Sound Scenes. If would prefer to post a link to that, please feel free to do so, excerpting what you want from this reply.)

    It seems to me that classical music cultures maintain a generally suspicious attitude towards emotional responses. While publicity for an artist, concert, CD or other performative event may emphasize sentimental qualities, people often emphasize the “realness” or authenticity of a performance through objective and formal language. (I use formal here to mean both the use of structuralism and “dressing up.”) The idea that classical music presents a “deeper” meaning than other aesthetic experiences is an important belief in classical communities, one that both validates the efforts of the artist(s) and that reinforce the universalist and/or timeless narrative so frequently promoted by institutions.

    What I find most interesting about your post here, is your own cautious approach to the suggest that social issues may have an influence on the impact of classical performances, “I’m not, repeat not, saying [social context] is the most important value…” Your own skepticism, at least as I read it, implies that there really is an implicit, objective, and concrete rationale for classical music. Objectification, for better or for worse, provides one of the most crucial forms of engagement for classical musicians and audiences.

    I would also like to point out that objective and structural language provides a way for individuals to negotiate for meaning. For example, when classical musicians disagree about a particular performance and wish to maintain a friendly discourse, a one might defer to a particular aspect of the piece itself, “Well, the performance was great, but I just don’t like how that piece restates the main theme so much” thus separating the act of making music from the text used.

    In regards to Peter’s call for an objective approach, I would like to make three points. First, several exceptional ethnomusicological studies of classical music communities are available, notably Henry Kingsbury’s book Music, Talent, and Performance, a Conservatory Cultural System, his article “Sociological Factors in Musicological Poetics,” Georgina Born’s book Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalization of the Musical Avant-Garde, and other works by Subotnik, Burkholder, and Taruskin.

    Second, these various works do not claim to be objective and, especially in the case of Kingsbury and Born, in fact attempt to mix subjective experience with objective analysis. Over the past sixty years, the idea that music can or should be represented objectively has been called into question, (See John Blacking’s book How Musical is Man? for an approach that mixes ethnography and the question of musical objectification).

    Thirdly, the idea that objective analysis can be used to improve classical music’s standing comes, in part from within this culture, as evidenced by the scientific approaches of composers (see, for example, Xenakis, Formalized Music), the corresponding language of performing musicians, and, perhaps most crucial, the theoretical content taught to music undergraduates in various institutions. Music theory only takes on its more nuanced and subjective forms in higher level classes and degrees, though theory undergrads may engage such forms sooner than other performance majors. The primary mode of analysis taught to music majors is an objective one, though various schools emphasize other modes of understanding.

    Greg, the issues you raise here call into question the belief system taught by many musicians and many institutions. I think that this is a healthy thing, but it can be very difficult to change minds, especially when so many different people who participate in these cultures have many different opinions. I always enjoy your posts, and I look forward to reading more.

    John, I’m grateful for your comment, which in no way is too long. I’d link your gentle rebuke to me with what Peter Linnett said in his comment. I strayed toward classical music orthodoxy, in an attempt to make my points more palatable to the classically orthodox. When I wrote that line about social context not being the most important thing, I was trying to reassure people who see no value at all in what I say, and maybe I just shouldn’t bother about that. I can see why you’d think I was turning my back on all the terrific work you so helpfully cite. In fact, it’s vitally important to give classical music a social context, because it’s been so brutally ripped from its social meaning in an attempt to establish some objective, timeless value. Susan McClary’s Conventional Wisdom: The Content of Musical Form is a powerful critique of this. As, with real incendiary force, is the Georgina Burns book you mention, which is one of my favorites. She completely upends Boulez, who’s been given almost worship-worthy authority, as if he offered some kind of purity beyond all everyday concerns. Burns shows that IRCAM isn’t pure at all. To put it mildly.

    What a scary thing a blog is. I can thrash around in public, trying to work out exactly how to make my points. Thanks again to everyone who helps me!

  6. says

    More evidence for the plaintiff can be found at the new “Measure for Measure” blog at the NY Times. It gets quite technical but the pop musicians there see cultural implications in their technical discussions and vice versa, spoken plainly and clearly, in just the way that would draw someone’s interest, as the comments there indicate. Is the classical equivalent of this out there?

    Hi, Eric. I’ll have to read that blog. Thanks for mentioning it.

  7. says

    Isn’t that McClary book awesome!? I love it, especially the way that she describes Philip Glass’s music. I mainly put those references up there for Peter, but I’m glad you dig them. Georgina Born is pretty much my heroine, both in terms of her work and her approaches.

  8. says

    Hi Greg,

    First of all: “what Brendan said.”

    I’d love to see you engage his critique more directly. Of course it’s your blog, but it’s amusing to me how quickly you backed away from Ratliff’s review (which you brought to the party) with the promise of finding more reviews – that’s fine, but do you see any validity in the suggestion I think he’s making (and that I’ve made as well) that these connections with real-world contexts are overblown?

    I also think that as much as you rightfully remind us that we often disconnect classical music from its original context (issues of improvisation, behaviour of audiences, etc.), there’s a tendency here, especially among your supporters, to ignore the contexts that shape the classical music culture as it is today. Here’s just one example of that. Although many non-classical types tend to assume everything from 1100 to 1900 is pretty much the same (I know this from experience with music appreciation classes, for whom the connecting link is “boring”), we know that “classical music” encompasses an enormous variety of music. Thus, it stands to reason, and is actually essential, that there’s a bit of objective distance in the way we think about and experience these musics. If we were to embrace Wagner with true, contextual 19th-century Wagnerian zeal, wouldn’t we need to throw out Brahms and many other Philistines?

    My classroom duties mean that I sometimes have to teach about composers (I won’t say which ones) for whom I don’t have a lot of sympathy, but I don’t resent it. In fact, I welcome the chance to given them another try, just as your blog has inspired me to give pop music more of a try than I have in the past. It’s funny to me when early music advocates show resentment towards a system that tends to favor music from 1770-1900; it’s funny because I have a hard time believing anyone would know anything about Machaut and Gesualdo and Monteverdi if the classical system hadn’t provided a context in which such music could be revived. Contemporary composers have reason to feel there’s something unfair about the historical bullyism of the “great masterworks,” but they don’t seem to mind that there’s a big system in place of performers and audiences).

    So when Martin Perry writes about “the evils of penguin suits and hushed, uncomfortable concert halls,” I just have to wonder what is the type of concert dress and audience behavior that will make everyone happy? The answer to that should be obvious…

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take your questions seriously and keep trying to reinvigorate the system – we also just need to remember that poor “classical music” is trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and the more passionately those people feel about “their music,” the harder it is to keep all that duct tape and string in place.

    Michael, you go to many places here, which isn’t at all a criticism. It makes your comment just explode with vitality, and things to think about. I’m only cautioning myself not to write a length essay on each one of your points!

    About poor classical music trying to be a lot of things to a lot of people…I don’t know that I think that’s true. I’ve noticed that classical music people talk a lot about “the audience,” singular. Nobody in pop music would do that. It’s understood — because it’s so obviously true — that there are innumerable pop audiences, each gravitating to a different kind of music. Classical music would be better off if it allowed for this as well, and understood, for instance, that the audience for new music is likely to be different from the normal concert audience.

    As for Ben Ratliff’s review, no, I don’t think I’ve backed away from it. I think something else happened. I meant to cite it only in a limited way, and to follow my words about it with many other samples. But because of the volume of comments I haven’t yet gotten around to the other samples, so the Ratliff/Gilberto Gil review now (because the medium is the message) is forced to bear the entire weight of everything I’m saying. Which I never intended it to, though I’m happy to concede that it’s an error of mine that puts it in that position.

    As for the real-world connections of pop being overblown, I don’t agree. And I think a reading of a lot of pop criticism would easily put that notion to rest. But I’ll have to demonstrate that here, I know.

    Then, about classical music from the past — sure, we need objective distance for analysis and history, for understanding of the music in the context of its creation. And its first reception. I wouldn’t disagree about that. But when we perform it, we commit ourselves to it far more than, let’s say, a museum does, when it hangs old paintings on its walls. This commitment embraces both performers and listeners. The musicians have to embrace the piece with something beyond objectivity, or else their performance will neither be compelling, nor true to even the slightest memory of the meaning the music had when it was new. And the same is true for listeners. People don’t go to concerts to sit back and learn about objective music history. They go to feel something, and they expect the music to deliver something true and living.

    So here your point about Brahms and Wagner really does come home. We’d be better off if people really did react the way you say — completely reject Wagner, maybe, because he’s uncouth, and embrace Brahms, because he’s orderly. (I’m obviously giving only one way — and a simplistic one — to describe the differences between the two composers.) If people did this, we’d know that the music really came alive for them.

    But on the other hand, that controversy raged a long time ago, and might not need to have teeth in our time. I think — especially because I can do it — that it’s possible to embrace both sides, to hear the differences, but hear less force in them, precisely because the wildness that Wagner brought to music in his time doesn’t seem so wild to us now, and because the order Brahms retained isn’t the kind of order that reassures us now. So then we can appreciate both composers for what we find in them, which is related to the forces that brought them force (or which they brought forth) but doesn’t have the intensity for us that people found in 1890. (There’s a lot more to say about this. I’ve offered only a sketchy outline of where I think the discussion might go.)