Classical and pop reviews (3)

A general point: The larger issue in all of this is all the ways classical music gets written about, not just in reviews, but in advertising copy and press releases from mainstream classical music institutions, and much (but not all) scholarly work. Very little of this gets at what’s really happening as we listen to the music — or, to put it a little differently, doesn’t get at why we’d want to listen.

But returning to the thoughts in my previous post (in which I restated my overall point, and answered some objections to it)…I might mention one last objection, though I haven’t heard it from anyone yet:

Classical music conveys deep and profound things that you simply can’t understand if you haven’t studied musical form, and other classical music complexities. If you don’t understand these complexities, then you can’t understand classical music. But they’re far too deep to be conveyed by any newspaper review.

I don’t believe this, but that’s a discussion for another time. Suppose, though, that I did believe the first two sentences. I’d still reject the last one. Why? Because I think it really possible to convey something about these complexities — and certainly about their effect on people who appreciate them — even in a newspaper, and even to people who wouldn’t understand the technical details. I’ll give three examples. What they have in common is something we should think about (something that, getting a bit ahead of myself, might be familiar to anyone who knows Roland Barthes’s essay “The Grain of the Voice”). All of them talk about the experience of music (or, in the case of the third example, cricket), rather than about objective facts.

First example: Virgil Thomson, writing in 1950 about a Clifford Curzon recital:

The Schubert Sonata in D, opus 53, a far wider and more personally conceived structure [than that of a Mozart sonata Thomson had just been talking about], [Curzon] walked around in. He did not get lost in it or allow us to forget its plan, but he did take us with him to the windows and show us all its sweet and dreaming views of the Austrian countryside, some of them filled with dancing folk. The terraced dynamics and the abstention from downbeat pulsations, just as in the Mozart piece, kept the rendering impersonal at no loss to expressivity, On the contrary, indeed, the dramatization of it as a form, the scaling of its musical elements gave it evocative power as well as grandeur of proportion. And its enormous variety in the kinds of sound employed, its solid basses, and a dry clarity in the materials of its structural filling prevented monotony from becoming a concomitant of its vastness.

That’s a precise and evocative piece of writing, showing how Thomson experiences the complexities of form, and how he thinks Curzon does, and conveying, with complete lucidity, the meaning of that to readers who wouldn’t know the forms that he’s talking about.

Second example: the pianist Jeffrey Denk, in his wonderful blog, talking about playing the Janacek Capriccio:

The Janacek Capriccio is an amazing, impossible piece, and despite my bitter left hand boot camp I am totally wowed by it. [The solo piano part is written for the left hand alone, but takes the left hand into the top register of the piano, where normally the right hand goes, playing the kind of music usually restricted to the right hand. Thus, “boot camp” — the long and painful slog to learn to play the piece.] I am in love with its infelicitous instrumentation. The poor left-handed pianist, playing in the “wrong” register; the flute and piccolo straining to be lyrical; the cloudy oompah band of low brass doing things they normally would never be asked to do.

The Janacek is written for a deeply pitiable ensemble: flute, two trumpets, three trombones, tenor tuba, piano left hand. After I played it, someone asked “is your right hand alright?” and I looked at her for a moment; I said yes yes and waggled it at her threateningly, fingers trembling and shaking. She went away.

The deliberate choice to write awkwardly for the players has a tremendous expressive effect. Everybody is submitting to humiliating requests, performing despite embarrassment. It is Mojo’s Dueling Piano Bar, but the sadness of the audience is “factored in.” Witness polkas, marches, waltzes, sentimental songs: familiar folkish genres hug sonic happenings that are more abstruse, more drawn from outer space, from haunting Janacek-land. Life laughs at the sentimentality of the musicians, then cries. The bits of street-band music are antiques fraught with emotion; when you touch them (hear them) they give you a shiver, they tell you of generations past, of ghosts … the piece often feels like an empty, haunted room … Janacek leaves space open; he wants some vacancy, to people with ghosts, memories, or possibilities.

One of these memories is clearly a beer garden band, oompahing. With the accordion wheezing. Maybe a waltz? Oh, it’s so hard to settle yourself; Janacek won’t let you sit down; he won’t let you perform with comfort; an idea, a memory, never has time to get comfortable, to stretch its legs. He perpetually crossfades from fragment to fragment; every performer appears awkwardly, stumbles on stage, duels with absurdity …

Here we find complexities that go beyond structure — complexities, in fact, that many (if not most) serious classical music scholars wouldn’t know how to explain. But Denk lays them out so anyone can understand, and also puts readers in his own position as the soloist who needs to make sense of the piece.

Third example, which as I said is about cricket, and comes from Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland. O’Neill’s first-person narrator believes that no one can understand cricket who doesn’t know its tiniest quirks and complexities. He further thinks that nobody can learn these quirks and complexities in the US, because American cricket pitches (“pitch” = field) are too degraded to allow proper cricket play.

But look how vividly he evokes precisely what he says we’ll never understand:

What [American cricket pitches] have in common is a rnak outfield that largely undermines the art of batting, which is directly at hitting the ball along the ground with that elegant variety of strokes a skillful batsman will have spent years trying to master and preserve; the glance, the jook, the cut, the sweep, the cover drive, the pull, and all those other offspring of technique conceived to send the cricket ball rolling and rolling, as if by magic, to the far-off edge of the playing field. Play such orthodox shots in New York and the ball will more than likely halt in the tangled, weedly ground cover: grass as I understand it, a fragrant plant wondrously suited for athletic pastimes, flourishes with difficulty; and if something green and grasslike does grow, it is never cut down as cricket requires. Consequently, in breach of the first rule of batting, the batsman is forced to smash the ball into the air (to go deep, as we’d say, borrowing the baseball term) and batting is turned into a gamble. As a rsult, fielding is distorted, too, since the fielders are quickly removed from their infield positions — point, extra cover, midwicket, and the others — to distant stations on the boundary, where they listlessly linger. It’s as if baseball were a game about home runs rather than base hits, and its basemen were relocated to spots deep in the outfield. This degenerate version of the sport — bush cricket, as Chuck more than once dismissed it — inflicts an injury that is aesthetic as much as anything: the American adaptation is devoid of the beauty of cricket played on a lawn of appropriate dimensions, where the white-clad ring of infielders, swanning figures on the vast oval, again and again converge in unison toward the batsman and again and again scatter back to their starting points, a repetition of pulmonary rhythm, as if the field breathed through its luminous visitors.

I’ll grant that few classical critics — very much including me — write as well as Thomson, Denk, or O’Neill. But there’s more than skill involved, or genius. There’s a difference in approach. Classical critics, including me, are generally concerned with a piece of music as an object, which is then interpreted by performers, whose work can be judged on something like a scoresheet. The writers I’ve just quoted are — once more — conveying the experience they have with music (or with cricket), which allows for writing that’s far more evocative and personal.

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  1. says

    The Denk excerpt that you quote (including your parenthetical insertion) is 100 words longer than the limit for the reviews contributed by the Washington Post’s freelance classical reviewers. And he doesn’t even say who played the piece, say when and where the concert occurred, provide any biographical info, or talk about other pieces on the program (and there would have to be other pieces on even the shortest program featuring the Janacek Capriccio).

    Just something to think about when we consider what newspaper criticism can “do.”

    Andrew, I take your point. But I think you’re being a tad literal here. I was citing Denk (and the other things I quoted) as examples of approaches to writing, not as actual writing samples that could be in a newspaper review. I don’t think it would be hard to find passages in what Denk wrote that could be put into a formal review, or even to write a review — including all the “police intelligence” (as George Bernard Shaw used to call the who, what, when, and where) — modeled entirely on Denk’s approach.

  2. says

    Reviewers often take short cuts.

    In the example of the reviewer of my own concert, she had asked for background information before the concert – which we provided. Then, her review seemed to be (60%) pre-written based on information she’d read – making up her mind prior to the concert.

    While some of her comments made sense and were backed up by others in the audience – most people who saw the concert and read her review felt she really missed the point. She took a short cut, made up her mind before she’d entered the hall and had most of her review written before she even sat down.

    And even then, there were so many things she could have said about the music and didn’t. She lack specifics – another short cut. I don’t think she enjoyed herself – but I think she decided she wouldn’t enjoy herself before she came.

    Pop reviewers want to enjoy themselves and enjoy their work (as well as their music). This creates a very different mindset.

  3. J.D. Considine says

    Chip Clark touches on something important when he writes of a review that “seemed to be (60%) pre-written.” Because classical concerts involve programs that are announced in advance, it’s easy (and tempting) for a reviewer to hash out the background stuff in advance, so there’s less actual writing to do on deadline. And it’s not as if editors, whose main concern is getting copy filed on time, are against the practice; indeed, in my brief experience covering classical music, writing stuff in advance “just in case” was actually encouraged by the arts editor.

    Reviewing pop, on the other hand, is completely off the cuff, in part because the reviewer usually doesn’t know in advance what is to be played. (Hell, sometimes you’re not entirely sure afterward what the songs were.) But the deadlines are the same, so you’re pretty much forced, by the nature of the work, to compose everything from scratch.

    That’s not to say I haven’t seen pop reviews that read as if they were largely written beforehand (boilerplate for the first two thirds of the review is usually a give-away, particularly if it avoids any actual description of the event), but the general format of a pop review makes that sort of “cheat” harder to get away with, as readers don’t expect historical background on the works performed.

    Finally, I don’t think it matters — or should matter — whether a reviewer enjoys a concert or not. What makes for a good review is thoughtfulness and an ability to convey a sense of the music and how it was performed. Trouble is, it can be really difficult to do that, and write well, when trying to churn out several hundred words on a tight deadline.

  4. Bob says

    This discussion has prompted me to ask what might seem on its face like an impossibly simple question–who, exactly, are classical music concert reviews written for these days? The performer or performers? Someone who attended the event? Someone who didn’t? Marketing and development departments? Arts administrators? Other critics? All of these? None of these?

    Now, I’ve written concert reviews myself, but I’m beginning to wonder if the review as we’ve known it lo these many years has largely outlived its usefulness.

    Good question. I think most critics would say they were writing for readers. Then there might be various approaches. Some critics would say they were writing for readers who already care about classical music, and maybe follow the concert scene. Others would say they were writing for anyone who happened to turn to the page the review is printed on. When I was pop music critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, late in the ’80s, I took the second view, and my No. 2 critic took the first. The pop version would be that he wrote, he’d say, for people who were fans of that particular band.

    I think more classical critics are taking the second point of view these days, because classical music needs more people to pay attention to it. Editors also like that point of view, because it makes the reviews more readable. How much critics actually succeed in attracting a general readership is another question, though. And I’d ask that about my own writing, both in pop and classical, as well as about critics who are active now.

    As for reviews outliving their usefulness, maybe I’m naive, but I feel that as long as people care about the music being written about, the reviews are useful. If you care about the music, you want to know what’s going on, if only so you know what you might want to hear, the next time it’s available.

    I wonder if newspapers do reader studies, to find out how many people actually read reviews (of all kinds). Among much else, this would be a helpful reality check for critics who want to write for everyone who sees the newspaper. Have they actually succeeded in doing that?

  5. Bill says

    J.D. Considine wrote ‘Finally, I don’t think it matters — or should matter — whether a reviewer enjoys a concert or not.’

    If a reviewer can’t (or shouldn’t) convey something personal about their experience, explore it from a subjective love or hate point of view; I don’t think I see the point of a review. Just to tell us what songs were played, in what order, if all the notes were right?

  6. J.D. Considine says

    Bill misses (or misconstrues) my point. A reviewer ought to be able to file something that is thoughtful, entertaining and true regardless of whether he or she likes, loathes or is indifferent to the music being performed.

    And it’s wrong to suggest that a review must either “convey something personal” or function essentially as a box score. There’s quite a lot of middle ground in which opinion may be expressed without resorting to first-person prose.

  7. says

    I’m a latecomer for this thread and its wonderful comments — easy to get sidetracked from your initial point about pop and classical reviews.

    Classical reviews often lose a level of immediacy because they have to talk about the performer separately from the work (i.e., how well does x perform Schubert). A focus on the classical performer reduces the interest to people who may be more interested in the work than the performance, or for those of us who live in the provinces and get nearly all of our music from recordings. Jeremy Denk’s writing is wonderful because it doesn’t do that, it goes right to the heart of the music under discussion. Many times I have sought out a piece of music (and often a score as well) so I could follow his discussion. For pop music, there is no such split — the performer and compositions are generally part of the same package. When I read a review of a pop concert, especially if it’s a group that I don’t know, I may get a feel for their music and search out a recording.

    The goal for music writing (at least the kind I like to read) is to make me want to hear the music. Steve Smith is another writer who accomplishes this goal, all the more because he writes equally persuasively about pop and classical, his tastes being as eclectic as my own. His writing is also an excellent example of the forum for a “review.” He recently wrote a short piece for the Times about a couple of recent Vaughan Williams releases, but placed a more expanded and more personal (and for me, more interesting) followup piece on his blog. I realize that the Times pays his rent, not the blog (I’m guessing about the economics here), but I think this reinforces your point about reviews. I would also cite Steve’s recent post about the metal band At the Gates, which has made me very curious about the group. Both articles were probably longer than a newspaper would tolerate, but they both sent me searching for the music.

  8. says

    The Virgil Thompson review provides an excellent example of another problem I have with reviews (definitely classical, maybe pop too, I just don’t read enough pop reviews to be sure). The prose is wonderfully evocative, but largely devoid of meaning.

    “The Schubert Sonata in D, opus 53, a far wider and more personally conceived structure [than that of a Mozart sonata Thomson had just been talking about], [Curzon] walked around in.”

    What the heck does “wider and more personally conceived structure” mean? Is he just saying it doesn’t follow regular sonata form? Or is he magically reading into it something about Schubert’s state of mind, that he somehow knows that Schubert was trying to express some sort of personal feelings whereas Mozart was just stringing notes together to get paid?

    “He did not get lost in it or allow us to forget its plan, but he did take us with him to the windows and show us all its sweet and dreaming views of the Austrian countryside, some of them filled with dancing folk.”

    Does this mean anything more than “he played it well?” Is there a way you could play it (other than really badly) that would let us forget the plan? Are there in fact folktunes or ersatz folktunes in the piece, or is Thompson making stuff up? Is the piece actually programmatic in a way that makes clear that Schubert is trying to evoke the countryside, or is Thompson making stuff up?

    “The terraced dynamics and the abstention from downbeat pulsations, just as in the Mozart piece, kept the rendering impersonal at no loss to expressivity, On the contrary, indeed, the dramatization of it as a form, the scaling of its musical elements gave it evocative power as well as grandeur of proportion.”

    What the heck is an “impersonal” rendering (unless he means “mechanical” which he probably doesn’t) and how do changes in dynamics and a lack of steady downbeats make a performance “impersonal?” And a few sentances earlier Thompson said the structure was “personally conceived”–why is an impersonal rendition of a personal piece good?

    “And its enormous variety in the kinds of sound employed, its solid basses, and a dry clarity in the materials of its structural filling prevented monotony from becoming a concomitant of its vastness.”

    What is “dry clarity in the materials of its structural filling?” Is “structural filling” just a fancy way of saying “the music”? Does this sentance mean anything other than “the piece was long, but it had enough different stuff going on that it didn’t get boring?”

    90% of this review doesn’t actually mean anything, it’s just beautifully wrought prose designed to be aesthetically pleasing to the readership for the sake of inspiring the sense that the concert was great. I’m not saying that it’s a bad review–on the contrary I admire Thompson’s style–but it’s good not because Thompson has smart things to say but because he has a good prose style and he’s skilled at making stuff up that sounds meaningful but actually isn’t.

    Very interesting, Galen. Thanks for this.

    I might respond by saying that there’s literal meaning, and poetic meaning. You seem — and I don’t mean this at all harshly — more comfortable with the first than with the second. Or at least you do in this case. “Wider and more personally conceived structure”? No, I don’t think Thomson is pretending he can read Schubert’s mind. I think he’s saying that Schubert’s forms are larger than Mozart’s, and more discursive (that is, they take more time to unfold, which in Schubert’s piano sonatas is surely indisputable, and that they don’t move in a straight line from one set formal element to another). I take that to be the connotations of “wider.” “More personally conceived” would reflect part of Thomson’s reaction to Schubert’s forms, his apparent feeling that Schubert treated the outlines of standard forms in a very personal way, making his use of form very different from the use of similar forms by other composers. (Mozart and Haydn, by comparison, differ in their use of standard forms largely in details — the number of distinct musical themes they’re likely to use — rather than in their treatment of the large formal outlines.)

    “Does this mean anything more than ‘he played it well?'” For me, it’s a description of how, precisely — or rather precisely in a poetic dimension — Curzon played the piece.

    “He did not get lost in it or allow us to forget its plan, but he did take us with him to the windows and show us all its sweet and dreaming views of the Austrian countryside, some of them filled with dancing folk.”

    I find this really very clear. Thomson, for me, is noting, first, that it’s possible to get lost in Schubert’s forms because they’re so discursive. You can miss the forest for the trees. You can linger over long moments and forget where you’re going. Curzon, as Thomson heard his performance, didn’t do that. He never forgot the larger plan of the music. But he did honor its detours. He didn’t neglect the immediate impact of the moments other pianists might get lost in.

    Thomson has (again, as I understand him), two poetic views of these moments. First, that they’re windows looking out toward something different from the material the form is built from. I get an image here of someone walking through a house. The house has a layout, a floor plan. You go from room to room, following the floor plan. But you might pause at a window, and look out at something else. Thomson’s poetic view of this something else — of the material in the sonata that’s not irrevocably rooted in the form — is that it sounds to him like music from the Austrian countryside, with hints of country dances. Curzon, he thinks, made us hear that, without losing sight of the overall form. This surely isn’t an uncommon view of Schubert, even maybe an old-fashioned, sentimental view.

    One difficulty for some readers might be that Thomson moves very quickly. He makes his poetic points without stopping to say that they’re poetic points, and without stopping to make clear the meaning of the metaphors he uses. For some readers (I guess I’m one of them), this makes his writing really strong. For other readers, it makes the writing quite confusing, or else meaningless. We could have similar discussions of literary writers. You’re going to have a much easier time with Joyce, for instance, or Mallarmé, if you just let your mind make its own associations with the words, rather than search immediately for literal meaning. It may seem surprising to be asked to do the same thing in a piece of music criticism, but Thomson does expect it of you, for better or worse.

    One last detail. When Thomson talks of “structural filling,” that’s not a metaphor, but in fact something very specific, something he talks about in other reviews, especially a review he wrote of Schnabel playing Beethoven. Thomson thinks that some of what we hear in classical-period sonata form movements is thematic, and other things are simply structural padding — unremarkable scale passages that serve a structural purpose, and maybe serve it very well, but aren’t in themselves compelling. This may be a very old-fashioned view of sonata form, according to our current ways of thinking. But Thomson did see sonata form that way, and (for instance) criticizes Schnabel for making too much of passages of structural filling, thereby making Beethoven sound heavier, in his earlier sonatas, than he really was. (I’m aware that “heavier” is my own poetic term, and that Galen might — and again I’m not being critical of him — find it unclear. But I don’t have any more time to spend on what’s turned into a very lengthy response, so I’m going to settle for the word, and not try to find something that expresses what I mean more literally.)