Classical and pop reviews (5)

Comments have trailed off…is everybody sick of this?

Here are two New York Times reviews to contrast. First, Steve Smith on a concert of music written by women. A very well-written, evocative review (which someone commenting on a previous post was good enough to praise):

During a panel presented recently at the National Performing Arts Convention in Denver, the American Music Center and the American Composers Forum reported preliminary findings from “Taking Note,” a survey of American composers. The study was undertaken to help those organizations better serve their constituencies. According to its findings, the average American composer is a highly educated 45-year-old white male.

That revelation might not seem especially surprising: the history of classical music has long been portrayed as a chronology of great men, mostly white and European. But women have written music since antiquity, and they steadily grew in prominence during the 20th century. Anyone who regularly attends new-music concerts can attest that female composers are increasingly well represented. At conservatories, by some reports, perhaps half the composition students are women.

Plenty remains to be done before parity is achieved. But in a concert by the NeoLit Ensemble at Bargemusic on Friday night, it was refreshing to encounter a slate of works by seven female composers, presented without any hint of corrective polemic….

The concert began with Ms. Chen’s “Night Thoughts,” a spare evocation of a Tang dynasty poem. Ms. Lukas played tones that bent, swirled and fluttered, accompanied by plucked glissandos on cello and icy piano figures. Midway through, the flute offered a nostalgic melody, which gradually dissolved back into general murmurings….

Ms. du Bois commented from the stage that “The Storm,” her sonata for cello and piano (originally for violin and piano), recast the turbulent emotions she felt at 18 as a roiling tempest. Romantics might have deemed this sturm und drang; nowadays, to borrow a term from rock, it was pure emo. Ms. Bass and Ms. Mihailova were equal to the work’s impassioned demands.

Steve notes that gender seemed trumped, at this concert, by ethnicity. Chen Yi is Chinese, and Shulamit Ran, whose music was also played, is Israeli, ” and each called on musical aspects of her heritage.”

And now here’s a review of a Liz Phair concert, by Jon Pareles.

Phair sang all the songs from her 1993 debut album, “Exile in Guyland” Exile in Guyville (correcting both the name of the album — thanks, Molly — and the format for album titles: italics, not quotes, though newspapers, for some reason, put them in quotes):

The “Exile” songs were amateurish in the best ways. The lyrics were blunt and unguarded: tales of a young woman veering from sexual bravado to wounded bewilderment at men’s behavior to keen observation of power struggles within couples. The song structures often strayed from verse-chorus-verse, and unconventional tunings led to odd guitar chords. Her voice was untrained, mingling tenacity and diffidence…. At one point she polled the audience members on how many had bought the original album (nearly all), how many used it to get over a breakup (a significant response), how many couples had met over it (few) and how many had played it during sex (enough to surprise her)….

After 15 years of other people’s indie-rock idiosyncrasies, “Exile” still holds up in all its conflicting impulses: its determination to be “adamantly free” and its longing for someone to trust, its swagger and its pain.

The contrast couldn’t be clearer. Maybe the classical concert was more compelling than Liz Phair’s event. Maybe readers interested in classical music would rather have been there. Maybe Steve’s review is more evocative than Jon’s. But nobody, I’d think, can deny that Jon’s review connects more directly to the lives we lead than the classical review does — or that Liz Phair’s music has more direct, more vivid things to say about being a woman than the classical pieces apparently do.

(And for classical people who wish pop reviews talked more about the sound and structure of music, Jon in fact does that. See the first paragraph I’ve quoted, above, and also Jon’s comments on “the sparse arrangements of the original album: the exposed guitars and snare-drum sputters,” and on Liz Phair’s voice, “sinewy in the angrier songs and sustained in the quiet ones.”)


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  1. Brendan says

    I was going to comment on the last post but was having trouble putting my thoughts in order in my spare minutes at work.

    Basically I think the problem with this discussion is that you are starting from some questionable premises that you take for granted.

    First, you’re assuming that criticism is a useful tool for getting people interested in a particular kind of music, to begin with. That might be true in some cases, but I suspect that much more often, people read criticism of stuff they already think they might have some affinity for. I could be wrong, but do you have any data–surveys, maybe–that suggests otherwise?

    Second, I’m not sure the difference between classical and pop criticism is as stark as you make it out to be. That Lester Bangs piece you linked to in the last post is really more of a personal essay than a review, and I don’t think it’s very representative of pop music criticism as a whole. A better point of comparison would be Robert Christgau’s consumer guide reviews, or, these days, online review sites like Pitchforkmedia and Stereogum. The latter two in particular tend to talk a LOT about the sound and structure of the music they review.

    Third, I think you’re exaggerating the role that pop shows play in most people’s enjoyment of pop music. Most people who love pop music listen mostly or even exclusively to recordings. Yes, urban hipster kids love going to rock shows, but they are a pretty small group and couldn’t sustain the music industry on their own by a long shot. And a recording is in many ways just as reified as a classical score.

    Inasmuch as pop shows do play a role in keeping pop music vital, I have to take issue with this: “But if your job — as it is in pop — is to create an event, then anything goes.” This is just not true! In pop, exactly as in classical music, you can make artistic choices that are compelling and choices that are not. So, to take a band I saw recently that does a fair amount of screaming, No Age–if they decided to sing with a clean, classical sound it would suck. In fact the screaming is pretty integral to what they are trying to do. They are working within genre constraints just like a classical singer. This is probably even more true with rap, which is the most popular pop music genre right now–a rapper who couldn’t keep up meter and rhyme would be deemed a failure.

    Fourth and finally, I think you ignore or understate the extent to which the differences that do exist between pop and classical music result from the music itself. The reason people talk about classical music as though it were more distant from our world than pop music is because it is. This is not fundamentally a marketing problem. It is an inherent limitation of performing music that was conceived a long time ago in a society very different from ours. There will always be those of us who love it for our own reasons, but those reasons will necessarily be more interior and harder to share than the collective experience of pop music.

    A quick post script about comments: I think the commenting system in which every comment must be approved before it appears really puts a damper on discussion. I don’t know if that’s a blanket Arts Journal policy or if you have control over it, but I think it’s a bad idea. Other blogs that are MUCH more likely to attract vicious comments and spam, e.g. political blogs, have open comments and do OK. As it is, commenters can’t really engage in discussion with one another.

    Very good, thoughtful points, Brendan. Thanks. I do think you’re reading far too much into what I’ve written. For instance, do I assume that criticism is a useful tool for getting people interested? No. I just notice that criticism appears in print, and that conclusions can be drawn from it. The proper heading for my views of classical criticism would be “there’s a problem with the way the classical music world talks about itself” (which is especially notable in marketing and publicity and program notes), not “classical criticism is keeping people away.”

    You also misunderstand me when I said that anything goes. I meant for pop music as an aggregate. Of course it’s obvious that each genre, sometimes each band, has its own norms. Which, by the way, feel very different from classical music norms. Classical musicians are carefully taught (yes, the South Pacific reference is deliberate) to avoid anything rough or too personal, even when the music might call for it. For instance, clarinetists in major orchestras have told me they’d like to make the sections about critics in Heldenleben much more raucous, but that conductors won’t let them do it, fearing that the orchestra will appear not to play well. Same with at least some bassoonists, and the opening solo in Rite of Spring. But I don’t know if singers in death metal bands have been carefully coached not to sound too pleasant.

    As for your fourth point, sure. Pretty obvious. But still a problem! First, classical music does have some present-day function, however obscure or infrequently talked about. Second, the classical music world wants more listeners. So they’d better stress the benefits of listening to classical music, and the differences between one classical music experience and another. Finally, and I can’t say this enough, it used to be different. In the past, classical music had a much more vivid present-day existence, even though the conditions you describe still existed.

    Comments. I have no control over this. I wouldn’t mind giving up the approval process. It was needed before the captcha was introduced, and we got hundreds of spam comments each week. They’ve now disappeared, and there’s almost never been a comment that I didn’t want to post. (One-line teen idiocy.) But what’s the problem? The worst that happens is comments get delayed a few hours before they go on the site. Does that really hamper conversations among the commenters? Opinions on this, everyone? I’d be happy to ask for the approval process to be removed.

  2. Aaron says

    The difference in how Steve and Jon talk about the emotional impact of each concert points to something more fundamental. Jon makes a plain personal statement about his experience listening to the songs. Steve is journalistic. The music has “impassioned demands.” He tells us what the composer alleges about a piece’s emotional meaning. In the pop review, music is an event that affected people. In the classical review, music looks like an exercise – performers are “equal to the impassioned demands.” It’s possible, – likely even – but not clear that Steve had exactly the same personal reaction to the chamber concert as Jon did to Liz Phair. Does something need to change to allow classical listeners to express that reaction? Should they just do it, especialy if that kind of writing is more interesting than the formalist readings of music that comprise many classical reviews?

  3. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    First of all, Greg, I love that you were able to put these two well-written reviews next to each other! They go so well together and illustrate your point so beautifully that my comment almost writes itself.

    I think there’s a widespread and really dumb taboo in classical music against either writing new music that has any identifiable relationship to one’s sex, or sexuality, or ethnicity, etc., or against writing about someone else’s music critically through one of those lenses.

    Do we like to think that classical music transcends things like time, place, and culture? Is classical music sullied if it doesn’t?

    It’s not really ethnomusicological, sure, but the Liz Phair reviewer certainly did talk about how her music related to her audience and to her own gender while still managing to get in the nuts-and-bolts talk about form and structure and timbre. The classical reviewer, by contrast, certainly held up his end of the bargain when it came to the technical descriptions of the music, but I was never given a reason why I should care that these are all women composers. I know, I know, women composers have been historically ignored, and so an all-woman program is interesting in itself, but what made this concert different from a typical all-male program? What made this different, fresh, exciting, in a way that an all-male-composer concert wouldn’t be because we hear that all the time?

    The big bugaboo in all this is that I don’t think it’s even the reviewer’s fault that he didn’t talk about this, mostly because, from reading his review, the composers (and the people planning the concert) didn’t give him any reason to write about it. They wrote music that reflected their ethnicities, for sure, and that’s perfectly valid, but why didn’t they use their common (and minority) gender as a lynchpin to create their concert experience around? Why was the concert about what they DIDN’T have in common, rather than what they did? An evening-length concert of pieces by women composers that all dealt with–even glancingly–what it means to be a woman or a woman composer? THAT would be a really exciting, compelling event!

    This is a big example of what I think is wrong with classical programming, which is a whole other can of worms to open, but which is also I think inextricably tied to the issue of classical reviews lacking substance when it comes to talking about the relationship of classical music to the outside world: how can John Q Reviewer write about Orchestra X’s concert in such terms until Orchestra X actually revises its programming to be, you know, compelling?

    I think the reviews would get more interesting simply because the concerts would be more cohesive, interesting events. Pop music has a real advantage here–and not just because of the lyrical content–but I think it’s something the classical world really could and should learn from the pop world.

    P.S. — I’m starting my Masters in Composition at Juilliard this fall. I’ve been a fan of your blog for a long time, and I’m really excited to take your class!

    Hi, Jeremy. Thanks for this. And I’ll look forward to meeting you at Juilliard! My fall semester class is about music criticism, but it ranges pretty widely in the music we listen to, and the things we talk about. The spring semester class is about the future of classical music, and is more like this blog, but you might like the fall class as well. Even if you don’t take it, come back and say hello! I’m in room 523, Wednesdays at 11. (Anyone else at Juilliard is equally welcome.)

    If you haven’t read Susan McClary, you might like what she writes. She’s a musicologist, who was a pioneer in finding real-world meaning in classical music. And she was vilified for that. People really objected, for instance, when she wondered whether Schubert’s music might not have been shaped partly by what seems to have been his gay sexuality. Somehow people thought that was both absurd, and demeaned the music. (Which sounds to me like anti-gay bias.) And then you have Ned Rorem, who of course has made his gayness a central part of his public persona, but would be angry at anyone who found anything gay about his music. Whereas, if he were a novelist, or a filmmaker, or a poet…

  4. Gavin Borchert says

    Well, of course Liz Phair’s lyrics have more direct, more vivid things to say about being a woman than the purely instrumental classical pieces do, but is it fair to take the composers of wordless music to task because their work can’t make personal/political statements with the directness of words? I wonder if Phair has written any instrumentals, and if so how they’d stack up?

    Look, the two reviews exist. Pop and classical music exist. They function very differently. That leads to different kinds of writing about them. It might not be “fair” to note that classical music writing doesn’t draw real-world connections, and it might be more “fair” to note that the real world connections are harder to draw with classical music, but the fact remains — this writing exists, and the classical music variety seems more remote than the pop music stuff.

    So people writing about classical music might want to find ways to make real-world connections, even if the music is instrumental. Especially since, as I’ve said before (1) there are pop instrumental genres (surf music, dance music in all its variety), and pop critics don’t hesitate to find meaning in the instrumental sound (2) all pop songs have an instrumental sound, and pop critics don’t hesitate to find meaning in it, quite apart from the lyrics (and sometimes even in opposition to them), and (3) in the past people didn’t hesitate to find real-world, direct meaning in the sound of classical works.

  5. Rob Teehan says

    Not sick of it, but unable to keep up! It’s such a difficult and nebulous topic that I’ve mulled over a few comments only to see a new post appear before I actually got to the part of writing anything down. It seems to me like you’ve hit an idea “gusher”. Don’t stop now!

    Question – is this still about two different kinds of criticism, or are we now talking about two different kinds of music? I sense, Greg, that you’re trying to make the point that pop music is more relevant to our daily lives (NOT necessarily “better”, or anything else for that matter) than classical music, and using examples of criticism to prove that point. If I’m not misreading you, then I agree with you: when people go to a concert of pop music, they expect to hear something immediate, accessible, relevant. That’s the music’s job, and the critic’s job is to tell us how well the music did its job.

    Classical music, on the other hand – well, this is tricky, but it seems that we go to classical concerts to experience something OTHER than immediate, relevant music. Just like we go to museums for different reasons than we go to movies. And so, the criticism of this music should tell us how well the music did its job – which in this case is not necessarily to be relevant to our lives but to provide an experience which is beyond the everyday. (I am copping out of defining classical music in terms of its social function right now. Maybe later.)

    As you explained in post #4, classical critics (and audiences) are operating under the pretense that “appreciating” a piece of music as a work of art is the goal of the concert hall experience. Therefore it makes sense that the criticism of classical music should focus on the execution of a piece of music, rather than its relevance to contemporary life. But this is problematic – isn’t ART supposed to be relevant to contemporary life? Maybe some art is (pop) and some art isn’t (classical). (Or – maybe some art is alive, and some art is dead. But I don’t know if I’m ready to go there just yet).

    There’s my hypothesis: new classical music that seeks to make statements relevant to contemporary life must first escape, or reinvent, the traditional social experience of the mainstream concert hall and academia. This is why some of the hippest new/post-classical music takes place in small underground venues or clubs, or other alternative venues such as art galleries, rather than big concert halls (I’m getting close to Gann’s Uptown vs. Downtown distinction here).

    If this hypothesis is correct, than the criticism of the above music should reflect this different goal, and should therefore not be so fixated on the technical execution of music, but should more closely resemble the criticism of pop music, which is more interested in relevance to contemporary life (that phrase again, but it works).

    Greg, if you’ll forgive me for being too young to be very familiar with your writings in the Village Voice – can I ask, did your earlier criticism of the more adventurous new classical music bear this out?

    P.S. Your anti-spam thing made me type the words “Perform 1920”. Funny, that’s a pretty accurate summary of my six years studying music in university…

    Perform 1920. Could even have been Perform 1820! Thanks for the laugh, Rob. And for everything else you wrote.

    I think that if new music formed the bulk of classical programming, reviews (and all discussion of classical music) would be very different. Much more oriented toward the real world.

    Interesting point, about the different reasons we go to the movies, and go to a museum. But we shouldn’t forget that museums can be strongly contemporary, even the ones famous for showing older art. I notice that on the Metropolitan Museum website today, the featured work is a Milton Avery painting of an amusement park (Coney Island), from 1929. A few weeks ago, that museum featured three shows on its site — Raphael (an old master, of course), Jeff Koons (very sexy art, that some people compare to porn), and a show at the costume collection, tracing the influences of superhero costumes on fashion. So they were making direct connections to modern life.

    Returning to the meaning new music immediately starts to have, even if it’s instrumental music…I’m thinking of the early 1980s, when minimalism started to have a big impact on the classical music world. It was angrily, disdainfully rejected by the composition establishment. You’d hear people saying that the music was mindless, that they could plainly hear in Philip Glass’s work that he’d written it only for money. While Philip, in turn, had very strong language to describe how much he hated Boulez’s work. He used language we’d usually reserve for some noxious insect. Nobody had to search very long to find these comments, or to force them out of the people who made them. These thoughts were plainly in the air, and the music lived among them.

  6. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    This is slightly off-point, but it might turn out to be relevant. What about jazz (and jazz criticism)? One thing I have been wondering about for a while is why jazz, and especially indie-jazz, does not come up very often in this discussion. It might seem like an unpromising way to find more fans for classical music, but I think there is some common ground here that has not been explored. There are, for example, thriving (in a modest sort of way) avant-garde jazz scenes in Chicago and New York that work in a grass roots sort of way to support a music that is very challenging and exciting (and relevant?). Also, these musicians tend to completely ignore the boundaries between genres, freely mixing it up with indie-rock musicians (see recent albums by Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth). Further, many of the musicians involved in experimental jazz are actively exploring connections between classical and jazz in their music (see Ken Vandermark’s blog for an example). The last Vandermark 5 album, for example, includes a piece dedicated to Ligeti that provocatively mixes Ligeti-like parts for electric cello with an energetic blast of sound that recalls the Mahavishnu Orhestra at its best. I played it for my students the other week, who are by the way high school students in Kentucky, and they were immediately interested and enthusiastic. For better or worse, most of my students do not discover new music by reading reviews in the New York Times, pop or otherwise. Exposure to something new and exciting, assisted by word of mouth buzz, seems more important to them.

    Good points. Thanks. I think I don’t mention jazz for a simple reason — I don’t know much about it. I’m glad you could supply what I’m not able to write!

    Yes, younger people don’t get their information from newspapers. Nor, apparently, do older people, to judge from some studies I’ve seen. If you ask people of all ages how they decide what music they want to hear, what concerts they want to go to, the leading answer is “word of mouth.” Which puts an additional burden on classical music! First, because classical music institutions, or the vast majority of them, absolutely don’t know how to do viral marketing, or even how to use the web effectively. And second, because it’s hard for classical music to enter the viral stream, because it’s hard to say what’s going on at a classical concert. Why is one concert different from another? If the classical music world can create answers for that question, and inject them into the viral stream, that’ll be a big step toward the modern world.


  7. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    This started out as just a little addition to clarify my main point–which I think might have gotten lost in there somewhere–and turned into something rather larger. Any help reigning this in?

    Since I didn’t see the concert, I’m only going off the review. And while the reviewer does talk about the historical neglect of women composers and even the recent trend towards gender parity in the new music scene and conservatories, I really just object to the phrase “corrective polemic.”

    I remember going to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City to hear a poetry slam competition, and one of the best poets was an Asian-American man. His poem, which he delivered with seething anger and wild bursts of ego, was about many things, but towards the end it became a tirade about stereotypes of Asian men. It was a crazy, amazing performance, and the audience ate it up, whooping and hollering along with him in encouragement. When he got to the climax, on the line “And yes, my c**k is ENORMOUS,” it was like the roof was going to be blown off by the force of the applause. It was the definition of a corrective polemic, and yet it was relevant, alive, shimmering, and it totally connected with the audience.

    Of course, that performance at the Nuyorican was way, way, way at the other extreme of what we’re talking about. But surely there’s a whole lot of gray area between a program of all-female composers that isn’t tangibly informed by their experience as women composers and, on the other hand, the explosive slam performance of that Asian man.

    I think that, as a composer, I’m by default viewing this from a composer’s perspective, and this is all part of a messianic tendency within classical music to dehumanize the composer by elevating him/her above humanistic concerns. Liz Phair can compose and sing about relationships because pop music doesn’t do that to its writers. In a way, it does the opposite: pop musicians are superhuman, really talented versions of ourselves. It helps that Liz Phair is also performing her own material.

    I imagine most classical composers don’t write about their own experiences because classical music is supposed to transcend the worldly. I can’t think of another art form where the taboo against writing about/from one’s own experience is so strong.

    Fabulous point! No one, absolutely no one, would expect anything like your Asian-American poet at a classical concert. Though it’s possible on the indie classical scene. To support your point, look at David Del Tredici. In recent years, he’s been writing music about being gay, sometimes with references to penises (the last time I visited him, his screen saver was a garland of pensises), sometimes with explicitly sexual lyrics. These lyrics are nothing shocking to anyone who reads novels, but they’ve caused consternation in the classical world. And I think David’s music doesn’t get around as much as it used to, because of its content.

    One other point about David’s work, to illustrate a point I keep making, that the sound of music, quite apart from lyrics, has a direct, visceral meaning. David wrote a song cycle a while ago, fully classical in style, but featuring a singer who sang in a pop music voice. I was at the first performance of this music (not of the complete cycle, but a few songs from it). I was sitting next to a well-known classical critic. He literally flinched when the singer began to sing. The sound of that voice, in a classical context, bothered this critic tremendously. Quite apart from any lyrics…

  8. Bill says

    Rob Teehan wrote ‘Question – is this still about two different kinds of criticism, or are we now talking about two different kinds of music?’

    I also get the feeling it’s headed in that direction and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Might be time to lay all the cards on the table: is classical relevant anymore in the lives of most people? How many of your friends can point to a classical work that is an integral part of their life compared to a popular work?

    There are classical works I really love but looking at the numbers there’s no comparison.

    If classical music can’t speak to a large number of listeners in a deep way on a daily basis it’s just not doing its job.

    And here’s one more vote for no more post screening!

    Another reason for post screening, I have to say, is that I get to add my comments when a comment is posted. Maybe that helps the discussion, maybe it doesn’t. Opinions?

    I think most people who love classical music — or many people, certainly — have a classical piece that means a lot in their lives. I know I do. And most classical musicians do. One of my Juilliard students got close to tears when she told me how much she loved the Schubert arpeggione sonata. I think there’s a way to communicate these feelings to the world at large. I wouldn’t expect large numbers of people to then share those feelings — but then I wouldn’t expect large numbers of people to share any particular taste in pop, either. When REM’s “Everybody Hurts” came out, I listend to it (on my car’s cassette player) about seven times in a row, and then wrote in a review that it was destined to become a great consoling song like “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” a song that everybody loved. Which never happened. So you never know, in pop music as well as classical music.

  9. says

    Sorry, Greg, but I just can’t figure out the

    whole point of your comparisons between Pop

    and classical music criticism. And I am uneasy

    about taking brief excerpts out of context

    and trying to make sweeping generalizations.

    As I’ve said before, there’s no use judging classical by the standards of other musics.

    If more people of whatever age would just

    keep an open mind and give classical music a

    chance, they might really love it.

    When I was about 13,I discovered classical

    LPs in my public library, and got hooked for life. I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions about what kind of music I was supposed to like. I’ve never had anything against other

    kinds of music; at least I’ve actually heard

    them. But many people are just unaware of classical or they’ve heard rumors that it’s stuffy,boring and elitist, and that you shouldn’t even try it.

    Isn’t Susan McClary the feminist musicologist

    who heard violence against women in Beethoven’s 9th ? How can you read homosexuality into Schubert ? There are rumors

    about his sexual orientation, but that is all

    they are. We know little about Schubert’s

    life compared to other composers, and he MAY

    have been gay, but I doubt we will ever know

    with any certainty. And Schubert is believed to have gotten his fatal syphilis from a female


    What has gotten into musicologists today ?

    Saying that Beethoven’s music is about violence to women makes about as much sense

    as saying that Tolstoy’s War and Piece is a

    novel about baseball.
    Robert, I’ll have to say again what I’ve been saying here constantly. I’m not saying pop music is better than classical music. And I’m not judging classical music at all. I’m talking about the way the two kinds of music are written about, and how many readers are likely to react. I’m not saying anything about what happens when people hear classical music.

    As for poor Susan McClary, may I ask if you’ve actually read the papers in which she talks about Beethoven and Schubert? I urge you not to judge anyone’s work by some caricature of their conclusions that you’ve happened to hear about. Susan absolutely never, for instance, said that Beethoven’s music is “about” violence against women. I know this very well, because I was the editor of the publication Susan wrote that paper for. If you read this paper, and the one about Schubert, you might or might not agree with Susan’s conclusions. But at least you’d see what Susan is saying. The paper with the Beethoven stuff is in fact mostly not about Beethoven. It’s about a composer in Minnesota, where Susan lived at the time she wrote the paper. The Beethoven comment — which doesn’t say what you think it does — comes toward the end, and is very brief.

    A lot of crap (to be blunt) has circulated about Susan and her work, because of these two papers. It’s about on the level of people thinking Obama is a Muslim. Susan, after all, is a serious scholar — one of the world’s absolutely top musicologists, winner of the MacArthur prize, no less, and former head of the musicology department at UCLA (a position I’m sure she could have kept forever, if she’d wanted it; now she just teaches there, and relinquished the department head duties to her husband, Robert Walser). You can disagree with her, if you like, but read her first, and don’t believe the caricatures you hear about.

  10. Seth Rothberg says

    Hi Greg,

    Has the Del Tredici song cycle you mention been recorded. I’m afraid I’m the opposite of the critic who flinched. Try as I might, I usually don’t get classical-type singing. It just sounds pretentious, like something to laugh at in a Marx Brother’s movie. Maybe Del Tredici’s cycle will help me a little with that.

    I wonder how many other people think the same thing? I can understand. Pop music makes an informal singing style the norm, and classical music singing, by contrast, can seem highly formal, even pompous. And it certainly can seem less expressive.

    David’s song cycle — called “Brother,” and sung by John Kelly — is recorded on a CD called “Secret Music.” Here’s a link to it:

  11. says

    Fascinating discussion.

    W/R/T classical singing, put me in the camp that finds it pretentious, unnatural, impenetrable, grating, etc. My line about about opera is: the music is nice, if only they’d shut up!

    Unfair, I know. But what’s interesting to me is that I have a much higher tolerance for baroque and other early music singers, with their minimal vibrato, pure tone, and minimal histrionics overall.

    It also seems a shame that while pop music celebrates diversity and unique vocal stylings (for the most part), classical singing is rigidly policed, mannered, and values technique over expression. IMO, of course. But this merely comes down to taste, I suspect.

    I am reminded of Joe Queenan’s diatribe in the Guardian regarding contemporary music. The near complete absence of contemporary music on mainstream classical performances – and the disdain the classical music establishment exhibits for modernism in general – only reinforces the notion that classical music is irrelevant to most people’s daily lives. Classical music serves as a status/class symbol for aspiring elites and the programming and the concert halls only serve to affirm this self-regard. The music itself is, at best, secondary.

    When the local symphony orchestra calls me to ask for money or sell me tickets, I always, say, “When you start programming music that’s something other than the same old warhorses, I’ll give money and buy tickets. But, I’m not going to waste my time and money on yet another performance of Beethoven’s Fifth. EVER.” They always seem shocked to hear this. Obviously, I am not the target audience.

    To be fair, I attended performances of Messiaen and Elliott Carter that were wonderful, if not terribly well-rehearsed. But the obligatory Mozart and/or Haydn and/or Beethoven and/or Brahms seemed utterly out of place and an obvious sop to the usual audience. Of course, that gambit failed: the hall was only half-full. The subscribers may have stayed away, but those that attended these concerts of thorny, difficult, modern works were young, arty, hipster-types that probably avoid the Beethoven in the same way the subscribers avoid Elliott Carter.

    But, I digress. I appreciate that you address these issues seriously, as the rest of the classical establish seems to want to avoid this discussion at all costs, all the while proclaiming its superiority over pop music and everything else. It’s sad.

  12. gary panetta says

    I haven’t looked at this blog for a few weeks, so probably everyone has lost interest in the pop criticism vs. classical criticism thread.

    My own sense is that classical music criticism is best when it addresses the issues that good pop criticism does: what the music communicates on a gut level, what kind of world view it embraces and the like.

    The German critic Paul Bekker did this, and his work still makes for pleasurable reading. “The Rest is Noise” by Alex Ross also does a good job at getting at how the music feels and what it means in a wider context. If all I get out of a review is a highly technical discussion of a soprano’s voice, I feel let down.

    Gary, the discussion is raging hot and heavy. You got right in the middle of it! Thanks for joining us.

  13. says

    Another reason for post screening, I have to say, is that I get to add my comments when a comment is posted. Maybe that helps the discussion, maybe it doesn’t. Opinions?

    Yeah, I don’t like that either. (Not your actual comments, your comments are fine.) But the format — appending your words to someone else’s comment in blockquote italics — is, as far as I know, unique to ArtsJournal and is really confusing for newcomers. Keep up the replies, but put them in their own, separate post. This is what everyone else does everywhere else in the blogosphere and it works fine.

    Thanks, DJA. For this and your other comment today. Ironically, I’m replying exactly as you don’t want me to, but that’s only for now. I’ve asked ArtsJournal about eliminating comment approval, and of course it’s possible. They’re worried that, without approval, people will start posting flames that they didn’t post before. I doubt it. So I’m thinking now that I’ll change the system, and get rid of approvals, in September. I’ll wait till then because I’m shortly going on vacation, and won’t touch the blog for a month. I’d rather wait till I’m back to get the new system going.

    Please, everyone, tell me if you don’t think (or so think) that this is a good idea. And DJA, I’ll try the system for responding that you suggested. One problem, from my point of view, is that my responses will be more general, and I’ll miss many specific interesting points. I’ll also be overwhelmed with posting new posts, maybe. But I can try it, and see how it goes. Thanks for the feedback!