1/1/09

In Defense of Anne

We make it a point to check in on Anne Midgette of the Washington Times [Edit: Er, post] every so often, as we do all our friends in the critics’ circle, just to see how she’s getting along. Maybe we’ll find something to poke fun at, but, more often than not, we won’t. She’s a strong writer who covers a ton of concerts and recordings each week. It’s a tough job.

That is why I think this deserves some attention. It’s a published response to one of her reviews in the Opinions/Feedback section.

Her writing was woefully poor, both in its structure and the specifics of her observations.

Since we don’t make it a priority to comment on comments, I’m a bit apprehensive about this endeavor. But, in the past year, we’ve seen many far, far worse tidbits of poor writing. That’s why I think Anne deserves some Detritus Credit (new low introductory rates, for qualified customers only). Here’s what the opinion writer finds troublesome:

This passage in particular represents how turgid and incomprehensible I often find her:

"Much of [Elliott Carter’s] work, to me, is like the product of an elaborate, state-of-the-art camera used to take black-and-white greeting-card images of urban environments: The technology can outweigh the impact of what's actually being conveyed."


Okay, the simile might be a tad convoluted, but I see Anne’s point. And while I disagree with her sentiment, I’m also familiar with a hoard of other writers who wouldn’t be so tactful, or so aware of their falibility.

What’s more, and more importantly, Anne prefaced her opinion of Carter’s music with the all-exclusive pronoun, “me.” It’s her opinion, no one else’s; the reader is free to disagree. Therefore, it’s “silly” to take it as something else other than an honest, indisputable opinion.

Getting through that sentence was a slog, and what I understood struck me as silly.

Well, it’s silly to be hypersensitive about a colorful simile hedged by “me,” too. (I’d have no problems ripping this a new one if she had said, “Carter’s music is an elaborate...”; stated as fact, that would have sent me Segwaying to a gun show in San Antonio.) The point is subtle, I suppose.















Fig. 1. Bloggers Segwaying

When she said of Carter's music that its "hallmark is a complexity too intricate to be apprehended by the ear," she could have been describing the limits of her own ear.

I do not have, by any means, an infallible ear, but it’s pretty decent. And I’ll tell ya something, Joe Opinion Holder, I can’t hear half the “technical” stuff going on in his music, especially without a score of some form of a priori information. Most can’t (I’ve only met one person who could, and that’s freakishly rare.). So, for most (by most, I mean 99.9999% of people), this is a truism. Are you implying that you possess a set of special, one-in-a-million ears? I think not, Joe.

While I applaud your defense of Carter’s music, Joe O. Holder, your critique of Anne is well off-base.

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Also, what’s with the opinion Editors over at the Post? Remember this?
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12 comments:

Chaim said...

Anne Midgette does not have the musical qualifications that would entitle her to express her opinions in the pages of a supposedly major publication. She is in good company, however, as it is a long-standing tradition of the New York Times' music critics to unintentionally declare their own incompetence while believing they were making a comment about the composer.
When Anne Midgette has the temerity to describe Schoenberg's opus 23 piano pieces as "heavy", she does nothing more than declare herself a lightweight.
As for your comments about hearing the "technical stuff" going on in Carter's music, very few people hear the equivalent level of "technical stuff" going on in Beethoven either. But in any case, no matter - the odd thing is that you too seem to think this is somehow a meaningful statement about the music. When you look at architecture, do you think less of it because you cannot conjure up the architect's blueprints?

Empiricus said...

@ Chaim:

One, I don't know Anne's qualifications, per se. "Qualifications" are a bit nebulous and critics have different "qualifications," whether a Bachelor degree, a Master's or sometimes a PhD (DMA) or even current and former performers. Different sources (papers) have different qualifications and that's okay. I don't require our critics to have PhDs, but I'd like them to be thoughtful. However, Anne is entitled to her opinion, as expressed through a pronoun. I can't fault her for an opinion, even if it's a dissenting one (I disagree with this one). I'll disagree with her--simple as that.

Two, musical structures are time-dependent things, which require active memory. It IS difficult to hear the structures in Carter, just as it is to hear structures in Beethoven. The problem occurs where the writer of the opinion piece thinks that arbitrary techniques (aka, musical structures [12-tone rows, whatever], to a degree) are audible, when they are not (I'd rather not cite this, but further debate would entice me to do so). I do not, however, espouse the notion that musical structures are important. As Morton Feldman said, "When someone speaks of technique, they are usually speaking of someone else's." So, what's important here is that the critique of Anne's review seems to place enough importance on "technique," that it's worth discrediting her ability to hear music, whatever that means.

My point: Anne, whether qualified or not, is entitled to an opinion--we're all critics. You may disagree with her all you want, but it doesn't mean she isn't articulate, thoughtful or sympathetic.

Empiricus said...

@ Chaim:

One, I don't know Anne's qualifications, per se. "Qualifications" are a bit nebulous and critics have different "qualifications," whether a Bachelor degree, a Master's or sometimes a PhD (DMA) or even current and former performers. Different sources (papers) have different qualifications and that's okay. I don't require our critics to have PhDs, but I'd like them to be thoughtful. However, Anne is entitled to her opinion, as expressed through a pronoun. I can't fault her for an opinion, even if it's a dissenting one (I disagree with this one). I'll disagree with her--simple as that.

Two, musical structures are time-dependent things, which require active memory. It IS difficult to hear the structures in Carter, just as it is to hear structures in Beethoven. The problem occurs where the writer of the opinion piece thinks that arbitrary techniques (aka, musical structures [12-tone rows, whatever], to a degree) are audible, when they are not (I'd rather not cite this, but further debate would entice me to do so). I do not, however, espouse the notion that musical structures are important. As Morton Feldman said, "When someone speaks of technique, they are usually speaking of someone else's." So, what's important here is that the critique of Anne's review seems to place enough importance on "technique," that it's worth discrediting her ability to hear music, whatever that means.

My point: Anne, whether qualified or not, is entitled to an opinion--we're all critics. You may disagree with her all you want, but it doesn't mean she isn't articulate, thoughtful or sympathetic.

Empiricus said...

Sorry for the duplicate. I was distracted by a horrible cadence by John Adams.

Chaim said...

A critic's opinions are valuable to the extent that she is able to correlate them with objective aspects of the work at hand. This gives the reader a chance to form his own opinions, grounded in fact, however he may ultimately judge the validity of the critic's own subjective statements. My reference to "qualifications" intends this level of professional preparation.
The question is not whether one is entitled to an opinion but whether one has the right to express it in a public forum where one's statements have an impact on the reputation and livelihood of others.
In this sense, Anne Midgette is neither better nor worse than the many New York Times critics who have spewed ignorant poison about contemporary music for many decades.

Empiricus said...

I agree with you for the most part, Chaim. I just don't see how a public medium can screen their critics with such rigorous standards; they can't all be Rhodes Scholars in every subject. That is why I applaud her pronoun use--if she's wrong or sounds unprepared, it's her fault (and it sounds like it from what she says in this review). And I would hope that her readership would be able to distinguish fact from opinion.

Thanks for the thoughtful relpies.

Also, the Post published a reply from another reader, here.

Empiricus said...

Er, here.

Sorry, dead link above.

cereal_music said...

Dear Chaim,

If you've got a big problem with Anne's qualifications, why don't you write the Times a letter explaining why you should take over her position.

Sincerely,
Cereal

Chaim Gogol said...

I just don't see how a public medium can screen their critics with such rigorous standards...

They will do so to the extent that it is in their economic interests. The art and theatre critics of the Times have always had a higher standard of literacy than the classical music critics because of the potential negative effect of bad reviews on gallery and theatre advertising. Imagine the outrage if the critics in those fields panned everything created after 1910. Since the marketplace for dissonant music is non-existent the critics have always been left free to write any unsubstantiated trash they please.
There have been some exceptions of course, worthy writers such as Edward Rothstein at the Times, Andrew Porter and Michael Steinberg at other publications

Chaim Gogol said...

I just don't see how a public medium can screen their critics with such rigorous standards...

They will do so to the extent that it is in their economic interests. The art and theatre critics of the Times have always had higher standards of literacy than the classical music critics because of the potential negative effect of bad reviews on gallery and theatre advertising. Imagine the outrage that would ensue if the critics in those fields panned everything created after 1910. Since the marketplace for dissonant music is non-existent the critics have always been left free to write any unsubstantiated trash they please.
There have been exceptions of course, worthy writers such as Edward Rothstein at the Times, Andrew Porter and Michael Steinberg at other publications.

If you've got a big problem with Anne's qualifications, why don't you write the Times a letter explaining why you should take over her position?
If such a thing were possible, I would not have to write these posts. Besides, I prefer to fight the windmills rather than become one myself.

Chaim Gogol said...

sorry about the duplicate

Murderface said...

Bloggers on Segways on their way to the gun store in front of the Alamo are fun to look at.