Mr. Holland's Opus

My last post criticized a long-standing NYT music critic. But who am I to lambaste such a bastion of the nation's leading daily? I began to feel unworthy, a silly blogger who cherry-picked an article, perhaps not representative of the author's oeuvre, to deride. Yes, perhaps my snarky commentary was undeserved.

Until I found this. It is quite recent, and made me quite angry.

CRITICS are sometimes asked how they prepare for premieres.

I'm pretty sure the passive voice is frowned upon in writing. Someone's getting Strunk & White for Christmas!

In my business a new piece is a threat;

That sounds like a problem--

it strips the writer naked.


Unlike Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, it springs from nowhere and asks on the spot to be loved, hated or endured.

Wait. What? Brahms' Fourth sprang from...what exactly? It, too, was once "new music" and bore all of the responsibility and onus that new music bears today. And really, does a new piece ask anything more than to be listened to? Didn't (anecdotally) Boston's Symphony Hall once feature signs above the exit that read Exit Here in Case of Brahms?

Is prior knowledge a kind of cheating, or does a look at the score or a visit to the rehearsal hall create a cushion of experience, something that makes new music more “understandable”?

No, I'm pretty sure it's the opposite of cheating. Familiarity with the composer/style/genre can only inform your first listening. Your expectation will inevitably inform your hearing. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony was met with a mixture of elation and disdain. More recently, Shostakovich's opera was widely lambasted in the Soviet press. If you expect Puccini and get Cage, you'll be frustrated and unhappy.

If you have already heard (or read) the piece, maybe a premiere is not a premiere at all, but that flash of newness warmed over.

(Referee): Flag: personal foul, un-diagrammable sentence. Five yard penalty.

In any case, is newness for newness' sake a virtue? Or not?

At any rate, preparation signals a critic’s work ethic, an obligation to reach out (or up) to a composer, to speak his or her language, to enter someone else’s territory and ask for directions.

This seems reasonable. Given the abundance of styles in which contemporary composers are writing, each piece should be considered on its own merits, and within its own style (which could be defined by one piece!). Consider that, in the same time frame (say, the 60s), one could attend a concert and encounter such disparate approaches as those of John Cage, Terry Riley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Crumb, Pauline Oliveros, or maybe even The Beatles. John Coltrane. Captain Beefheart. Artists define their own styles and genres. So, Holland, I'm with you!

The more I follow this line of thought, the more irritated I get, for haven’t we got things backward?

I am not with you.

Shouldn’t composers be preparing for me rather than me for them?

I think you mean "I for them." Strunk & White for Christmas!

Also: what? Composers, I suppose, should conduct market research to determine what kind of music people would like to hear. The "artist" should not "create" or "express" anything, the artist should, I guess, fulfill niches in the market? Follow current trends? Satisfy demand? Gee, I'd hate to think an artist would, I don't know, challenge a listener. Or critic. Which is like a listener, but worse.

By “me,” I mean not me the critic but me the audience member in general. A new piece owes less to critics than to anybody else. Listeners paid for their tickets; usually we haven’t.

Uh, wow. The composer should prepare for...the audience? People who make "art" (such as it is) should...pander? I thought we were talking about "art" music. If your goal is to be popular, composer is probably not your best career choice. People write music. People who write music like to get their music performed, and heard. People who write music are pleased when people like it, I reckon. However, getting people to like you is not the goal of writing music. Is it?

Repeated hearing can correct or deepen first impressions.

Okay. Sure.

It can just as easily confirm initial boredom or distaste.

Fine. Have opinions and taste. That's awesome with me.

I can listen and be dead wrong,

I don't know what that means. I don't know if what you're saying means anything. What would that mean, to be "dead wrong" by listening? You...were wrong about...the structure? The form? The...point? Meaning? What? Taste? Purple Monkey Dishwasher?

but I reserve the right to that immediate impulse and so should everyone around me.

The impulse to be dead wrong? Predicate something something.

In classical music the onus of responsibility has been shifted from creator to receptor.

Wow. Well, reception theory is one thing. The "myth of authorial intent" is another. The meaning of a work, I guess, is as much dependent on the listener as the creator. But that's not what you're pushing here, is it? No. It's not. You want to be pandered to. You wish it was 1774 and you're at the new Haydn symphony.

Do I owe the waiter a good tip, or does he owe me good service?

This is the worst argument ever. Arts = service industry. "Hey! Asshole! Your painting sucks! I want my price of admission back!" If you don't like coffee, don't go to Starbucks. If you don't like new music, don't go to new music concerts. Oh, it's your job? Sucks to be you! Maybe you should have been a laborer.

Give me your hand, your time and your devotion, says the ambitious composer, and I shall lift you to a level of understanding that will make you love me.

I know lots of composers, and none of them have said anything remotely like this to anyone, ever. Not even metaphorically. Mostly they're like, "Fuck! I have to get this commission for a wind quintet done by Tuesday!"

Beware of disliking my new piece lest you betray your ignorance. If anyone asks you what you think, just reply that you need to understand me better. Then change the subject.

Total crap. Anyone who says or thinks this is a total piece of shit, and their music probably blows. I am not naming names.

Composers ought to write anything they want.

Yes! Wow, how generous of you. (I'm not even a composer, just a lowly music theorist.)

And how nice it is that lovers of Duparc or Ned Rorem can gather in small recital halls and listen to the songs they wrote.

Oh, you're being disparaging. How cute. Let me return the favor.

Let explorers of microtonal imagery or computer-generated randomness revel in their exclusivity.

Modernism is terrible. Mozart was awesome. And Beethoven? Don't get me started. Computer music: for nerds. Microtones? Experimentation is totally without the Western musical tradition. Just ask Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms...Ives (oh, you probably hate him too)...

The Internet seems made for niches of specialized interests; and if Milton Babbitt disciples want to crawl into one and exchange examples of combinatoriality, let us leave them to it.

You wouldn't know a combinatorial hexachord if it bit you in the ass, you hack. Also: only nerds who live in their mom's basement are on the internet! And nobody likes serial music. Nobody!

Simply know that if broad acclaim and the universal acknowledgment of genius have been denied you, you have not an uncomprehending public to blame but the choices you yourself have made and, more important, your own gifts or lack of same.

Most composers compose because it's what they do. Few have hopes or even ambition of recognition in the short term. Innovators are not afraid of your small-mindedness. Experimental composers could care less what the fuck you think. Your appraisal of "lack of gifts" is laughable. If you know so much about music and what makes music good and what music people like, why don't you write some fucking music?

Be grateful for your teaching job.

Fuck you. I am grateful for my teaching job. If you continue to belittle me, I will continue to make fun of you on the internets.

Thinking small can bear with it great dignity, and in the age of the computer and audiences of one, maybe the idea of universal genius is passé.

You are stuck in the canon. You think it is 1885. You have never heard music from another culture. You, inexplicably, work for the most respected newspaper in America. We are not here for you.

For thinking big, you need to need the people. I sometimes wonder where Sibelius’s music might have taken him had he not been financially supported by his government. Many intelligent listeners admire the increasing remoteness of his later pieces. I personally miss the communicative power of the Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

Thinking Big = Wanting to Be Loved? You're basically saying that composers should aspire to be Rupert Murdoch. Put any trashy shit on TV, then give a bunch of money to right-wing candidates whose constituencies would hate the trash that you peddle. Coddle the masses. Don't challenge anyone. And for gods' sakes, don't piss off the old-school critics. They might compare you to Sibelius!

It is satisfying when composers can pay their mortgages and send their children to college. Starvation is not a satisfactory working condition.

You are so generous. Composers are people?! Tell me more!

But the cushions of independent means and professorial tenure — when granted the rare, brilliant talent — can dull the competitive edge. The marketplace has motivated a lot if not most of what we think of now as the standard repertory. Giving composers the luxury of being important and disliked debilitates music.

You almost came to terms, there, with the problem of The Canon. Back in the day, when composers were supported by the Elites (Haydn, et al.) the problem was different. Do you understand that most contemporary composers are poor graduate students with little or no means? That they are pursuing their art against all odds? No? Oh, right, apparently not.

No one can deny the oceans of irrelevance that have always resulted from giving the public what it wants.

Right. Did you just change your position?

But any music intended for public consumption must ask on every page: “How can I make them respond? What common denominator between their sensibility and mine can I discover?” Otherwise it bears irrelevance of a different kind.

Oh--wait, no, you didn't. Clever rhetorical device, there. The audience is greater than the art, or something.

Haydn and Mozart — purveyors of the most profound and original music ever written — asked these questions every day, or they would have had nothing to eat.

"Ever written." Nice. You're beholden to the what now? Oh right, the canon.

Every composer wants to be loved by as many people as possible.

This is exactly what composers want. I asked them.

If it doesn’t work out that way, too many of them are content to let posterity put things right. The posterity myth has a few success stories but is for the most part an excuse for failure in the present. Starry-eyed critics of the 1930s and ’40s predicted that by 2007 we would be singing Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” in the shower. Most of us still lean toward “Embraceable You.”

Nice. Shoenberg sucks. Modernism was/is a failure. People like tunes, dude!

I hope it is not unreasonable to suggest that composers, not listeners, are the servants here,

Yes. The arts = service industry metaphor prevails. The market rules! They should give you a column on the Op/Ed page. Bill Kristol is jealous.

and that every new opera or orchestral piece they write should be brought in on a tray with hopes that it has something substantial to say that we can like.

Public sentiment = good art. Shallow-ass criticism.

When Haydn worked for the Esterhazys, he wore a uniform. That’s not a bad idea for our premiere-givers too. They can also tend bar at intermission.

Wow, you effete fuck. How about the critics spoon caviar into my mouth?

How do I prepare for premieres? I read about the people and the circumstances, where the piece came from and what the composer eats for breakfast. If I have a score, I look at the orchestration. It’s nice to know how many crayons are in the composer’s coloring box. I don’t listen to anything. Surprise me.

Funny, your last paragraph almost makes it seem like you're into new music. I don't get it. Except you "don't listen to anything." That, actually, makes your whole article make a lot of sense.


Anonymous said...

I have proverbial milk coming out of my nose. Excerpt in this case it is coffee.

Bill Kristol, hilarious.

"If you want a large audience, quit school, move to Nashville and write country and western songs."
-- A certain composer, circa 1999

Aaron said...

That was awesome.

Personally, I would have stopped reading after "that flash of newness warmed over."* I'm glad you had more stamina.

*Seriously, wtf? Do "flashes" get "warmed over"? Is "newness" (a word I'm almost certain I was discouraged from using in junior-high English) the kind of thing that appears in "flashes"? I'm having a hard time understanding how a guy who writes this badly, consistently, and admits in his column that he doesn't listen to the music he's going to be reviewing prior to performance, could have a job as a music critic for a free alternative weekly, let alone the Paper of Record.

Seriously. Wtf?

Erik Loomis said...

Wow, that is a shockingly bad article. I'm impressed you had the patience to deal with it.