Consume Your Symptom!

“Never mind my fruit comes from Chile, as long as it’s cheap and tastes good” is but one particular kind of consumer glut: the “out of sight, out of mind” theory, adopted for its vividness last year by the International Counsel for Responsible Spending (Icarus).* In their most recent publication, Icarus named several other kinds of similar negligent spending attitudes (most dealing with transportation, i.e., oil), which, according to their research, accounts for a great deal of international animosity towards America. The “blind” and voracious nature of American consumerism has led to many international conflicts involving resources, territory and military action.

Countries have thus compared America to the Roman Empire, whose glut was best exemplified by gross exhibitions of wealth, like the gladiatorial contests of the Coliseum (also Colosseum). The Colosseum played host to many spectacles, most notably Emperor Trajan’s lavish celebration of his victories in Dacia (107 A.D.), which involved “11,000 animals and 10,000 gladiators over the course of 123 days.”

Yeah. But what does this have to do with critiquing critics?

[John Corigliano’s Third Symhpony], "Circus Maximus", promises to be fun: Corigliano compares the decadent ancient Roman entertainment district to our modern glut of cable television channels and reality TV.

I’ll let David Hurwitz explain:

My only wish is that Corigliano didn't take himself quite so seriously: to equate the slaughter and mayhem of Roman entertainment to, say, the Real Housewives of New Jersey surely is pushing the comparison too far.

I dunno. Parading wealthy women bumbling through life on television for all to laugh at is pretty ghastly.

Figure 1. Training kids to buy oil (and it’s fun!)

Anyway, political/allegorical/satirical pieces are nothing new. So what’s the problem? That Corigliano’s too serious? Or is it that music is ultimately supposed to be pleasurable and not challenging?

Moreover, it runs the risk of sounding snobbish (not the music, the [program] notes).

I think it’s safe to say that “classical” music connoisseurs are already kinda snobbish. So I’m sure no one will mind.

Remember, when Ives did this sort of thing it was the popular tunes and other found objects that he was celebrating, and the classical tradition that he was thumbing his nose at (with good reason).

Not to be ignored, he also had a very healthy streak of political derision and sarcasm. Goddamned thieves?

Anyway, that's not really important: what matters is that this is good music whatever its inspiration...

And if Corigliano is being a bit provocative, it's never at the expense of your basic enjoyment.

Without pulling out the whole Zizek-jouissance thing, we’ve come to another, yet equally problematical paradox.

It seems that the guy pitching (critiquing) “serious” music is also the guy who doesn’t want it to be too serious—“above all it must be enjoyable.” So, those very program notes, which are gravely imperative to understanding the piece, are cast aside by the author in favor of “blind” enjoyment. This, in turn, results in positive advocacy—the music critic’s equivalent of buying fruit from Chile.

*Icarus is wholly fictional.


Gosh! Why Do People Hate Critics So Much?


In a wonderfully misguided piece of come-on-we-all-know-I'm-right drivel, Joe Queenan (of the Guardian UK) asserts that he is the ultimate arbiter of taste, and, furthermore, speaks for everyone. For some unknown reason, he was presumably paid to pen and publish this pointless prattle:

Admit it, you're as bored as I am

Ha ha! Oh, and while I have a second: fuck you!

After 40 years and 1,500 concerts, Joe Queenan is finally ready to say the unsayable: new classical music is absolute torture - and its fans have no reason to be so smug

Well, good thing you decided to...make it your profession? Genius.

Furthermore, I am chagrined at having received, finally, my comeuppance. I know: how about you tell me what I think--maybe I'll thank you for it!

A few choice bits should suffice...

In New York, Philadelphia and Boston, concert-goers have learned to stay awake and applaud politely at compositions by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun. But they do this only because these works tend to be short and not terribly atonal; because they know this is the last time in their lives they'll have to listen to them; and because the orchestra has signed a contract in blood guaranteeing that if everyone holds their nose and eats their vegetables, they'll be rewarded with a great dollop of Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn.

Well! That'll learn 'em for paying money to support orchestras that hate them. Also, every point supporting the argument is a baseless assertion. If it was supposed to be funny, well, I guess I found it a few notches below Hee Haw.

Figure 1: Wherein I compare the urbane witticisms of the Guardian critic to a show about idiots. Palin/Jindal 2012!

I reckon it'd be pointless to point out that there was a time when Brahms and Tchaikovsky were new, audiences resisted them, and there was speculation about whether this "new-for-new's-sake" music would ever make the canon. But never you mind that.

I have tried to come to terms with the demands of modern music. I am no lover of Renaissance Muzak, and own tons of records by Berg, Varèse, Webern, Rihm, Schnittke, Adès, Wuorinen, Crumb, Carter, and Babbitt: I consider myself to be the kind of listener contemporary composers would need to reach if they had any hope of achieving a breakthrough. So far, this has not happened, and I doubt that it will.

Those kids and their rock and/or roll music! Why, it'll never replace the dulcet tones of big band crooners! Furthermore, I've staked out my cultural place already, so why bother trying?

Also, having established that the critic owns lots of records of music he doesn't like is a bizarre rhetorical move. I guess it's supposed to show that he "knows of what he speaks" but translates as strange and incongruous. If my home is filled with cubist paintings, one might assume that I like cubist paintings. But no: I just have them all over my walls; really, I think they suck.

A certain market for demanding new music can always be found among brash young urbanites, but this audience is not large, nor well-heeled. Moreover, it is by no means certain that the affection for new work survives one's youth, when sonically grating music is mostly a way of antagonising older people. The central problem in writing music targeting hipsters is that even hipsters one day stop being hip, and get replaced by hipsters who want their own brand of annoying music.

Yeah, I believe that "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" was just as antagonizing to my great-grandfather as Melt Banana would be to my father.

Figure 2: Melt Banana. Here is a youtube link for you. [Warning: Noise. Well, okay; Japanese post-punk noise weirdness.]

The assertion that Lizst, gangsta rap, and Terry Riley are all merely assults on the establishment that are not even remotely "really" liked even and/or especially by their fans (or even creators!) is shallow, unsubstantiated, and borderline criminally stupid.

But lo! A counterpoint piece. Here is a measured response with less indignant swearing:

Tom Service, Guardian UK: Why Joe Queenan is wroing about new classical music

That's better; much better. However, if this was a dualistic attempt by the Guardian at a point/counterpoint set of opposing opinion/review pieces, it sucked.

Why not just get an American sportswriter to opine about how boring soccer is? [It's not.--ed.]


Well, it seems like this is a year old, and I already addressed it, sort of.

Shows you what my memory's like, I guess.

Regardless, and in deference to netiquette, I'll leave it be.]


Critics Are on the What Now?, Part II

A follow-up column (to this) merits a follow-up response (to this).

Part 2: Wherein Facts Are Asserted, with Mixed Results

Critics and "Users"

A postscript on the evergreen topic of the role of the critic: in last week’s discussion (Do Critics Matter?), the question of whether or not a critic’s role is to be a consumer advocate became a central focus.

(You can read the comments thread that contains that discussion by following the link above.)

The gist is, more or less, that criticism has a broader scope than generating a recommended what-to-do list for potential concertgoers. Which is fair, and seems right--but the contrariwise statement does not follow.

That is to say: it is not the case that criticism, regardless of its intent, sometimes can and does act as an in-depth account of, say, a concert of which a positive review could be construed as some kind of endorsement This seems plain; even if consumer is not the intent or focus of a reviewer, it happens, in sort of an advanced version of the way that wearing a t-shirt with the name/logo of a product tacitly endorses it.*

But I, apparently, have my fact wrong. What's the fact, Ms. Midgette?

The fact is...

I can't wait!

The fact is that, whether or not we like it, critics are not, in fact, consumer advocates.

Oof. In fact, the fact is that I am disputing that fact, in fact.

But I'm reasonable. What is your argument supporting this alleged fact?

In a private e-mail, one respondent brought up a study I’m well aware of, but that certainly merits mentioning here: a 2007 survey by Goldstar.com (this link downloads a file with the survey results) showed that consumers overwhelmingly turn to websites with user reviews in preference to published reviews in a newspaper.

[reads survey report]

Granted, the people who answered this survey were already using a website to access entertainment, so they were predisposed toward Internet use.

Sure, which means that, according to the Fact Survey there, even people who are very internet-y sometimes still turn to newspapers.

(An aside: Capitalization conventions of the word "internet" (versus "Internet") are inconsistent and confusing, and therefore (in this critic's opinion) bad at being conventions as such.)

Still, it reflects a significant societal trend.

This trend: people do stuff on the internets!

Though I myself am (of course) a regular newspaper reader,...

Of course! I mean, come on. Why wouldn't I be? I mean I have a blog and stuff, sure, but, you know, I read the paper and stuff! Seriously! You guys!

...I often browse reader reviews on Amazon.com, or skim through the ratings on a film website, before making a purchase.

Yes. Sure.

(My standard response to people who are afraid that blogs are going to dilute the ostensible purity of critical discourse...

Uh, what? The "[ostensible] purity of critical discourse" is about as varied as Amazon user reviews. (Perhaps someone should set up a web log or "blog" that examines this "discourse.")

...is to point to the Amazon reviews: people are generally able to tell the serious ones from the stupid ones, and by the same token will generally be able to distinguish the good blogs, like the good newspaper reviews, from the bad ones.)

While I understand what Ms. Midgette's saying, distinguishing "good" and "bad" blogs or reviews is probably not the dichotomy (if any) I'd ascribe here. (Except perhaps Yahoo! movie user reviews. I think you have to have a lobotomy to read those. Or am I confusing cause and effect?)

That said, a longer, thoughtful review is pretty easily distinguishable from "Transformers II wuz best movie EVARS1!! If u dont liek it ur jelluz" in form and content.

This means that a single voice has less and less power to influence consumer habits.

But not no power. Remeber: your thesis (or "fact") is that critics are NOT consumer advocates--not "rarely" or "sometimes."

(When I was at the New York Times, I often heard publicists say ruefully that even a great Times review or advance piece of a Lincoln Center performance no longer actually led to a spike in ticket sales, as it once had done.)

Pity the poor publicists.

(Also, it occurs to me that you could do some pretty amazing things if you can begin a sentence (even a parenthetical one) with "When I was at the New York Times...". "When I was at the New York Times," I'd say, "a gentleman once called me an elitist! I called him a slanderous cur, and threw my monocle at his feet!")

"Look at me! I work for the New York Times!"

Sorry. Anyway:

Certainly, critics are writing for consumers, and we are saying what we think about a production or performance.

Certainly. But...?

But to expect everyone to follow your opinions is unrealistic in this day and age.

Again, we seem to have missed the mark. "Everyone" is a lot of ones. The argument that criticism is NOT in fact consumer advocacy (ever) is not helped by arguments that it isn't much, or less than it used to be, or sort of, or sometimes.

And in fact, such advocacy has never been the role of great critics.

Guh. Never? And, to boot: in fact?

Virgil Thomson, Pauline Kael, Andrew Porter: they’re still read, and still valuable, because they were writing about a lot more than whether or not their readers should bother to buy tickets.

Yes, yes, yes: and no! They wrote about "more" ("a lot more") but not to the exclusion of endorsing or recommending some things, some times. Which again is not absolute. Or, as the Dutch say, a "fact."**



*Unless it's ironic, which is a different matter entirely (can one endorse irony?). Perhaps, though, irony is a sort of criticism, which should be left for another day.

**May not be true, as I don't speak Dutch.



What is this, from James R. Oestreich in the New York Times?

Why, it's a light little review, perhaps intended to reflect the spirit of the concert. I am left a bit confused and concerned.

A Visitor from Vancouver Concludes a Summer Stay [excerpted]

“Where in the World Has Bramwell Tovey Gone?” a headline in The Vancouver Sun read on Thursday.

I think that's supposed to refer to an old kid's television show. If I remember right it was called something like "Where in the Fuck Is Carmen Miranda?"

Figure 1: Why, she's at the Detritus Review, of course.

As the article showed, The Sun knew precisely where Mr. Tovey, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, was, and so did many New Yorkers. On Thursday night, as for most of the last two weeks, he was at Avery Fisher Hall, conducting the New York Philharmonic in Summertime Classics...

He was hiding...on the podium at Avery Fisher Hall? Chutzpah, man. That dude must have some yarbles.

...a series of abbreviated, popsy, chatty concerts, for which he also serves as host.

Erm. I think I know what was intended, but "popsy" is an archaic [ca. 1860-65], obscure British word for an attractive young woman. And it isn't an adjective (even though it looks much like one), or one could speculate that he's alluding to Denyce Graves, the soloist at the event.

You learn something every day.


But Mr. Oestreich saves a random cheap shot for the end (which is fine, but worth noting):

As speaker, he [Tovey] was all the more entertaining for sticking to musical and textual points and avoiding generic shtick.

Yeah, occasion-specific schtick is usually more...occasion-specific.

He got a little carried away with Ravel’s “Boléro” (yet another labored viola joke?), but then so did Ravel.

BAM! Take that, overplayed masterwork of orchestration!

Figure 2: Is it really necessary to belittle Ravel?

Incidentally (or perhaps the real reason for this post), that reminds me of my favorite viola joke.

Q: What's the longest viola joke in the world?

A: Harold in Italie!

Ah. Hope everyone had a Francophilic Bastille Day.


Critics Are on the What Now?


The Concept of Criticism, with Continual Reference to The Simpsons (and Oblique Reference to Obscure Kierkegaard Tracts)

Hm. A bit slow lately, but Anne Midgette over at "The" Post, or, at least, the online equivalent thereof wherein classical music coverage has been hidden, muses for us:

Do Critics Matter?

Which, obviously, is a topic near and dear to us here at The Review.

(There is also a follow-up column, which I will address as well. Soon. -Ish.)

Clearly we think critics matter, not least because they help frame [the?] debate about music. But let's not jump the gun. What's up, Ms. Midgette?

The fact that the classical music, dance, and art critics are not represented in today's critics' survey in the Washington Post may give those of us in those disciplines extra reason to worry that what we write doesn't actually matter.

That is indeed worrisome. However, I'd argue that the worry is more about not being employed by the papers to write criticism than the relevance of criticism per se.

Arts critics, and the arts in general (as noted here frequently) are recipients of some of the earliest ax-blows of newspapers' attempts to have less content in order to stay relevant. While this may seem counterintuitive, shortsighted and stupid, don't be fooled--it's counterintuitive, shortsighted, and stupid.*

Meanwhile, though, celebrity gossip, fashion, and even horoscopes continue to be subjects which the newspapers think are, presumably, both profitable and a public good.

Seriously, people. Horoscopes? Any paper that prints that shit should be used solely for bird cage liner. That's right--I'm talking to you, Nancy Reagan. Fuck you.

But the whole idea that there should be some kind of correlation between reviews in the paper and ticket sales, or popularity, is fundamentally flawed to start with.

I'm not sure where this objection originated, but: yes. That's called marketing, and it's different than criticism. It's sort of like how having sex for money is different than having sex not for money.

It reveals a misunderstanding of what it is a critic does.

What does a critic do?

Figure 1: Homer Simpson, Food Critic

Our role is not to be mere consumer advocates, telling you how to spend your hard-earned dollars.

The assumption here is that my dollars are hard-earned, which I resent. Also, money can be exchanged for goods and services!

If that were the only point, newspapers might as well issue simple public-relations-style puff pieces and have done with it.

See above. No...further above. That one.

The role of a critic is to cover a field.

I like it! That's not what I might have said, but it's a good start...

Figure 2: Jacoby Ellsbury, Center Field Critic, Boston Red Sox

This doesn't mean simply pandering to popular taste.

One would hope not. That's Entertainment Weekly's job.

It means doing one's best to convey a sense of what is going on in a given discipline by writing about every possible side of it.

Uh, hmm. Sort of, except the side that has any grounding in technical terms that might alienate the casual reader (sometimes known by scary words like "theory" that rob art of its ability to foster feelings of ownership). That "possible side" is usually neglected. Now, there are reasons for this, but clearly "every possible side" is not really the scope of most arts criticism.

It means trying to convey a perspective that a reader who doesn't spend every night going to concerts/plays/films may not be able to gather himself; or offering a thoughtful take that might stimulate a reader who does go to everything to see something in a different light.

These are all valid points. I am very glad that it does not include "telling the reader how the art in question made you feel."

For part of our role is to foster dialogue and debate.

That is most excellent. And important. And sometimes neglected. And potentially powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous.

That doesn't mean setting forth judgments of taste in order that readers might fall obediently into line behind us.

Unless you're Bernard Holland. Sorry, but there ya go.

Quite the contrary: it may mean putting out views that one knows may represent the minority.


It means being interested in the thoughts of those who disagree.

I think it means potentially being interested in those thoughts, but point taken.

This is good stuff.

It means being delighted when someone is powerfully moved by something one didn't like oneself.

Maybe. I am not delighted when people are "moved" by the Jonas Brothers, or a two week-long orgy of dead Zombie entertainer coverage. This is due to the effect it has on my own environment and quality of life. I don't begrudge them their, uh, crap. I just don't want to hear about it.**

I can't even go to the damn grocery store anymore. I'm not saying that all the magazines should have Mendelssohn's birthday issues--far from it. It seems to me that the potential good of having a plethora of Special Interest Magazines is that THEY DON'T ALL HAVE THE SAME FUCKING THING ON THE COVER.

Sorry. I don't usually e-yell like that. But all I wanted was some ice cream, and I got Zombie Rememberance Super Memorial Comemmorative Editions everywhere I looked.

It also means writing well enough that someone might want to read you -- a goal that's hard to reach if all you're doing is trying to push readers to buy tickets.

This is very true, and not a trivial point.

The disciplines collectively referred to as "the arts," commercial or not-for-profit, highbrow or low, offer a lot more than simply the possibility of passive consumption and a thumbs-up, thumbs-down reaction at the end of the exercise.

Oh, snap! Take that, Roger Ebert!***

Their very existence is a tacit reminder that there is a lot more out there than this passive consumption, and critics should be reminding people of this fact. To get diverted into yet another hand-wringing round of us-against-them, critics-are-dying-out, audiences-are-stupid plaints is pointless.

Aw, just one more round. Please?

Audiences aren't stupid, and if critics are feeling irrelevant, it's up to us to figure out how to become a more vital part of the debate. But if we measure "relevance" by how many tickets we sell or how many people agree with us, we've already abnegated our responsibility.


Two things.

One, go back and read the whole thing again, and imagine something like "composer" and "music" substituting for "critic" and "criticism."

Two, I am a bit light on Simpsons references considering my alternate title, so here is a corrective:

Figure 3: Ralph Wiggum, Cat-Food Breath Critic, Branches Out

I'll follow up Ms. Midgette's follow-up soon.

* I can't find the Groucho Marx quote to which I am referring. Rest assured, there is a clever reference being made here.

** I have my own crap, and don't want to be begrudged either.

*** Roger Ebert is actually a very fine writer, but this was an easy jab. So sue me.



I found this article interesting from a number of perspectives. First, the reviewer has a theater background, and later branched into opera (and thusly music criticism), and I think that this comes out in his writing. Second, it comes from the normally unimpeachable Guardian UK, and is quite brief. Third, the names of iconic pieces are...iconic.

Also, the Northern Sinfonia is in Newcastle, UK.

Figure 1: Figure 1 is unrelated, yet delicious.

The Northern Sinfonia began its 50th-anniversary season with...

With something cool and memorable, I hope.

a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies,

Wow, really. Came up with that in a brainstorming session, no doubt.

and now concludes it by compressing the 20th century into a week.

Mm, mm-hm. Better than not at all, for sure, but that hundred years of stuff certainly merits less total concert time than Beethoven symphonies, which are starved for attention.

Dreams and Ceremonies,...

This title reflects the survey of 20th century music? It could easily be a festival of Romantic music. Well, shit, or Baroque music, for that matter.

Dreams and Ceremonies, which surveys the period 1906-2006, is the kind of wildly ambitious scheme at which music director Thomas Zehetmair excels.

Good, good. Although programming music that was, more or less, recently composed should hardly count as a scheme. Was jamming all of the 20th century into a week the ambitious scheme, or stretching it out to fill a week's worth of concerts?

Still, nothing seems to frighten audiences away faster than 20th-century music.

And nothing, absolutely nothing, is more awesome than taking a sentence in your three-paragraph write-up to remind people that they don't, won't, can't, and shouldn't like it. For fuck's sake, can we cut that out?

The second concert began with an apologetic plea for those present to huddle closer towards the front.

Ha ha! It's funny because they paid money to go to a concert of unlistenable avant-garde crap! Hilarious. What a bunch of maroons.

Bah. What about it, then?

A pleasing performance of Dumbarton Oaks...

Figure 2: The gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, Georgetown

A pleasing performance of Dumbarton Oaks proves Stravinsky's backward glances towards the baroque are no more intimidating than a Brandenburg Concerto;

This is a bizarre, if evocative, construction. Stravinsky's potentially intimidating (?) "glances"

Figure 3: A glance from Stravinsky. Are you intimidated? I dunno, I think I could take him.

...are tempered somehow, since...he's glancing at Bach's Brandenburgs (on which the piece was based)? Are the Brandenburg Concertos often held up as an example of non-intimidating music? Or the Baroque as a whole? This characterization confuses me. However, this performance "proves" (!) that his glances are actually quite harmless.

...the same can hardly be said for Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time,

Figure 4: Olivier Messiaen writing down what birds say.

which is among the most harrowing experiences you can have in a concert hall.

I'd be lying if I said that the Quartet is a fancy-free, happy-go-lucky piece of fluff, but it's hardly the most gruesome stuff out there. It also seems to me that things other than music can be experienced in a concert hall.

Figure 5: Ruins of a concert hall in Weisbaden, Germany after WWII.

The original audience was the composer's fellow detainees in a German PoW camp, and the gravid tempos of the 50-minute piece almost defy the musicians to maintain a pulse.

So...it had some "pacing problems," to borrow some theater-jargon?

The highlight is the plaintive aria for unaccompanied clarinet, here breathtakingly executed by Christopher Richards.

Fine. But the best is yet to come.

John Cage's notorious 4'3"...

D'oh! I had to look twice to make sure. This is of course not correct. Which happens; it does. It's a bit of a major blunder considering the uniqueness of the title, and the piece, which is (arguably, of course) Cage's most iconic work, and possibly deserves some hyperbolic title like Most Important Piece of the Last 100 Years. Arguably. But still.

And so:

John Cage's notorious 4'3" was given additional drama by plunging the auditorium into darkness.

Probably not the first time, but a decent enough idea nonetheless.

Pianist Kate Thompson refused to be put off by an outbreak of giggles among the audience.

One would hope that's the least of things she was prepared to endure.

But though the random, ambient sound is supposed to be the point,

It is?!

...it's still reminiscent of the silent observance before football matches, where you're hoping some idiot won't spoil it before the ref blows his whistle.

Ooh, yeah...or, you know, get the name wrong.

Figure 6: Pianist David Tudor performing Cage's 4'33".