Critic speaks, then listens...

Here, Charles Spencer, of Telegraph.co.uk, gives us his impressions of music and art at a festival in Edinburgh. Of note, Spencer is the theatre critic for the Telegraph.

Charles Spencer's Diary

One of the great things about theatre is that it has largely escaped the twin curses of modernism and abstraction. Ionesco’s plays may be reminiscent of the paintings of Magritte, and Beckett distilled drama to its essence, but, even in these instances, the very fact of having actors on stage, words spoken, and an audience watching creates a feeling of common humanity. The theatre is still a place we go to listen to stories and learn about the world and ourselves.

Translation: Being familiar with modern theatre, I appreciate the more adventurous contemporary playwrights for their contributions to the art.

In contrast, the wilder shores of modern art and contemporary classical music seem far more daunting. Both are elitist in the sense that they rejoice in complexity and obscurity for their own sake, and appear not to give a damn about the audience, except for a coterie of admirers.

Translation: However, being unfamiliar with contemporary classical music and composers, their innovations are wrong. It is music written by jerks to be admired by snobs.

More recently, with the Brit Art explosion, we have also witnessed an adolescent desire to shock merely for the sake of it.

Sure, why not. A few examples of Brit Art (or Britart), works by young British artists:

figure 1: Snowman, Gary Hume

figure 2: My Bed, Tracey Emin

figure 3: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst

figure 4: Attempted Birdhouse #1, H. J. Simpson

Now, I don't mean to begrudge Mr. Spencer his opinions, nor his jabs (although, "adolescent" is probably more incendiary than informative, don't you think?). However, Spencer basically admits that he's unfamiliar with this music and art, and while not fully understanding it, he seems perfectly happy to characterize it (and the people who listen to it) with broad stereotypes and generalizations.

I wonder if he would be as forgiving of someone (especially someone who is a position of a authority, like say...an art's critic) who dismissed plays and playwrights with prejudice and insult.

However, this is his "diary" entry. He's being honest with us, blunt even, and that's something I do appreciate.

I was becoming a bit of an old fart about all this, so in Edinburgh at the tail end of the festival I tried to put my prejudices aside and look and listen with an open mind.

Check. Now that you've minimized new music and its audience, let's get on with the review...

I booked for two concerts by the Arditti Quartet, which has given the premiere of several hundred modern string quartets and other chamber works, by the daunting likes of Harrison Birtwistle, John Cage, Elliott Carter and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

At first I though the reference to "several hundred" premieres was some sort of flip remark -- but sure enough...second sentence of the wikipedia entry for the Arditti Quartet reads just that. Wow, they've been productive.

And, oh, thanks for "daunting".

I also trekked along a delightfully umbrageous path by the Water of Leith to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

I like this turn of phrase here -- "delightfully umbrageous path".

Is there a chance he meant umbrageous by it's alternate meaning of "irritable"? Nah.

I won’t pretend I liked everything I saw and heard.

We would expect nothing less. I certainly wouldn't pretend that...well, unless the composer was in the room.

Ligeti’s String Quartet No 2 left me fuming as the violinists wasted much of their time imitating the whine of a mosquito, and Andy Warhol still strikes me as a brilliant charlatan.

Ligeti's String Quartet No. 2 -- although, not the Arditti Quartet.

I guess it sounds like a mosquito -- I think it sounds more like "ants eating my face".

But there was far more that I enjoyed and that left me stimulated.

In the Artist Rooms exhibition at the modern art gallery I suddenly began to see the point of Damien Hirst, sheep in formaldehyde, pharmaceutical packaging and all.

...(see the shark in formaldehyde above in figure 3)...

Far from being the shock merchant I’d taken him for, he is essentially in the serious business of creating beautifully crafted memento mori in an age when most of us prefer to forget that we are mortal.

Translation: Mea culpa. My bad.

By the way, excellent reference there with the "memento mori".

The Arditti Quartet performance of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No 2, in which he “finally allowed his music to float free from the binding force of tonality”, and a soprano sings, “I feel the air of another planet” as if announcing her arrival in a new world of music, still seemed strikingly modern, strange and beautiful more than a century after its turbulent premiere in 1908.

Isn't this the same music that rejoiced in its complexity and obscurity? But yes, it does sound strikingly beautiful.

However, while trying to praise this Schoenberg work, Spencer can't help but bring up the famous anecdote that follows below, often used to illustrate how justifiable it is to disdain new music.

On that occasion a leading critic stood up and shouted: “Stop it! Stop it! We have had enough.”

One of Schoenberg’s pupils recalled: “It was then that people forgot their drawing-room manners. Part of the audience joined the riot which others tried to silence. Not much of the music penetrated the noise.”

I will commend Spencer, however, for not going so far as point out that this is the infamous work that killed tonal music. It was this string quartet that Schoenberg was writing when he discovered his wife was having an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl. So overcome with grief and rage, that despite the first few movements being composed with distinct tonal key areas, the affair pushed him over the edge. Schoenberg rejects tonality in favor of the devil's atonality for the final movement, and subsequently for the rest of his musical career, thus ruining classical music forever.

At least he didn't tell that story...but this tamer one is still just as irrelevant to liking the piece.

Why print that anecdote here? Come on, Spencer, you've just, in the course of only a few paragraphs, had an awakening.

You started us off with the premise that unlike modern theatre, contemporary music is obscure and overly complex -- but you ended up liking some of the music. Can't you revel in that for a little longer? Maybe the music isn't as obscure as you thought it was? Or perhaps complexity doesn't equal elitist? ...


After my crash course in contemporary music and art, I hope that, in similar circumstances today, I would be on the side of those trying to allow the shock of the new a fair hearing.

Translation: It helps to hear the music before judging it.

Why must we always start with the opinion that new music is something awful and weird...something to be overcome, rather than reserving judgment until experienced in earnest on one's own? I realize that this narrative about new music is all to commonplace in our culture, but why should it continue to dominate...? Why should critics (people who should know better) repeat that same uninformed bias, even when ultimately recommending new music?

I'm glad Spencer considers himself a convert. But seriously, the lesson here is that
it's too often the case (with the arts) that all opinions are considered justified, no matter how uninformed.


Empiricus said...

That's just it: we're all critics, or at least have the ability to criticize (then put in word form). But what seems to distinguish critics proper from the rest of us is their expertise. That's what makes a review informative, intriguing, or reliable (or simply justified).

Sator Arepo said...

No! No! Just write about how the music makes you *feel*!

AnthonyS said...

Here's my problem with bringing up the Schoenberg: he brings up the "scandal" from the premiere, which sets up an implication that the music is (insert derisive adjective about modern music here), you know, "out there". It isn't. At all. It's in f# minor for fuck's sake, and sounds less "out" (whatever value we are assigning to that) than some Strauss, at least to my ears.

So bringing up this "scandal" is about as apt as talking about the Eroica symphony and how it is too "out" for people to understand. The critical response from 101 years ago really isn't a fair starting place.

Gavin Plumley said...

Odd that he dwells on the Schoenberg and then sums it all up with the word 'contemporary'. To Damien Hirst? He's a capricious theatre critic at best, but this shows an open-mindedness, if a lack of editor!

Anonymous said...

"The [historical] critical response... isn't a fair starting place."

When do we ever begin examining something outside the historical context in which it was created? Being that we have to rely on history to preserve in the first place! Sorry, Anthony, but poor comment.

And the Eroica symphony is still difficult to understand for vast majority of the Fitty-Scent-and-the-like listening morons in our country.