Your weekend read: What critics want

Allan Kozinn has trained his critical eye on his own profession and has come up with a shortfall. He writes a list of what a critic ought to be in 2015… and leaves us struggling to name one who ticks all the boxes.

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In the 21st century, after all, a classical music critic should come to the job with an overstuffed (conceptual) tool bag. It must include a familiarity with the great works of the historical canon, as well as a sense of their place in history, both general (political, social, etc.) and musical – and a familiarity with some of the more interesting outliers by so-called minor composers as well. The canon is sprawling now, taking in opera, symphonic music, chamber music, sacred works, art song and solo instrumental music from the last millennium.

But a critic who focuses only on the canon and who cannot respond to the wildly variegated contemporary canon is useless. And to respond properly, these days, a critic needs a functional knowledge not only of the formal styles and techniques – serialism and post-tonal approaches, minimalism and post-minimalism, not to mention the various neos (neoclassicism, neo-romanticism, et al.) – but also the vernacular ones: with so many new works drawing on jazz, rock and world music, a critic cannot afford not to know them. And really, it’s hard to imagine anyone growing up in the late 20th or early 21st centuries who hasn’t moved in all those worlds. Today’s composers do. Critics should as well – and not just out of a sense of duty but because this is our musical universe.

Who can we name, on any major newspaper, who fulfils those criteria?

Read Allan’s full article here.

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  • Our critics at the major UK newspapers are some of the finest in the world, particularly at the big 4 (Guardian, Telegraph, Times and S Times). It’s very easy to denigrate, but I doubt many could do a better job (though they might think they can). The latter part of his criteria is tosh, anyway. Plus it works on the premise that the main target of reviews are modern operas. In the UK, that isn’t usually the case, simply because of what the companies put on.

  • Oh, it’s not so bad. Some of these aren’t at newspapers but still important publications – Alex Ross at The New Yorker, Steve Smith still works in papers albeit now as deputy arts ed at the Boston Globe, Philip Clark at Gramophone and The Wire certainly fulfills these criteria. A lot of critics have their specialist non-classical areas of expertise ie.David Vickers and prog rock, Edward Seckerson and musical theatre etc.

  • As a concert-goer I crave for works which are outside of the usual established styles and -isms. I am looking out for the new Vareses, Ligetis. I am not so sure that a critic has to know every style and -ism. Rather he has to have an open mind and a feeling heart and the ability to put that into readable words.

    I once had a discussion with master musician in India. He told me that even a Westerner who knows nothing about Indian music can sense the quality of an Indian perfomance, only he perhaps cannot give reasons.

    Music is not about knowing, talking and oneupmanship. Music is about experience. A critic should go and tell us if he actually had an experience and what kind.

    I agree that most of todays mechanical, repetitive and perfectly beautiful performances of classical music do not lead to any experience. But then this should also be a topic to write about…

    • Yes, exactly. No one can have an intimate knowledge of every single style and technique on every intstrument, and nobody likes absolutely everything. Mostly one needs to know enough to be able to spot craftsmanship and tell if the techniques and forces involved are handled well, and be able to articulate the experience.

  • This theory is thought out and nicely proposed. It is quite a nice guideline.

    I read him quite often in the paper, and I must say I am pleased he is offering this article because he was/is a insight-less hack. When it comes to the mechanics, style and talent of being a helpful guide to the musical culture of the day, he was an example of mediocrity and a poor representation of meaningful critique. Through out my youth in New York I was constantly appalled at his snarky lack of insight and thoroughly unrefined ear.
    Buster Olney and George Vescey had the only worthwhile articles about NY culture during the latter half of the 29th century days a the venerable NYT.

  • The level of music criticism at the NY Times is not generally very high and never has been. The major problem today is that critics, despite having great knowledge of music, yet have very little discrimination when actually hearing it. Very often a confusion arises between that which is composer-responsible and that which is performer responsible. Often enough the language used is insufficiently specific to describe what is heard: what, for example, to make of “milky textures” or, for that matter, other, very strange modifiers for “texture”? And occasionally musical illiteracy intrudes. A Times critic last year thought Elliott Carter was a serial composer. When I wrote a correction to the Times, it was not published as a correction, nor was I sent (as promised) the reason why it was not accepted. The only consistently satisfying music critic in America is Lloyd Schwartz, formerly of the defunct Boston Phoenix. I always recognize the concert Lloyd has been to and know what he hears. The best critic ever to practice his trade in America was Michael Steinberg and the second best was B. H. Haggin.

  • Bravo, Allan Kozinn. If there’s a more informed, sensitive and perceptive reflection on the music reviewer’s job out there in English, I’ve yet to run across it.

  • A music critic, it seems to me, should be MUSICAL, i.e. understanding by experience what happens in a piece of music and understanding something about performance practice. Knowledge is merely a restricted resource to understanding because music is not about knowledge but about musical experience.

    Also, there is no ‘contemporary canon’ because canons only form long after the event. With a contemporary piece the music critic is thus at sea, and he should enjoy that. But rather worrying is the overall welcoming and positive gloss new pieces almost always receive, as if a new piece can never be flawed and as if the new is always something better than the old. Probably this is out of fear to be accused of ‘conservatism’, or to appear in the next edition of Slonimsky’s ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’ which shows a remarkable collection of negative reviews of music which has since formed the western canon.

    The list of requirements reads as a job description of a music faculty lecturer and would academics be the best music critics?

    My impression is that music criticism in Germany, Austria and the UK and quite some palces in the USA (Chicago) is excellent, in spite of prejudice which is mostly clearly indicated.

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