Plumbing news: Spectator critic calls composer out as ‘crap’

Plumbing news: Spectator critic calls composer out as ‘crap’


norman lebrecht

July 04, 2016

The rightwing UK weekly assumes a wilfully confrontational tone, but this week’s assault on the popular Welsh composer Karl Jenkins descends to the coprophiliac epistolary expressions of W. A. Mozart at his most puerile.

The critic is Philip Clark. Here’s the nub of his review of the 2,000th (sic) performance of Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man – a Mass for Peace’:

Jenkins’ music has always been, and probably always will be, utter crap.

If you believe ‘crap’ to be unworthy of the critical lexicon, no word could be more apt. Believe me, nothing would have given me greater pleasure than going on record in calling his music shit. But to do so would be to imbue the Jenkins oeuvre with a whiffy pungency it palpably lacks. Some music is genuinely shit. Other music has a state of shitness thrust upon it – but the best shit music has at least tried to hit some aesthetic or technical goal that ultimately proved beyond it. But Jenkins’ jingles have no goal or ambition.And so, through no fault of its own, crap – that nondescript, expressively done to death, meaningless descriptor – turns out to be the only possible word left to convey the horror of Jenkins’ music and everything that surrounds it.

Clark, one imagines, wrote those words long before he attended a concert which no-one required him to attend. In a fellowship application, Clark writes of himself: ‘Aware of the over-use of stock phraseology in music journalism Clark has tried to produce writing that plays with the form and teases reader expectations.’

Here he is playing with human evacuations, taking a dump on an event that gave simple pleasure to thousands – and for no reason better than earning an utterly pitiful fee. Full review here.

This week, music criticism in print newspapers took a step towards the cesspit.

philip clark
Shit crit?




  • Will Duffay says:

    You seem to be confusing two separate things: the tone of the article, and the principle of giving a terrible review. The latter is permissible; the former is disappointing, and just gives Jenkins more reason to grumble.

    I think the point that the music gives simple pleasure to thousands is irrelevant: a critic is allowed to outline intelligently why a piece of music is poor. Just as you are allowed to point that Karl’s female namesake is not a good singer.

  • John Borstlap says:

    A review which would be appropriate for a companion book to Slonimsky’s ‘Lexicon of Musical Invective’, a ‘sister book’ with negative reviews not of great music (like Slonimsky’s ) but of works which do indeed deserve to be treated disparagingly. But maybe Clark got mixed-up with genres: Jenkins’ is not serious music but entertainment, and in this case quasi-religious entertainment, which is OK for people liking it.

  • Halldor says:

    …and yet, I’ve heard a surprising amount of classical performers talk about Jenkins’s music in pretty much exactly the same terms. I imagine a lot of them will be reading this and thinking “at last someone’s said it”.

    Entertaining, memorable and very funny review – up there with Norman’s custom of referring to a certain Australian institution on this blog as “ANUS”. Clicks will be going off the scale, which is good news for a blog. It’ll provoke strong reactions (ditto). And our host’s Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells impression is always droll too. Thanks for an amusing start to the week!

  • David Osborne says:

    Where to start, firstly and irrelevantly I am not personally fond of Karl Jenkin’s music but anyone critic or not, who believes that it is possible to argue that the particular set of musical ideas that they personally favour is somehow inherently superior is an idiot. There is no greater foundation for making such an argument than there would be if the subject being discussed were race or religion. This review is nothing more than an utterly baseless tirade of personal abuse. No wonder the concert halls are emptying. What outcome is this moron possibly trying to achieve?

    • Maria Brewin says:

      “This review is nothing more than an utterly baseless tirade of personal abuse.”

      “idiot”, “moron”

      Hmmm ….

      • David Osborne says:

        Just returning fire, and I’m on alot more solid ground than Mr Clark. That review is adisgraceful and yet perfect example of all that is wrong with classical music today. Embarassingly baseless, snobbish elitism.

        • Sue says:

          Come on now, the only reason you dislike it is because it was in “The Spectator”. Clark has been around for years!!

    • Will Duffay says:

      “anyone critic or not, who believes that it is possible to argue that the particular set of musical ideas that they personally favour is somehow inherently superior is an idiot”

      Well that rules out pretty much all of critical history and most of music academia.

      I think you’re quite wrong: it is perfectly possible to argue that some piece of music is more superior than another piece, in terms of its success at achieving its aims. With music like Jenkins’ it’s probably safer to say that as it’s hugely derivative and unoriginal, and fails to achieve genuine emotion for reasons x, y, z, that it isn’t good music and will not last. But ‘shit’ and ‘crap’ don’t really work as arguments (even if they’re nicely short ways of telling the truth).

      • David Osborne says:

        “Well that rules out pretty much all of critical history and most of music academia.”
        It does doesn’t it. Music is 100% subjective. That doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for what you love. Just don’t claim that your taste is somehow superior because there’s no rational foundation for that sort of argument. You can say poor old Karl’s music is derivative and unoriginal but all music owes something to someone else. It’s no more so than much of the classical repertoire.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The question is not, whether some piece of music is derivative or not, but what has been done with the material. Within a tradition, works are ‘derivative’ as a fundament, and what a composer does with what he found, makes music interesting, good or great or unremarkable or plain bad. Mozart was the most derivative composer who ever lived, but who would complain about that? Jenkins’ music – at least, the little I could bear listening to – is primitive, unusually vulgar, and trivial, and that is not the result of being derivative but it is a matter of personality. One could analyse it and show its flaws in comparison to well-written works, but what would be the point? So, people who recognise something of themselves in it, will love to feel confirmed, and there is nothing against this.

      • John Borstlap says:

        …. agreed. it would have been better if the critic had given arguments, which is always possible, even if they are subjective. But in the UK there is a certain climate among music journalism, which is cynical, vaguely leftish and strongly Adornoesque, cultivating filth-spitting expressionism without any real arguments – a kind of arrogant nihilism looking-down from an untenable position (which exists only in the critic’s mind). (Therefore, Norman Lebrecht is an a-typical exception because he passionately loves classical music.) Among the worst reviews I got, the most cynical came from the UK.

        • Halldor says:

          He explains why he uses the terms he does and he backs up his conclusions by identifying and describing elements of the music which he believes justify his condemnation.

          Sorry, you may not like it but that IS a real argument. If you don’t think it’s tenable, address his actual points instead of railing generically against all UK critics, and show us why.

          • John Borstlap says:

            The only bit that faintly compares to an argument is: “But Jenkins’ jingles have no goal or ambition.” I think that is not enough to explain why it is supposed to be ‘crap’. Jenkins may still have a persistent goal and a passionate ambition, and it can still be ‘crap’. Better would have been to explain which standards have been applied, even if they are subjective, in the way of “… if compared to this or that…” And then, one does not need to use the C word if so many other, less unsophisticated indications are available, that is exactly the realm and sport of music criticism.

      • MWnyc says:

        “I think you’re quite wrong: it is perfectly possible to argue that some piece of music is more superior than another piece, in terms of its success at achieving its aims.”


        I find Jenkins’s music very dull indeed, but it does seem to achieve its aim. (I don’t remember ever having read any quotes from Jenkins, but I presume he doesn’t claim that he produces great art.)

    • David Osborne says:

      Yikes did I really say that? Wish there was an edit button. No of course I don’t think anyone who believes that is an idiot, that’s every bit as bad as saying someone’s work is crap. If anyone took offence at that I apologise, it’s just that I was really mad at that review. That sort of thing is very bad for music. I hereby announce my retirement form Slipped Disc commenting. It was fun for a while, but all good things come to an end. Bye all!

  • David Osborne says:

    Just to re-iterate, Karl Jenkin’s music is not my cup of tea but millions love it. Those people could potentially become part of the new audiences that classical music desperately needs for its own survival. How must it feel for them to read something like that? I wouldn’t be turning up at a concert hall anytime soon.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Would Jenkins-friendly audiences see critics as part of the classical performance culture? And would such audiences be the right type of audience for classical music anyway? If classical music could only be carried by Jenkinsfans, that would be the definite end of the art form. It seems to me that even for educational purposes, the music of Jenkins is as inappropriate as is reading The Sun for understanding Proust.

      • David Osborne says:

        John what on earth do you mean by right type of audience? They are music lovers regardless, your generalisation is staggering, as if all people who listen to Karl Jenkins think the same. The worst thing about the attitudes I’m reading in this thread is that they are simply based on blind prejudice. There are people from all backgrounds that genuinely love classical music despite never having had an education in it. There are also many highly educated and creatively gifted people who can’t stand the genre, largely because of this totally baseless notion of inherent superiority. Until such time as the people making that assertion actually base it on a comprehensive study of other forms of music then it is what it is. Ignorant.

        • John Borstlap says:

          There are many studies of western classical music, and of music from other cultures, and of western entertainment music; and it is not necessary to ‘demonstrate’ that in many respects western classical music is far superior – that is so obvious that the concludion is left to the reader. And if he/she does not think it is superior, it is indeed irrelevant whether people find it superior or not. But its superiority and therefore, meaning to our culture – i.e. western culture – justifies tax money being paid to secure its existence, in spite of the increasing attacks (like this comment) presumably coming from the idea that a society, a culture, is best without hierarchies and entirely egalitarian, to give everybody equal chances on experiencing the cultural goods. This egalitarian world view, strongly fed by leftwing policital thought and perverted marxism (Bourdieu, translates hierarchies in culture to hidden instruments of class warfare. This has nothing to do with the musical culture itself, i.e. the works and their artistic qualities.

          The misunderstanding lies in the idea, that there cannot be something like ‘high art’, that it is merely a social strategy of distinction. But there does exist a high art, and because it needs preparation, and effort as to understanding, given the many references to a very rich and pluralistic tradition, it requires time and attention and some effort. Experiencing the best in art, in serious music, should be accessible to all, and in that sense I am completely socialist. But there should never be an attempt to make high art seem as simple and underdeveloped as the ignorant people who want to experience art but have no inclination to put a bit effort in it. Please, no lazy art lovers…..!

          • David Osborne says:

            OK, so to paraphrase, Western classical music is inherently superior because…it just is. This is such an important issue because it is the very same reasoning used by people within the artform to claim that their particular ideas about it are likewise superior and yes John it’s the same argument I hear when people slag off your work. This notion clearly does damage and is not needed. I still experience every bit as much of a thrill from the music if Mozart and Wagner as I ever did and I can certainly convince a lot more people to give it a go if I’m not claiming some imaginary higher ground. Probably the difference between us may be that I have worked with a fair few other forms of music. I started to come to my conclusions when I noticed the same attitudes of superiority from within each of these different forms. For instance reggae musicians also believe theirs is the highest form of the art, and they are every bit as rigid and prescriptive about it as we are. Their music is indeed massively more sophisticated and difficult than anyone who hasn’t played it can imagine. Don’t get me started on middle eastern music…Musical allegiances have similar origins as religious ones and are about as logical.

        • Maria Brewin says:

          “You just made three assertions without backing any of them up with a shred of evidence.”

          In that case can you provide some evidence for your assertion that “Their music is indeed massively more sophisticated and difficult than anyone who hasn’t played it can imagine” please?

          I’ve heard a fair amount of reggae over the years and must beg to differ. There are hundreds of books, essays and papers explaining in considerable detail the virtues of classical music. If reggae is as sophisticated as you claim, I’m sure there must be something similar, somewhere, explaining precisely why. I’m looking forward to you pointing me in the right direction so that I can discover what I’ve missed.

          • David Osborne says:

            Sorry did you actually read the sentence?

            “Their music is indeed massively more sophisticated and difficult than anyone WHO HASN’T PLAYED IT can imagine”

            Why don’t you give it a try? Sorry in all seriousness, and this applies to many different cultures, but there are incredibly sophisticated aspects to the phrasing of the music which are just lost when trying to explain them in Western classical terms. It’s one thing to analyse, another altogether to get the expression, what’s commonly called ‘the feel’ right.

          • Maria Brewin says:

            “Their music is indeed massively more sophisticated and difficult than anyone WHO HASN’T PLAYED IT can imagine”

            Yes, I did read it, and I thought it was an extremely convenient argument. Virtually no counter argument possible.

            The alleged sophistication is so incomprehensible that it defies description.

            BS indicator in the red.

          • David Osborne says:

            You’re being side-tracked. I was merely illustrating the point that it is not just the adherents of western classical music that believe theirs is the way the truth and the light. None of it is any more provable than claiming your deity is the one true God. Read my comment above about the science of how music affects us. You do understand by the way that I myself am first and foremost a classical music lover?

    • Wurtfanger says:

      I’m afraid that is like suggesting that if someone loves a McDonald’s ‘hamburger’ then they will naturally move on to a 28-day aged, rib-eye. Or that sitting in front of Eastenders every week will lead to an interest in Shakespeare. It doesn’t happen. One is trash and the other is isn’t. If people like Jenkins, all they want is more Jenkins, and more stuff like Jenkins. The idea that they will ‘move on’ to Britten or McMillan or anyone else is pure fantasy.

      Since when is it snobbery to call something out for what it is? It is crap.

      • David Osborne says:

        You just made three assertions without backing any of them up with a shred of evidence. Don’t confuse opinion with fact. Incidentally, I take it that before you came to that conclusion you took the trouble to get to know Jenkin’s music well?

    • Christopher Culver says:

      “Those people could potentially become part of the new audiences that classical music desperately needs for its own survival.”

      Sony Classical decided to take up Karl Jenkins and a few other very similar composers in the 1990s: it didn’t result in a rise in sales of other repertoire. In fact, making easy money with Karl Jenkins-like light music, film scores, and crossover proved such a great temptation, that the label ended up reducing the amount of traditional classical music it put out. (Other major labels have, sooner or later, broadly followed this trajectory.)

      If you can sell to the millions who might enjoy this light music, then why would you even care to nudge those people towards traditional classical music, which, for the time being at least, is guaranteed to sell miserably and possibly lose money? The idea of these composers being a “gateway to the real stuff” just doesn’t work in a free market (even local ensembles with lofty ideals still feel an analogous pressure to sell tickets and fill seats).

      • David Osborne says:

        Sorry I’m not a great believer in the gateway theory either, but for a different reason. What kind of bizarro world do we live in where popularity equates with inferiority? Why should it be that we place the least popular, the most difficult, complex and obscure music on the highest rung? Trust me, anyone can write really complex music. Very, very few can express great ideas really simply. Have a listen to Winterreise if you want an example. No music could be simpler. And no, it does not make sense that the less popular something is, the greater it’s artistic worth. Or vice-versa. When Mahler was creating programs during his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, he knew that if he was struggling to get bums on seats, the sure way to guarantee a full house was an all Wagner concert. As I keep saying, I’m not personally a fan but to engage and move people with your music as Karl Jenkins does, actually takes great talent.

        • John Borstlap says:

          The complexity and sophistication of Winterreise is not located in the type of musical material but in the psychology with which the material is handled, which is far more sophisticated and tasteful than anything that people like Jenkins can dream-up. There is a great difference between simple and primitive.

          There is / shoud be / a place for every type of music, no doubt. But that does not mean that there are no distinctions. The current availability of so many different types of music seems to invoke, with some people, the idea that this accessibility means that there are no differences in meaning and quality.

          • David Osborne says:

            But can I just make the point here that there has been plenty of science thrown at the subject of ‘how does music work’, and ‘why does it affect us the way it does’ and nothing conclusive has ever been come up with. I for one hope they never do. In the light of that, any attempt to rank the different forms of music are drifting into the realms of pseudo-science. Way too much theory masquerades as fact in this art-form and it all comes from that unprovable starting point notion of superiority. It has allowed music to be dominated by what can best be described as a cult. Indeed, as far back as 1836 Wagner wrote of the dangers of a “cult of affectation and intellectualism”.

            Thank you however for describing so eloquently what makes the magic of Winterreise so special. I love that idea, even if it is just a theory. Of course I prefer Schubert to Jenkins but why would it bother me if others feel differently?

          • John Borstlap says:

            To David Oborne: the point is not whether one is ‘bothered’ by people who feel differently, but about the claims being made which obliterate any distinction between good and bad, high and low, good taste and bad taste, art music and entertainment. Such distinctions are important because art music is dependent upon community support (it is expensive). Where we see orchestras being forced to merge, or being wrapped-up, where opera companies go bust, ensembles being dispersed, it is the egalitarian world view in the minds of responsible people and audiences which erodes the art form. So, it has to be defended, described, made understood, and if this cannot be done scientifically (which is pointless anyway since science cannot say anything meaningful about art as it is speechless vis a vis the important questions of life), it has to awaken an awareness of things that have a meaning and importance for all the inhabitants of a culture.

            There is nothing against a Jenkins music and its fans, but it should not be called on an equal footing with serious art music. It does no service to both types of music.

          • David Osborne says:

            Oh well, I’m done and I have an opera to finish. See you on the next one.

  • Joep Bronkhorst says:

    The most puzzling thing about this review is whether it actually is a review. Having read the whole thing, I’ve no idea who the performers were (aside from narrator Tony Robinson) or how competent they were as musicians. And why attack Jenkins’ The Armed Man, given that it was written 16 years ago? If Philip Clark was commissioned to review the performance, the editor should have sent it straight back to him and told him either to fulfil the brief or forfeit his fee.

  • Jorge Grundman says:

    Usually this kind of reviews only came from the envy and the ineptitude to be able to write just a single silence of Jenkis could write.

    Paraphrasing the reviewer: How does Philip Clark get away with his crappy reviews?

    In other words: critics must be always welcome but to critize in order to destruct must not be confused with a review. Music is not good or bad. Only likes or not.

    • John Borstlap says:

      In an ideal world, there should be two types of music critics: 1) the critic who first writes a review; 2) the critic who reviews the review, someone who has attended the very same concert.

  • Paul Kelly says:

    “Jenkins’ music has always been, and probably always will be, utter crap”.

    This is such a broad brush analysis that demonstrates a laziness unworthy of a professional critic.

    I can’t say I’ve ever heard Jenkin’s ‘classical’ work. But before he worked in what was probably Graham Collier’s best line-up and was a founder member of Ian Carr’s Nucleus wjhich one first prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In addition he wrote some really pithy works for Soft Machine (especially on ‘Six’), one of Britain’s most adventurous jazz-rock groups in the early 1970s, and wrote all of their ‘Land of Cockayne album’. He may now, for all I know, now write music that might be deemed-crowd-pleasing and ‘easy on the ear’. But his music ‘always has been …utter crap’.

    Philip Clark needs to get out more or quit criticism altogether.

  • John says:

    Yes, but it is just sooooooo bad.

  • Ferd says:

    Jenkins’ music is crap (in my opinion) because it’s pure pop culture, unoriginal, etc. etc. What I have to say on the matter will not change Jenkins’ popularity or make him rethink what he’s doing because there’s money in this corny tripe.

  • Alistair Hinton says:

    If it’s so obvious that Mr Jenkins’ music is of such slender quality, most people would hardly need a critic to write in the manner that Mr Clark has done in order to have to be convinced of its lack of merit.

    Mr Clark’s wearisomely repetitive use of “cr*p” and “sh*t” in what passes for his review suggests that his vocabulary might be as slender as is Mr Jenkins’ music. A critic’s job is to inform more than it is to present his/her own personal opinion. Having encountered Mr Clark’s self-indulgent “critical writings” previously, all that surprises me about this one is the sheer extent of the emptily witless vituperation that draws more attention to its writer than to Mr Jenkins and his work.

    Mr Clark would have offered a saner and more reasoned and acceptable a critique of Mr Jenkins’ music by writing nothing at all about it.

    That said, The Spectator is not, I imagine, most people’s first port of call when looking for reliable and informative music criticism in UK.

    As there is a thin line to be drawn between rubbishing a living composer’s work and libelling the composer, I wonder if Mr Jenkins – who is presumably aware of this piece – has called his lawyers yet.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is unlikely that anything can top this comment. Well said!

      But it is possible that the vapidness of mr J’s piece has irritated mr Clark so much, that the boundaries of his vocabulary has shrunk to a focus with an intensity inversely proportional to the communicativeness of the music.

    • Hilary says:

      Very well said but I’m not sure that most people *would* find it obvious that Jenkins’s music is of such slender quality. It’s deserving of a more thorough critique than the occasionally brilliant Philip Clark affords it here.

      Many, for instance might not appreciate the gulf between a little gem like Tavener’s “The Lamb” / Maxwell Davies’s “Farewell to Stromness” and the anodyne offerings of CJ. I’d be interested to read a review which attempted to make the distinction as I’m not able to do so in words.

  • Landohnemusik says:

    Er, Yes this music IS crappy. I sang in a choir doing this music and it was painful to sing. It’s the worst music I have ever heard written for a choir. going up against works by Walton, Britten etc. The harmonies were reminiscent of harmony exercises we did at music college. Absolutely terrible, it’s not even music.

  • Paul Derrick says:

    To be more constructive, I have always felt that Jenkins’ music goes for the “soft touch”, i.e. those listeners who desire an easy ride above all else. Classical Music(or non-popular music, call it what you will), is written to express those emotions and feelings that cannot be expressed in mere words or in brush strokes. It should challenge us, make us think, associate it with something going on in our lives, or in our past lives. Composers have always struggled and there are plenty of woefully neglected composers of the last 100 years who are all but ignored in the concert hall. Jenkins is a safe bet and writes what people think classical music should sound like. I am sure he is very skilled at what he does but it’s music written to order and I don’t believe he will change.
    Mr Clark may well truly believe Jenkins’ music to be crap or shit and he has explained why. David Fanning gave a more articulate review of a RLPO concert featuring Jenkins’ Mass, which can be found online. The content though is the same as that by Mr Clark.
    Finally and for what it’s worth, here is my honest opinion:
    Anyone who believes that Karl Jenkins is a great composer is seriously deluded, in the same way they would feel Katherine Jenkins is a great singer or that André Rieu is a great musician……….they are all popular and well thought-of but I sometimes weep when they are all classed alongside musicians of real standing. Now there are people who have really strived to heighten their art! Jenkins is a by-the-numbers composer but all the same, good luck to him! He probably earns far more money than Harrison Birtwistle!

  • John HOLMES says:

    he’s right about jenkins though

    • Jason B. says:

      No, he’s not. He is a twat. The real question is how he gets away with writing crap like this, without a proper right of reply.