August 22, 2004

Postscript to Critical Conversation - A Critic Confesses

The discussions generated by ArtsJournal's Critical Conversation: Classical Music Critics on the Future of Music continue both online and offline. August 7, at the Aspen Music Festival, all critical participants (and no composers?) were publically engaged at a symposium. Gann's ongoing critique of contemporary music criticism seems to have finally been acknowledged although the outcome of this critique is likely to be business as usual, more continued coverage of the big names at the big venues and thats it.

Basically, today's critics need to wake up to the fact that their job no longer is merely going to a few concerts a week and writing a column. Today's musical environment is of magnificent diversity and requires critics with imagination, drive and a true curiosity for what is new. This implies, of course, a curiosity about the online music scene, a venue currently completely ignored.

Anne Midgette in today's New York Times reflects adequately about her problem. She expresses surprise about her friend having a Tan Dunn disk (and not the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon CD) while she had no interest in classical music and then goes on to speak specifically about the ongoing failures of her ilk. From her article -

We beat the drum about the need for more new work, trying to encourage it when it comes, pointing at every young face around us as evidence of the longed-for audience of the future. We hope to convince people like my friend, potential Tan Dun listeners, that there is something here for them. In essence, we're demanding of classical music that it be a living art.

But focusing as we do on the larger institutions, we're not necessarily keeping abreast of the latest trends in composition ourselves. Sure, there are many composers who write music for the orchestras, chamber ensembles and opera companies that we cover. But are they really the future of the field?


The history of music criticism is littered with people who were blind to the greatest things that were happening around them. We want to be better, smarter, more perceptive, so we seek to demonstrate our understanding, our foresight, our vision.

Ultimately, we're helpless. We never really know what's going to interest even the people we're closest to. The audience will blithely go about figuring out what it wants, or doesn't want, whatever we may want for it. And try as we might, cast our nets as wide as we will, there's a good chance that if a big idea does prove, 50 years hence, to have emerged from the morass of the early 21st century, the critics will probably have missed it.

This is a powerful admission, and one that hopefully will encourage all critics to stop merely covering the world of Adams, Reich, Boulez and Carter and to venture forth into all the possible niches of the real new music world, small clubs, online, micro-labels, et al.

Posted by jeff at August 22, 2004 10:02 AM