Milton Babbitt, 1916-2011

Milton Babbitt has died, aged 94.

A huge figure in american music of the last fifty years, and a much-maligned and misunderstood figure and, by all accounts, a wonderfully warm and generous figure.

By sheer coincidence, I was today re-reading his article Who cares if you listen? (typically used by critics who haven’t read it as a stick to beat challenging music with), regretting not knowing his music better than I do, and wondering what he was writing now.

Time to rectify the lack of familiarity, at least.

RIP

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Crrritic II – distance and dialogue

I’d been meaning for a while to write something about music criticism, and the increasing role of bloggers and online communities in its changing face.  Completely fortuitously, a bunch of stuff has popped up in the last couple of weeks:

Firstly, a chatter post on NewMusicBox by Alexandra Gardner on the merits of newspaper reviews in light of two reviews in the same paper of the same concert (scroll down for some interesting responses in the comments).

Secondly, an interesting-ish fifteen-minute-ish video on blogging and music journalism (via Rouge’s Foam) here, in which I was really struck by this comment from Dr Grant Black (professor and author):

When you associate […] too closely with the product that you review, it becomes very hard to maintain an independent perspective.  […] One of the cardinal rules about criticism is maintaining some sense of distance.   That you have to maintain a sense of distance to have some perspective on the music.

I sorta think that one of the bigger problems evident in classical- and new-music criticism is just this distance of association.  Everywhere in the printed press we see lack of engagement with the material masquerading as independent and impartial perspective.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read a review of a live performance that has done little more than list the programme, describe the playing as competent (or not), and perhaps mention whether the rest of the audience liked it or not.
On the other hand, one very seldom reads reviews – even of new music – where one gets the sense that the critic has actually really listened to the piece.

Now, to be fair, critics writing for newspapers are under some pretty dire restrictions in terms of things like word count – Charles T. Downey spells some of these out in his response to Alexandra Gardner’s post – and I do believe it does critics a disservice to overlook these limitations of the medium.  But the question remains as to what the actual value of a review written under these conditions actually serves.

And perhaps this is also partly a side-effect of money being involved.  Black suggests that, as a rule, when you take money out of the equation, the quality drops.  And maybe it’s partially true – if you’re paying somebody, you’re probably going to decide to pay somebody that can string a good sentence together.  Contrariwise, I’d like to suggest that when you remove money, the people still involved in musical criticism are the ones that really care about contributing to the discourse.  While Schumann and Berlioz’s activities as musical critics were certainly lucrative for them, they were fundamentally motivated by a love of and investment in a field in which they were themselves practitioners – the validity of the perspective they brought to their criticism was manifest in the nuance and subtlety of their (at times highly impassioned) commentary, rather than by pretending that there’s some kind of distance.

Ultimately, is there really a sensible criterion of ‘distance’?  Doesn’t that suggest some sort of objectivity?  I don’t really believe in objectivity, and I don’t think that criticism is something where objective distance is a meaningful thing to talk about.  I do believe in authority, and readers can make their own decisions about whom they trust to talk about the music that they love.

Black seems to assume that criticism is the same sort of reporting as news reporting.  It’s not.  If it were, it would be difficult to put a review together that consists of anything more than a list of factual information about the pieces themselves.  Music is a cultural artefact arising from, and produced for the consumption of, communities of listeners who share similar tastes and auditory interests.  It stands in dialogue with other music produced under similar (and different!) conditions.  There is no such thing as ‘The’ audience, just as there is no such thing as a set of objectively justified/justifiable criteria for what makes a piece ‘great’.  As such, criticism should ideally constitute an engagement with the material that reflects the subcultural priorities to which the critic subscribes.

The medium of blogging permits this.  There’s plenty of dross, to be sure, and the kind of soapboxing that I’m indulging in right now (the downside of internet democracy is internet democracy, it turns out…), but the open-ness of the interwebz permits highly engaged listeners to offer an individual, nuanced and informed view that responds to these priorities, without the limitations imposed by the print media.  They are better able to serve the needs of their potential readership, and, perhaps more importantly, better placed to enact this in the spirit of cultural dialogue, rather than cultural catalogue.

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!

This blog has been a little bit dormant for the last little while, largely to do with study and work commitments.  The plan is to keep it a bit more active in 2011, though.  As part of this, I’m signing up to the Post a Week 2011 project.  I often find myself writing things, and then just not getting around to hitting “publish” (a quick scan of my “drafts” folder has something about my experiences at Royaumont, an unpublishable rant about Lady Gaga, a consideration of combining genre resonance in performance, a couple of planned interviews, and a piece pretty much flaming Norman Lebrecht, most of which will never see the light of day).  I’m hoping that planning to do a post each week will help me get over this.

When I started this blog, I promised myself that I would never post unless I felt like I had something I actually wanted to share.  Sometimes I wish more people would avoid producing crap just for the sake of producing something.  So we’ll see how this plays out against a nominal obligation to post a certain amount.  I totally reserve the right to cop out of the post a week thing at any time (I hear the disappointed cries of literally tens of readers, already…).

Anyway, best wishes to everybody for the coming year – I’m looking forward to the best and most productive one yet.