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.

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Computer games and Art

Film critic Roger Ebert has come out again, in response to a TED talk by game designer Kellee Santiago, with a declaration that computer games can never be art. At least, not in the lifetime of any gamer currently alive.

This is the TED talk he was reponding to:

Now, to give Ebert his due, his viewpoint is rational, well-intentioned, and pretty reasonable. He picks apart a number of Santiago’s points that, frankly, don’t hold up to closer scrutiny. But the lack of validity of a particular example does not necessarily indicate the failure of the underlying point.

My difficulty with Ebert’s view is that he appears to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what a computer game is. He purports to assess the art-worthiness of the three games Santiago uses as examples (Waco, Braid and Flower) without having played them, which seems to me a bit like dismissing Vertigo because you didn’t like the trailer. In this instance, the only game I have played of the three is Braid, which is also the game where Ebert’s dismantling of it makes the least sense. Braid invites its audience to engage with the notion of their own historicity (not history) precisely through the mechanism of game interaction. The story is definitely a little bit pants, but in context serves as little more than a qualifier – a lens, if you will – to inform and add detail to the interaction.

And here’s the thing. What a computer game does that no other supposed ‘artform’ does is interaction. If computer games are capable of being art in their own right (and not purely on their visual or sonic splendour), then it is surely on this basis that they can be so.

Now, the definition of ‘art’ is a problem here. I don’t want to go into it too much, because I’m not entirely sure I believe in some sort of vaguely-definable quality that somehow imbues some objects with an aura of awesome intellectual and/or emotional cred, and others not. But if I were accept at face value that there is such a thing as a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘not’, my feeling is that the difference is one of audience engagement. ‘Art’ invites its audience to think critically about the world around them, themselves, their emotion, etc. ‘Not’, at its worst, is little more than a form of pornography, offering a blend of gross visual and sonic stimulation and faux-sentimentality. (I’m sure Roger Ebert is familiar with this, as I’m sure he was probably professionally required to see Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen, which is pretty much the Worst Film Ever. But I digress). My basic point is that ‘art’ encourages its audience to respond actively (albeit in purely emotional or intellectual way) while ‘not’ compresses its audience into a pus-like ball of passivity.

If audience engagement is a valid criterion for art, then Braid gets across the line in spades. In the same way that poetry can, Braid provokes a subtle and nuanced response from a sympathetic audience. And it does it through the ‘medium’ of interaction. Now, Braid is not Hamlet, by any stretch of the imagination. But maybe it’s… ummm… I dunno – like, maybe it’s one of Aristophanes’ crapper works, y’know?, the ones that Penguin Classics were all, like, “Ummmm… yeah… let’s not reprint these ones…”. (Okay, so my limited knowledge of mediocre-but-still-art theatre really let me down, here…). And like all art, Braid is not going to provoke an ‘artistic’ response from all players. For everybody in my English class whose life was altered by The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, there were about fifteen who just couldn’t give a fuck.

Ebert also seems to get hung up on the idea that the purpose of playing a game is to win it. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true. But, while a game typically has a trajectory (i.e. a start point leading, sometimes via a user-determined middle, to an end point), this is true of any artform that is limited by the arrow of time (music, dance, theatre, cinema) and, much like in music, dance, theatre and cinema, the point of the game is the experience of which the game consists, not purely its resolution.

Not all games are art. Not even most games are art. I suspect that very few games are art. And those games which are art are perhaps not particularly good art. But I think that it’s naïve to assert – particularly having not actually bothered to come to terms with essential elements of the medium (it’s kind of like assessing Mahler on the basis of a few screenshots of the score) – that a computer game can never be art.

Or maybe this is simply a difference in perspective. Ebert appears to think that there needs to be some kind ‘proof’ that something is art. That nothing is art until it can be proved otherwise. Whereas I like to think that anything that is capable of making us think more about our own place in the world around us is art. And that it’s impossible to prove otherwise.

A more light-hearted take on the subject matter can be found here.

The ‘Death’ of ‘Classical Music’

There’s a lot to say about the supposed ‘Death’ of ‘Classical Music’ (scare-quotes and scare-capitalisation added for additional scarification). Most of it’s been said by other people, but largely in response to other other-people who have said other things, about which they’re mostly wrong. I’m sure at some stage I’ll not be able to resist a lengthy rant about this, but now is (thankfully) not that time.

But I did really enjoy Proper Discord’s list of 30 things that won’t save classical music. I also very much enjoyed the ensuing celebrity-deathmatch-style pundit smackdown. Perhaps Highlander-style bloodsports will save classical music?

Book review: Sounding postmodernism

David Bennett’s Sounding postmodernism (published by the Australian Music Centre) is an attempt to look at Australian composition through the lens of a modern/postmodern dichotomy. Despite the understanding of these particular terms being highly contestable in a musical context (both are very highly politicised, and the claiming of these terms by particular aesthetic/ideological camps renders them almost useless in terms of their actual meaning), this should have been a really interesting contribution to the Australian discussion.

Unfortunately, every time I picked this book up to read it, I started to get really pissed off.

Bennett’s book, rather than surveying a landscape, seems to be an articulate but thinly veiled attempt to propagate the myth that ‘modernism’ is evil and crushes your freedom of expression, while ‘postmodernism’ is free and you can do what you want. I respectfully disagree with this viewpoint (or, rather, I think that talking about a ‘modernist hegemony’ is meaningless, given the extreme variety of different approaches that the book categorises as ‘modernist’ – indeed, it seems to me that the modernists are simply the ones who the ‘postmodernists’ felt were repressing them), that shouldn’t have been a barrier to an interesting publication. As it is, though, Bennett aims to provide a context, rather than an analysis, and to this end quote frequently and selectively from musicians like John Adams and Phillip Glass, without offering much in the way of the countering view. This gives the reader very little option but to accept what Bennett writes wholesale.

I’m too young to remember the ‘modernist hegemony’, and as such am not prepared to challenge the veracity of Bennett’s claims, but he’s done a terribly shabby job of actually proving his point, lending the book a propagandist air, rather than one of scholarly dissection. I’m sure that this is because that is the way that many of Bennett’s interviewees perceived the aesthetico-political status quo at the time they became practitioners, and that’s all well and good, but Bennett’s rhetorical mode gives the sheen of academia to what is essentially a collection of unverified opinion and hearsay.

Furthermore, Bennett seems to take the view (or want his interviewees to take the view) that there is still an institutionalised modernist hegemony, actively repressing freedom of expression.

This is the particular thread of the book that really pissed me off, as it’s laughably inaccurate. One need only point, on one hand, to the chairmanship of Graeme Koehne (and now Matthew Hindson) of the Music Board of the Australia Council, Carl Vine’s directorship of Musica Viva (which has seen a parade of featured composers including Matthew Hindson, Graeme Koehne, Carl Vine, Richard Mills, Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe), and the concentration of major performing and recording opportunities such as the ABC Classics CD series of Australian Orchestral works performed by the TSO with Richard Mills (which has included composers such as Graeme Koehne, Richard Mills, Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards and Brenton Broadstock).

Contrast this with the de-funding of the ELISION ensemble, the exodus of many of the country’s finest contemporary performers and composers (Richard Haynes, Liza Lim, Peter Veale, Carl Rosman, Mark Knoop, the list goes on and on), the rapid growth in Melbourne of a DIY underground contemporary music scene, the continual lack of funding for experimental music (which routinely attracts bigger audiences than many ‘important’ Australian composers) and the sheer impossibility of receiving new-work funding for anything outside the ‘postmodernist hegemony’, and I think the actual picture becomes relatively clear.
For many composers I know, building a career in this country has been a constant struggle absolutely every step of the way against a politically-powerful compositional ‘ruling class’ which is actively antagonistic to anything that might have a dissonance in it (much of this ‘class’ receives a shout-out in the paragraph above, although there are some genuine and remarkable individuals there, too, who I hope won’t be too offended by the proximity).

While obviously well-grounded in twentieth-century critical theory, Bennett doesn’t seem to really know anything about the music he discusses. Any of it. In his discussions of Boulez, for instance, he seems happy to let other people speak for him. I wasn’t left with the impression that he’d heard even a single note of Boulez, and the quoting-from-others approach in this context doesn’t even have the advantage of scholarly rigour, given that no dissenting view is provided, and the quotes are not interrogated.

The interviews that account for a significant portion of the book are rather problematic, too. A series of questions was posed to a wide selection of composers of varying artistic practice across Australia about their relationship with the term ‘postmodernism’ and their attitudes to compositional work. My understanding is that much of this work was undertaken by Dr Linda Kouvaras, to whom props are due, as these are a very interesting series of questions. Transcripts are available on Resonate magazine of the interviews with David Chisholm and David Chesworth.

Unfortunately, many of the interview subjects seem not to really have any idea what ‘postmodernism’ is, or that they’ve even thought about any problems that might relate to mode of musical expression, as related to the nature of the tradition or of audience reception. Frankly, many of these interviews are just embarrassing, and the fact that in most cases the subjects are not aware of the collossal gap between the question being asked and their capacity to respond is even more sad.

With a few notable exceptions, those that write most eloquently on their relationship with postmodernism are those that identify themselves as being more broadly sympathetic to the modernist project, a result that runs the risk of giving the impression that anybody who has actually thought about the issues here doesn’t buy into the postmodern politics.

I’m being, perhaps, overly harsh here, but I can’t help but feel terribly betrayed. This book should have been a great opportunity to further intelligent, articulate discourse on contemporary music in Australia. But, sadly it’s just another propaganda leaflet, aimed at furthering an aesthetic programme of questionable value and taste.

[P.S. Although the praise from the back cover of the book (from Peter Tregear and Susan McClary) is readable on the book’s Amazon page, I can’t find any other reviews of this on the interwebz (yet). If anybody knows of one, or wishes to offer a dissenting view, I’d be very pleased if you could get in touch so that I can either link to or include other views here in the interests of balance.]

[EDIT 18 Jan 2010] I highly, highly recommend that people interested in further reviews of this book make the effort to access Michael Hooper’s excellent review in Cambridge University Press’s TEMPO journal. Unfortunately, this is not available through online databases, but for those not averse to libraries, the bibliographic details for this can be found here, or in Dr Paul Watt’s comment, below. MH draws some rather different conclusions from my own, although I pretty much agree with him point-for-point on the details. He also discusses in more than cursory detail all of the elements of the books that I didn’t.