He's Just Not That Into You
Debussy at the piano in 1893, with the French composer Ernest Chausson (standing)

He's Just Not That Into You

Have we lost clear sight of the purpose of music criticism?

Late in his career the English composer Benjamin Britten remarked that in every piece of music he had written, despite his best efforts, there was usually a passage or two that never quite satisfied him but that no amount of hard work or rewriting seemed to fix. It was strange, he said, that not once had a music critic ever pointed out those passages in a review, much less suggested ways he could improve them.

Lately I’ve found myself, not for the first time, questioning the role of the professional music critic – the actual usefulness, to the music world as a whole and to society at large, of somebody who gets paid, year in, year out, to review concerts and recordings. All of us who care about music hold forth endlessly about what’s good/bad/could be better, but only a few of us have the courage, or the megalomania, to fix our opinions in the cold light of print. Of course there’s all the difference in the world between mere opinion and real criticism (‘opinion is cheap,’ wrote the critic Paul Griffiths, ‘criticism you have to pay for’). Any of us can start a blog and plaster our views all over the web; but real critics are professional people who will have spent years cutting their teeth before they are allowed to bite in public. Right?

Wrong. Music criticism, like journalism more generally, is one of those rare professions where qualifications are unnecessary: anyone, in principle, can do it. More than that: qualifications are impossible. There are no higher degrees in music criticism. Imagine someone opening a dental practice and deciding to learn on the job, committing atrocities as they go; that is essentially how music critics learn their trade. Most of them have studied music formally, but, amazingly, not all of them. Occasionally one finds a classical music critic who cannot actually read music notation, or a rock critic who can’t play the guitar.

It’s no surprise, then, that almost every musician I know hates music critics and considers them, for the most part, trumped-up charlatans. But I am inclined to defend them – or, rather, to defend music criticism as a whole. I’m as appalled as anyone by the power some critics wield, by the damage they can cause to a composer or a performer’s morale or reputation. Some music criticism is actively nasty, and some of the rest is just plain useless; but that doesn’t mean the whole activity is bogus.

When pressed further, some musicians turn out to be not really hostile to music criticism as such, just exasperated by the fact that it often seems so confused about its purpose. Its original function, as exemplified by the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik founded by Robert Schumann in the 1830s, was to form a link between the latest music and the public. As a critic, Schumann was a professional musician writing for the amateur and the professional alike. The intention of his magazine was to explain, to aid comprehension and appreciation, to give vent to enthusiasm, and not (or not primarily) to sit in judgement. We have lost clear sight of those aims today. Obviously critics are not paid to be nice, nor to tread a safe middle ground. If only in the interest of readability, strong opinions are more valuable than ‘reasonable’ positions. And it must be admitted that critics can almost never win, unless of course they lavish their subject (I almost wrote ‘victim’) with effusive, articulate, intelligent praise: nothing else is terribly satisfactory.

Musicians’ hackles are raised by all types: the critic whose likely response you know before reading the review (predictability); the critic who praises one thing one month and trashes it the next (capriciousness); the critic as defender of a particular artistic status quo (rigidity, pomposity); the critic who bends with the wind, responding to fashion (spinelessness). And what about those critics who embark on a vendetta against a particular conductor, composer or performer, abusing the neutrality that should be a hallmark of their position?

Posterity has a way of righting these wrongs. I am presently completing a biography of the wonderful French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier, who throughout his short life received consistently bad reviews at the hands of one Montreal critic, Claude Gingras (‘I am more and more convinced that Mr Vivier is not a musician,’ snarled Gingras in one, fairly mild, review). Vivier is now emerging as one of the most talented and most loveable of the composers of spectral music. Who has heard of Claude Gingras?

It’s worth remembering that music criticism is about immediate reactions, albeit reactions that come, hopefully, from a position of considerable knowledge and expertise. Whereas musicology (like history) is based on research and reflection, critics, in their daily work, are not permitted the luxury of retrospection. Therein lies their vulnerability, but also their strength. Critics shouldn’t try to claim omniscience and infallibility. I don’t believe in purely ‘objective’ criticism, nor in definitive judgements for all time. I prefer to read a critic with a big personality and clear views, who may change his/her mind about something a year or even a week later, or who may seem to have been ‘wrong’ about certain things in the eyes of posterity: it doesn’t matter. My favourite music critics are all very opinionated people, and most of them are composers: Berlioz, Debussy, and more recently Tom Johnson and Kyle Gann. What they say is no less valuable for being heavily biased.

We should remember, as well, that music critics are real people and subject to the same vagaries of human existence as the rest of us (not, of course, that that excuses them anything). What about the middle-aged critic suffering from burnout, who is simply bored with having to listen and respond to music all the time? Shouldn’t there be a compulsory sabbatical for critics every seven years to give them a breathing space, a chance to recharge their batteries, to learn to love again? Isn’t that preferable to reading the same world-weary, dispiriting sludge, column after column?

Why, finally, do we need music critics? I’ll give you one, perhaps idiosyncratic, answer, from the vantage point of someone involved primarily in new music. Music criticism should be, in part, a record of how music felt in its own time. If it’s not doing that, it’s not doing its job properly. I want to know if composer X’s new piece or band Y’s new release is mind-blowing, or just puzzling, or dully predictable; and (in the first case) I want to know how the public reacted to it. As a critical goal, this is not easy to achieve. It requires a great deal of knowledge. It is not simply a matter of stating a personal viewpoint; it is a delicate balance between accurately reflecting a collective, grapevine opinion and yet daring to stand outside that opinion enough to contextualise it, to take issue with it if necessary. Composing music, playing it and writing about it are all facets of our larger engagement with music as a whole; they should have as few boundaries separating them as possible. The sort of criticism that interests me most is the kind that stays closest to the activities of making and playing music, with all their inherent difficulties; criticism that probes and provokes but finally leaves us dying to hear the music under discussion. That seems a far cry from what much music criticism today has become.

Published on 1 June 2009

Bob Gilmore (1961–2015) was a musicologist, educator and keyboard player. Born in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, he studied at York University, Queen's University Belfast, and at the University of California.

His books include Harry Partch: a biography (Yale University Press, 1998) and Ben Johnston: Maximum Clarityand other writings on music (University of Illinois Press, 2006), both of which were recipients of the Deems Taylor Award from ASCAP. He wrote extensively on the American experimental tradition, microtonal music and spectral music, including the work of such figures as James Tenney, Horațiu Rădulescu, Claude Vivier, and Frank Denyer. 

Bob Gilmore taught at Queens University, Belfast, Dartington College of Arts, Brunel University in London, and was a Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute in Ghent. He was the founder, director and keyboard player of Trio Scordatura, an Amsterdam-based ensemble dedicated to the performance of microtonal music, and for the year 2014 was the Editor of Tempo, a quarterly journal of new music. His biography of French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier was published by University of Rochester Press in June 2014. 

Between 2005 and 2012, Bob Gilmore published several articles in The Journal of Music, including seven significant profiles of Irish composers.

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