When people talk about the musical world, or part of it, as a “community,” the presumption is that they are speaking mainly of composers, performers and listeners – the producers and consumers of music, with perhaps a second, similarly constituted tier devoted to record companies (or, these days, streaming services) and those who listen, buy, or subscribe.
Wandering around in there, somewhere, are people like me, who write about music and musicians, sometime as a critic and sometimes as an interviewer. How we fit into this community has long been a fraught question from just about every point of view. That is likely always to be the case to some degree, but it strikes me that things are changing, and probably for the better, because of changes in journalism, changes in the character and chemistry of the music world (particularly the new-music world), and the advent of social media, which has created an interesting and useful transparency.
Everyone has opinions about critics, of course, but those opinions have always been oddly fluid. The same musicians who publicly decry critics’ baleful influence, privately solicit coverage. Readers have their own frustrations (“he likes everything” / “he never likes anything”) but they keep reading.
From a critic’s perspective, the problematic duality is that we see ourselves as both part of, and apart from, the musical community. At The New York Times in particular, there has always been a self-conscious apartness, fostered most firmly in the days when Harold C. Schonberg was the chief critic. From the time you first log into a computer in the Times newsroom (actually, for me it was switching on an IBM Selectric typewriter), you have it drilled into you that you must retain an appropriate distance from the world you are covering.
Where other papers, like the New York Herald Tribune, seemingly had no problem allowing critics to also compose (as Virgil Thomson did), at the Times, you had to choose. When Eric Salzman was told to decide, after Schonberg heard that one of his works was to be performed, he left the paper to compose. More recently, Will Crutchfield left the Times to become a conductor.
One reason it can be so hard to walk the observer/participant line is that most of us who write about music do so because music is what we love most in the world. We tend not to be former sports writers who were simply assigned a new beat. Virtually every critic I know plays an instrument (or several). Some compose, or did in their younger years.
Many of us earned music degrees, but decided that we were happier listening to copious amounts of music, and writing about it for readers who love it as much as we do, but who might not have the same analytical tools or insights into what makes great works great (and flawed works flawed) than we would be performing, touring, seeking commissions and grants, and dealing with the other, more quotidian challenges of a musical life.
Most of us, at some point, stopped to take an honest, critical look at our potential contributions to the music world, and decided that we had more to offer as chroniclers and interpreters of it – writing “the first draft of history,” as The New York Times likes to say – than as performers or composers.
But there’s something else. Most critics, by the time we began writing, had amassed large collections of recordings – multiple performances of great works, everything we can find by contemporary composers who interest us, full discographies of performers we admire, live recordings from radio broadcasts – as well as shelves packed with scores, reference books, biographies, and memoirs.
Look at our collections and you can see what’s going on: We’re fans, at heart. Opinionated fans (as fans usually are), with an ability to persuade people to at least consider our point of view. Making our arguments for publication is the next logical step, and the logical step beyond that, once we have a forum, is to interview musicians whose work we’ve always admired (and some we’ve never seen the point of), in order to hear firsthand what makes them tick, how they forged their compositional or interpretive styles, and what they had in mind when they created particular works or decided to take on certain repertory.
Often these discussions are illuminating. Sometimes they are disappointing. I’ll never forget interviewing a singer who was regarded as one of the great sopranos of our time, and asking her what went through her mind when she sang a set of songs, by Mahler and others, about the deaths of children. “Well,” she said, “I want everyone to like me.” Or the time another star soprano who had been singing since the 1930s, told me that she never knew that Marcello, in La Bohème, was painting the Red Sea until she saw the opera with supertitles, in the 1970s – this despite the fact that the very first sung words of the opera are “questo mar rosso” – “this Red Sea.”
Sometimes you find that you and your interviewee share a particular view about music, style, or perhaps even life in general. And that’s when you’re supposed to see the red flag, because the rule in journalism is that while you can get to know musicians by interviewing them, you can’t become their pal. It’s easy enough to see why. Let’s say you interview a composer whose works you’ve admired since your student years, and after a few interviews, you feel you have a sympathetic connection that under other circumstances you would call friendship. You may feel that this sympathy gives you a perspective that makes you the ideal writer to explain this composer’s work to readers. And maybe you are.
But as sure as God made little green apples and allowed snakes to offer them around, the day will come when the limits of this friendship are tested, and it won’t be fun. A new work might disappoint you in any number of ways, and you will realize that you have to say so – and that when you do, your composer friend will feel betrayed. You might entertain the fantasy that your composer friend noticed the same flaws you did, and let them slide because of deadline pressure, and that by mentioning them, you are merely confirming what your friend already knows – that the piece needs to be fixed. In a way, you may reason, you did your friend a favor.
In the fullness of time they may come to see it that way. But mostly, they won’t, and the moment you realize that the work you’re covering is not their best, you also know that you’re in a tough spot. If you do not express your reservations, fully and directly, you are not being honest with yourself, your readers, the musical world at large, and not least all the other composers with whom you do not have a personal relationship, and about whose music you would unhesitatingly express objections if their works had similar problems.
Looking at it that way, in fact, you aren’t really doing your friend a favor by withholding, because if you consider a work flawed, you are probably not alone, and if you don’t say it, someone else will. If you can’t call it as you hear it, you should give up criticism, and if your composer friend cannot respect your opinion as an honest response, or for some reason counted on your protection rather than your honesty, well, that’s why you’re supposed to keep a professional distance in the first place.
And yet, we want to believe that musicians will trust that reviews are the fair, honest responses of experienced listeners who came to a performance hoping, like everyone else in the hall, to hear something great, illuminating or moving.
That’s asking a lot. But it happens.
In the early 1990s, I reviewed an opera that I generally liked, but found flawed in ways that I detailed in my review. I didn’t know the composer, and had not run into much of his music before or since. But about a decade after the performance, I received what amounted to a thank you note. This composer had taken my comments to heart and had revised the opera, which he now regarded as greatly improved. It was not scheduled for another performance, so he was not soliciting a second review. He just felt compelled to let me know that my review, critical though it was, had a positive effect.
I’d say that critics live for such moments, but we don’t. When it happens, it’s interesting, but we have no reason to expect it, and it’s not why we do what we do. We listen and we respond – ideally with some empathy, because having composed and performed, we know the effort that goes into it. When it works, we’re delighted. When it doesn’t, we have to say so.
Still, I can’t help but feel that the possibility of this kind of response is increasing as both the musical and journalistic worlds reinvent themselves.
One change for the better has been the way reviews are assigned. When I began covering concerts for The New York Times in 1988, after 12 years of record reviewing and feature writing, John Rockwell would come into the office every Wednesday night and unilaterally chart out every critic’s week. You would pick up your schedule on Thursday morning, and go where you were sent.
By the time I left the music department, in 2012, the procedure had changed radically. We each submitted lists with three or four concerts for each day of the coming week, in order of preference, and would then meet to work out the details of who was reviewing what. In most cases, we were assigned the concerts we most wanted to hear.
The significance of the change was that the Times’ music staff mainly would be covering concerts that the individual critics thought were likely to be interesting, worthy events. That didn’t mean they were slam-dunks, of course. Sometimes our preferences might be for musicians we knew only from recordings, and live performance is a different matter. Sometimes they were musicians we had heard or read about, but hadn’t heard personally, and were curious. It could be that we chose and concert on the basis of the repertory, but didn’t know whether the performers were up to it. And when your main interest is new music, as mine was (is), you are always taking a chance, even if you know the composer’s work.
Still, since we each knew the field well enough to make informed choices, we often enjoyed the concerts we heard. This became a problem for some readers, who complained about the preponderance of positive reviews. I understood their disappointment. Negative reviews can be far more entertaining than positive ones. They’re more fun to write, too, to be honest. When we write them, it is because we believe they are deserved, and sometimes we think of well-turned barbs as our just compensation for a wasted evening.
But when it comes down to it, if I have a choice between spending an evening with a work I love (let’s say, Satyagraha) and one I’m handed, on assignment (for example, La Forza del Destino, which, when I last reviewed it, I described as “four soul-numbing hours of ludicrous plot twists and stultifying interludes” peopled with characters that “you could [not] possibly care about, beyond wishing they’d shut up long enough to kill one another, as at last they do”), I’m going to choose Satyagraha, the potential entertainment value of my review be damned. Ars longa, as they say, vita brevis.
There is a hankering at newspapers now to cover the arts differently. Sometimes editors’ ideas are decidedly half-baked (or less): Look at the National Post debacle in Toronto, where an editor suppressed his critic’s review, and told a publicist that he found performance reviews old hat and was considering, instead, running photo spreads supplied by arts organizations – turning his paper, in effect, into an adjunct of those organizations’ publicity departments.
More thoughtful editors, and editors who actually care about the arts, but who are also antsy about the traditional review format, are looking into other ways to move beyond it, or at least, to supplement it. The short video productions that Anthony Tommasini made for The New York Times website – including an explanation of 12-tone composition works, in which he played a passage from a Schoenberg work, and then looked at the camera and shrugged, as if to say, “see, it’s not so difficult” – were superb.
The podcasts by the jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff were terrific as well, for taking Ratliff’s ideas, and those of other Times pop writers, farther than they could be explored in short print reviews. For a while, the Times’ classical music critics did online record reviews, in which we took readers where print reviews could not – into the grooves (or, I guess, ones and zeros) of the recordings, to hear samples that brought to life the points we were making.
Ratliff’s podcast ended when he left the paper this summer, and the Times pulled the plug on the other projects long ago, in an early sign of the attention deficit disorder that plagues its editorial staff these days. That’s fine – those projects showed what could be done, and they may rise again, if not at the Times, then somewhere else.
What they have in common is that they chip away at the wall between critics and the rest of the music world, by letting us make the cases we want to make in different, more direct ways. So does the journalistic world’s engagement with social media – something a lot of us looked at with some suspicion at first, but which has proved a vital adjunct to what we do.
At the Times, the social-media experiment began in the 1990s, when the paper’s online efforts were but a glint in its internet division’s figurative eye. In partnership with AOL, the paper gave some of its writers chat boards. I had one called “Ask Allan Kozinn” (hey, I didn’t come up with the title), which quickly became a place for lively discussions about music, reviews and other topics (history, religion and food, among them). Many of the daily participants were just regular Times readers, but there was also an increasing number of musicians – orchestra and chamber players, soloists, singers, composers, many of them using Köchel numbers as screen names.
Was that transgressing the “you can’t be their pals” imperative? I don’t think so. The chat board created an interesting and useful network – a community, of sorts. It brought readers and musicians together, with a critic moderating (and, at times, refereeing), and yielded a valuable exchange of ideas. The Times eventually dropped the chat rooms as well, but moved on to other social media sites, like Facebook, which allows more real-time, real-world exchanges. The paper encouraged us to participate in that too – to post our reviews and articles, and to be available to discuss them, and whatever else came up.
For some readers, critics’ involvement in Facebook discussions was an overt violation of critical propriety. Indeed, one reader who complained about the tilt toward positive reviews ascribed this to critics and musicians being “friends” on Facebook and, as she was outraged to see, clicking “Like” on each other’s comments – something she interpreted as a form of back-slapping chumminess.
It probably hadn’t dawned on her that discussions between musicians and critics have always taken place – in interviews, when we need to call or write in search of information. Participating in a Facebook discussion is not fundamentally different than conducting an interview (which, after all, is an exchange of ideas, or literally, views), or appearing on a panel. You would think, in fact, that someone so conspiratorially inclined might reason that when critics participate in discussions on a service like Facebook, the very public aspect of the venue makes the conversations entirely above board.
Public discussions in which composers and performers comment about the projects they are working on, and what’s on their minds generally, with comments by readers and responses from the musicians, offer critics and reporters a valuable window into their world. And clicking “Like” on a comment, apart from being a fairly innocuous shorthand for “yeah, I agree,” is also a way of being something more than an eavesdropper, if less than a participant: It alerts those in the discussion to the fact that you’re reading the thread. It seems only fair.
In purely practical terms, I have found stories worth pursuing in social media. The first New Music Gathering, in San Francisco, was something I might not have covered, or known about, if I hadn’t stumbled into a discussion of plans for it among the composers who put it together. (The Gathering itself, in fact, was an outgrowth of a Facebook discussion.) Would it have been more “pure” to wait for the press release? Maybe. But that’s so last decade.
However you interpret and evaluate the slowly evolving changes in journalistic approach, and the interactions inherent in social media, they are fundamentally altering the relationship between critics and the musicians they cover. Mostly, they are making each side more three-dimensional. And though it may seem counterintuitive, given that astonishing level of beastliness you often see in online discussions, the transparency afforded by social media has yielded a level of civility and understanding between critics and musicians that is new, refreshing and enlightening for all sides.
Yes, it still makes sense for critics and musicians to maintain some distance. We don’t want to be shills for anyone, even musicians whose work we admire, and we have no intention of surrendering the freedom to say what doesn’t work, as well as what does. But we’re discovering that having free-spirited dialogues is more useful than simply talking at each other. And it’s proving to be better for listeners and readers as well – at least, for those who are more interested in understanding what’s happening in the creative world than in chuckling over our most dyspeptic quips. Understanding is the glue that holds a community together, isn’t it?
Allan Kozinn writes about music far and wide, in newspapers, in magazines, in books, and on the web. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.