Dave’s Coffee Shop on Broadway in Oakland was always the destination for me to meet a deadline. I started going there soon after becoming the classical music critic for the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly, in 1985. After a concert, I would take the bus to Dave’s, open all night, and sit at the counter and order fried eggs and corned beef hash – the kind that comes in a perfect oval patty, and looks and tastes like dog food – and endless refills of coffee. I would sit there and write out the whole review by hand, and then take it home and type it up on my ancient Royal typewriter. It could be five pages or eight pages – however long was necessary to go into great detail and depth.
Then, after a few hours of sleep, I would wake up and drink more coffee, scribble corrections on the typewritten pages, and then type up the whole thing again and bring it to the East Bay Express office. Rob Hurwitt was my editor and mentor, and we’d talk through corrections, after which he’d hand it over for copyediting and typesetting. The whole process seems hopelessly archaic now, like Gutenberg’s printing press or illuminated manuscripts. But having the freedom to write a review of any length was heavenly.
Those were the golden days of the East Bay Express, when one of my music reviews would fill an entire page of the paper, or even a page and a half. I had lots and lots to say, and felt powerful in our little community. I remember a party in the Berkeley hills in 1990 where I was introduced to a young man named Alex Ross, who had just graduated from Harvard. “You write music reviews for the East Bay Express?” he exclaimed. “That’s exactly what I want to do!” Oh, sure, I thought to myself, there’s only room for one of us in this town.
But by the late ’90s my review space had been whittled down to half a page, and then whittled still further, until it was no fun any more, and it felt like classical music was being marginalized in the Express as it was everywhere else. There were other reasons for stopping: I was focusing on being a pianist; and writing reviews had come to resemble a game of Mad Libs, where you endlessly combine adjectives like “luminous,” “metronomic,” and “vibrant” with nouns like “vibrato,” “pyrotechnics,” and “adagio movement.”
And now, looking back on it, I wonder: What did I learn from all those years as a music critic?
First of all, I learned to be curious about other musicians and composers. I spent time researching them and their repertoire and recordings, trying to understand their musical motivations. That curiosity serves me well hosting weekly radio shows, with frequent interviews, on my program Revolutions Per Minute on KALW in San Francisco (where, by the way, about three quarters of the guests I interview have absolutely no curiosity about me). I also got into the habit of finding and studying scores before a performance, whether it was Elliott Carter’s new Quintet with Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet, or The Rite of Spring, or a Handel oratorio.
Being a music critic, one ponders the big questions: What makes one performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 132 better than another? How can there be so many different interpretations of Philip Glass’s Études? Why do most piano students play barely any 20th-century music beyond Bartók? How do you write about a new Kaija Saariaho opera in 300 words? Why is everyone suddenly playing Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories? You get a great education when you think this way, week after week.
Getting back to those marathon reviews I wrote for the East Bay Express, I don’t think their lengthiness was pure self-indulgence. Giving that much space to classical music meant the Express valued it, as it valued books and art and theater and pop music. Like most people I know, I feel that absence intensely these days. I scan the arts pages of our major cosmopolitan newspapers and ask these questions daily: Why an avant-garde theater review, but nothing about a major orchestral premiere? Why a new dance piece, but not a new string quartet? Why do the best newspapers in the country now seem the most provincial when it comes to arts coverage?
Now in the Bay Area, we depend on independent writers like Michael Strickland and his excellent Civic Center blog, and Stephen Smoliar and his Rehearsal Studio. Michael and Stephen cover not only the opera and symphony but also plenty of new-music concerts, and without them there would be scant evidence that those events had taken place. Joshua Kosman does a brilliant job at the San Francisco Chronicle, and there’s San Francisco Classical Voice (SFCV), and the remarkable Sam Lefebvre, and a handful of others. Social media fills in some of the gaps – for instance, Bonnie Wright’s descriptions on Facebook of concerts she travels to attend. But the landscape has certainly changed drastically.
Composers and musicians need validation, but more than that, they need to feel their work is understood. I see that hunger when guests come on my radio show and talk about themselves, and I hear it from friends who throw everything they have – emotionally and financially and professionally – into a big new project, only to have it vanish into the ether without a trace. We’re all grateful for the excellent music critics in this country, but still miss the freedom and the space they once had, as we miss the daily ritual of reading a beautifully crafted music review.
Sarah Cahill, recently called “a sterling pianist and an intrepid illuminator of the classical avant-garde” by The New York Times, has commissioned, premiered, and recorded numerous compositions for solo piano. Composers who have dedicated works to her include John Adams, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Julia Wolfe, Yoko Ono, and Evan Ziporyn, and she has also premiered pieces by Lou Harrison, Ingram Marshall, Toshi Ichiyanagi, George Lewis, Leo Ornstein, and many others.
Cahill will celebrate Harrison’s 100th birthday with a program featuring his music and works by his peers on April 6 at 7pm at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City; www.lpr.com