Fear and loathing in classical music journalism

By Michael Vincent on April 21, 2014



Last month in the Daily Beast, music critic Ted Giola wrote a provocative essay on what he described as the “new paradigm” of music journalism’s descent into lifestyle reporting. In the article, the jazz critic described a series of examples that he felt demonstrated how music writing has lost focus on the standards of respectable music journalism.

Giola writes, “I’ve just spent a very depressing afternoon looking through the leading music periodicals. And what did I learn? Pretty much what I expected. I found out what the chart-topping musicians are wearing (or, in many instances, not wearing). I got updates on their love life, and learned whose marriages are on the rocks. I read updates on the legal proceedings of the rich and famous. I got insights into the food preferences and travel routines of megastars. And I read some reviews of albums, and got told by “‘critics’ (I use that term loosely) that they were ‘badass,’ ‘hot,’ ‘sexy,’ ‘tripped-out,’ and ‘freaky.’”

It is no secret music criticism is changing. Scandal and lifestyle reporting are the name of the game these days, and people seem more interested in substantiating their own musical tastes.

But what does it say about our media culture when people are demonstratively more interested in scandalous stories rather than erudite reviews?

Judging from many of the comments to Giola’s article, as well as some op-eds written here and here, one of the central arguments against Giola’s hypothesis is that the knowledge of the technical aspects of music is irrelevant to writing about it.

In Aux magazine, Mark Teo states, “Music criticism shouldn’t state what music is—a collection of instruments—but instead, what it means.” Another comment suggests that we need more sociology in music criticism, and less musicology.

To me this seems like a senseless argument. Could you imagine a journalist reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without any understating of the history and power systems driving the conflict? Or a business reporter writing an assessment of the government’s financial policy without ever mentioning any of the specifics of the plan?

In a recent blog post, composer Nico Muhly recounts his experience of being interviewed about his MET-commissioned opera Two Boys, which had its US premiere on November 13, 2013. “I had a little running tally going, and of the hundreds of questions I’d been asked in interviews, very very few would be about the notes or the rhythms or even the piece itself. A few would talk about plot points as if we had invented them — as opposed to Reality, which itself had a strong creative input into the plot of the piece. The main focus of a lot of questions was: the Met, the future of opera, the merits of workshops, Peter Gelb, the Met, the Met, the future of opera, the future of the genre, elitism, Young People, ageing audience, all this horseshit buzzword wordsoup; one could almost hear the “think” piece writing itself, along with a subsequent review to reinforce whatever insightful conclusions might have been reached.

Muhly’s summation is that music criticism is about the “Instinct to analyze trends rather than notes, imagined patterns rather than musical ones.”

Giola sites another example, “When Harry Connick, Jr. recently used the word ‘pentatonic’ on ‘American Idol,’ his fellow judge Jennifer Lopez turned it into a joke. And, indeed, what could be more humorous than a musician of Connick’s stature trying to talk about musical scales on a TV reality show?”

You can see the doomed exchange here:

This trend is undeniable, and comes from the fact that most music writers are, frankly, not very knowledgeable about music. They come to music writing with the belief that their enthusiasm for music makes them qualified, if not superior to that of a musically educated critic.

The relationship between technical understanding and music writing goes back to the inception of music journalism in the early 19th-century. Traditionally comprised of the study, discussion, and evaluation of music and its performance practice, nearly all early music criticism took place within the confines of professional music journals.

In the 19th century,  music criticism solidified into a profession, and included a number of notable composer-critics such as Hector Berlioz, who often supplemented his income by writing reviews for the Paris press in the 1830s and 40s. Other examples included Robert Schumann, (who founded Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik – New Journal of Music), Alfred Brendel, Charles Rosen, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek.

The focus of music critics in the 1800’s was art music, (the popular music of its day) and routinely included commentary upon a performers technique, expression, form and style.

However, something seemed to shift during the Romantic era, when the social construct of the “star” began to capture the imaginations of the public. Liszt and Paganini (among others) attracted cult followings, which ignited interest from morning newspapers that sought to profit from reviewing concerts by the glamorous classical music virtuosi.

This set a precedent that has lasted well in into the 1980’s, and up until classical music journalism began to decline rapidly, with magazines such as Time and Vanity Fair downsizing their full-time classical music critics. The focus was directed to “star culture,” which had firmly shifted from classical music and opera to popular music forms such as rock ‘n’ roll and pop music.

Over 180 years, we have veered from reviews like this:

 “There is vitality in his melody, fantasy in his passage-work, and originality in everything. Too many colorful modulations, so much confusion in linking phrases that it sometimes seems as though one is hearing an improvisation rather than a written composition – these are the imperfections that are found intermingled with the virtues I have just mentioned.”  “The Concert of Monsieur Chopon from Warsaw” (March 3, 1832) – La Revue Musicale (f. 1827)

To reviews like this:

“Artpop opens with four tracks of thumping futuresex/lovesounds where Gaga vows to lay her intentions, and body, naked. She cops a drag queen’s arch humor on intergalactic journey “Venus,” examines sex and power on gothy grinder “G.U.Y” (which stands for “girl under you”), and woos a lover whose “boyfriend was away this weekend” on the slinky “Sexxx Dreams.” Yes, we can read her poker face.” “Lady Gaga” (November 13, 2013) by Caryn Ganz – Rolling Stone (f. 1967)

How’s that for a leap!

In Toronto, we have officially been without staffed classical music coverage in traditional media — newspapers, radio and television, since Robert-Everett Green stepped down as music critic, turning his hand to feature writing in 2012.

Before him was John Terauds, who left the Toronto Star in late 2011 after being reassigned to the business section. In a response to a question as to whether Canada’s largest daily is eliminating classical music coverage, Terauds told freelance critic Colin Eatock, “… I’m only guessing, that the future is freelance.”

While Canadian newspapers continue to employ qualified and thoughtful freelance music critics, they are gradually being pushed out in favour of generic entertainment writers, who may have plenty of important things to say, just not about classical music.

Giola writes, “Musical knowledge empowers artistic expression. Critics who are unwilling, or perhaps incapable of assessing such matters […] they will struggle to fulfill the most basic responsibility of the music critic, which is to pay close attention to the sounds.”

It all comes down to the ritual of a concert experience. Once the performance is finished, there comes a point where everyone tries to understand the experience just witnessed. We see this in the urge to whisper to our partners “So, what did you think?” It’s a universal question. We close the circle with this moment. We want to make sense out of something that may have dazzled us, challenged us, or annoyed us. As a community, we gauge our experience with others, and the critic’s role is to help bring perspective to that experience on a larger scale.

“In other words…” Giola adds, “Music criticism is a tiny part of the ecology of the music business, but an essential part. Without smart, independent critics who know their stuff, everything collapses into hype, public relations, and the almighty dollar.”


Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent
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