In January, the New Yorker ran an article by the pianist Jeremy Denk about the process of recording Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata. It’s slightly unusual for an active musician to write a piece for a major publication — the norm is to have the musician speak through a journalist in the form of a profile. Denk, however, has no problem speaking for himself. His rise to prominence has arguably been spurred by his articulate, quirky, and very personal blog, Think Denk, in which he airs his thoughts about music, performance, the pieces he’s working on, and, often, the general wrong-headedness of the critic and program note annotators all around him.
Here’s Denk on Ives’s Piano Trio: “Ives’s music made me see rivers differently; centuries of classical music had prettified them, ignoring their realtiy in order to turn them into musical objects. Schubert uses tuneful flowing brooks to murmur comfort to suicidal lovers; Wagner [typo corrected] has maidens and fateful rings at the bottom of a herocially surging Rhine. Ives is different. He gives you crosscurrents, dirt, haze — the disorder of a zillion particles crawling downstream. His rivers aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.” Makes you want to go right out and listen to Denk’s Ives recording (which is very much worth listening to). (Denk’s next concert in DC is on May 19th.)
But Denk’s emergence as a musician-writer isn’t actually all that unusual. The pianist Charles Rosen, after all, has written several books (“The Classical Style”) and is a fixture in the New York Review of Books . The pianist Jonathan Biss marked the beginning of his recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas (still underway) by writing an e-book for Kindle, “Beethoven’s Shadow.” Other examples of writing musicians abound, from Virgil Thomson, the composer who was the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954, all the way back to Robert Schumann.
These days, the idea of artist-as-critic seems counterintuitive, because artists and critics are commonly supposed to be on opposite sides of a divide. Indeed, even some critics believe there’s a fundamental antagonism to the relationship; and of course critics do often antagonize artists. There is nothing more antagonizing than repeatedly telling someone else, in a public forum, exactly what you think of them. And some of us approach the job, especially at the beginning, with a crusader’s fervor: as Thomson said of his start at the Herald Tribune, “I thought of myself as a species of knight-errant attacking dragons single-handedly and rescuing musical virtue in distress.” That attitude can make a new critic sound as if he’s on the warpath. Nonetheless, I maintain that if you’re out to get them, you’re doing it wrong – indeed, if you’re thinking of the artists you review as “them,” you may need to recalibrate your attitude.
Over time, however, the idea has been developed and reinforced that critics are mean and nasty, and artists are good and true, the sacrificial lambs. This attitude is particularly pronounced in classical music; its devotees believe it needs special advocacy, and are often horrified to see anything at all negative appear about it in print. In my experience, however, artists are far tougher than critics are. I used to meet every year with the graduate opera students at the Juilliard School, and every year someone would ask me why I was so tough. I would ask if they thought I was nastier than their fellow singers, and inevitably I got the response, Oh, no no no, you’re not anywhere near as harsh as THEY are.
This kind of toughness is a hallmark of people who care deeply about art; and artists tend to be more critical than critics. Furthermore, it’s exactly this kind of toughness that’s shaped our views of what criticism is, or at least that represents the criticism posterity tends to remember best — going back to the passion of Berlioz; Stendahl’s highly opinionated views of Rossini; or the effusions of Robert Schumann, who at times, writing in different personae, was able to espouse several different viewpoints at once, thereby either cementing or exploding the myth of critical objectivity.
Unlike critics, artists are not thought to be objective in writing about their art; that’s why newspapers see artists’ writing as a conflict of interest. But actual critical objectivity is neither possible nor desirable. If practiced strictly, objectivity gives us a world in which every performance has its merits (because after all, the performers worked so hard) and writing about it becomes simply a catalogue of musical effects, a form of prose all too familiar from program notes (“now the violins chime in on the D chord, holding it until the flute enters with a melody of its own”).
George Bernard Shaw, who before the acceleration of his career as a playwright was a music and theater critic, demonstrated the ridiculousness of this approach by using it to describe Hamlet’s soliloquy: “Shakespear, dispensing with the customary exordium, announces his subject at once in the infinitive, in which mood it is presently repeated after a short connecting passage in which, brief as it is, we recognize the alternative and negative forms on which so much of the significance of repetition depends.”
You can find plenty of examples of this kind of writing all over the country. It’s come into existence, and inexplicably tolerated by editors, because of a supposition that the world of classical music is so arcane that you need a middleman to explicate even relatively straightforward aspects of it to the common herd. The analogy has been made to priests interpreting divine texts for the masses; though a more apt comparison is to the old “Saturday Night Live” skit in which a Weekend Update segment was repeated for the hearing impaired, with someone simply yelling each line after the anchor said it. But for many people, this kind of non-insightful description, executed with a kind of checklist mentality (how often have you read reviews that ticked off the merits of the performers with one adjective each?), represents what music criticism is supposed to be (which is one reason many people don’t much care to read it).
This kind of checklist can’t be the point of the exercise. There are various views of what the point is: acting as a consumer guide (a view I don’t agree with), helping stimulate dialogue about the art form (a view I espouse). It’s safe to say, though, that everyone is looking for something that’s worth reading: thought-provoking, or insightful, or beautifully written, or otherwise offering some perspective that you didn’t have before. In short, the point is to create a piece of writing that communicates something fresh – which is fundamentally a creative exercise.
And if music criticism is flagging in today’s newspapers, it’s precisely because the way the profession has developed in newspapers has leached it of some of that creativity. Indeed, if the general loss of coverage of classical music means fewer formulaic, rote, checklist reviews, it’s actually a good thing, particularly if it stimulates the growth of other forums and other more vital ways of writing about music.
I wouldn’t say that all music critics are artists. But I would say it’s important to remember that all writing is in some sense creative, especially writing about art, which involves translating the non-verbal in terms that make sense to people who may not even be that interested in it.
Thus it’s hardly surprising that some of the best writers about music have always been creative artists. And in today’s changing climate, when classical music no longer occupies the central place in our cultural life that it did 50 years ago, we need this creativity more than ever — to lead us to new outlets and new forms of expression. Even if this means more musicians writing about music, and fewer music critics.
This article was adapted from a talk given during the inaugural Rubin Institute for Music Criticism at Oberlin in January.