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The criticism of critics that began this blog two months ago is going viral -- and good for that.

It took a minor scandale to break it open, and one can only hope that it grows into content and not merely editorial behavior. The references can be found at Frank Oteri's brief commentary on New Music Box, including the original mess about the fluff-mag Fanfare trolling for ads and a (now-missing) critique of American Record Guide at Sequenza21.

I was disappointed that Frank backed off the main points in an attempt to balance his commentary by finding a downside in the new nonpop community itself. I hope Frank isn't catching the critic disease, since he'd been invited to join the rest of the effete crowd and his commentary's sharp edge suffers for it. **

What I depend on from Frank and from New Music Box is informed honesty and a self-help manual in new nonpop. We are a multiply divided world, we nonpoppers. In town vs. out of town, where proximity or lack of it changes the perception of our field's health. Performed vs. recorded, defining largely economic differences but reducing the public access to large-scale works. Academic vs. public, by which I mean a distinction between unpopular nonpop and popular nonpop (ouch!). The connected vs. the isolated, that is, whether or not performances are primarily schmooze-instantiated or program-driven. The reviewable vs. the ignorable, where the review acts primarily in the best interests of the reviewer as opposed to being artistically meaningful.

Admittedly I inhabit a circumscribed musical world where new nonpop performances are both few and average, and where the dominant interface to the truly new is via recordings, downloads, third-hand reading and personal recommendations. But that is the dominant interface of most nonpop composers because by and large we live outside cities with significant and diverse nonpop communities or we remain in academic institutions. Even in academia or in cities where these communities exist -- New York and Amsterdam being the most familiar to me -- public awareness is low and their participation slight.

Where am I going with this? In the participant direction, by trying to define how these various strata of participation function, and how they act to the detriment of the field as a whole. The historical evidence of that detriment was the long-standing uptown-downtown split in New York, which continues today, albeit in a kind of underground manner, where cooperation is the faux behavior of the day but the classics and 'made' acts still dominate the uptown venues and the experiment & ferment still occurs downtown. The uptown participation, in other words, is in entertainment rather than art, wherein I define art as offering an ongoing shift of perception. Yes, to the Nelly Furtado concertgoer who has never heard Mozart, this shift is provided -- and vice versa -- and this point can be deconstructed until every moment of existence is shown to be an inevitable shift in perception. But we know what I mean, so let's move along.

The multple divisions of nonpop create an elusive and evanescent web of availability and influence.

Geography: In town vs. out of town

From the perspective of one who has moved out from in, I can report with some ongoing surprise that the parochial character of music (or style, if you like that better) is more evident behind urban walls. The freedom to experiment is broader, as I've spoken about before. On the other hand, behind the walls one finds a community of similar minds who can help manifest the music -- still, however, up from urban grassroots, so the cityscape is of use mostly for its numbers, its collective space. The parochial character of being outside the city is found in the lack of experience of outer concentric circles -- audiences and critics and to some degree performers (though the in-out trade of performer is more commonplace today).

The above is self-evident, but it renews the questions: What are the values of the in vs. out? Are they complementary? They could be complementary, especially in a time of online connection, but the physicality of presence remains important to the composers, their performers, and the concentric circles of critic and audience. The mutual in-out biases persist. The Tanglewoods and Breadloafs and Sundances and Burning Mans are merely urban hairplugs implanted on a perceived great, bald scalp of art, where the city psyche is moved as a piece into the countryside.

The converse does not take place. The city would crush, mock, or burlesque outer-world rubes. Neither is the countryside blameless in this. Mistrust of the outside -- not mistrust of the new, as is often mistakenly assumed -- is in the sociocultural nature of humanity. The city mistrusts too, but can take in, overwhelm, and assimilate by sheer size. Countryside mistrust is born of the tendency to be overwhelmed and conquered, have its guts ripped out of a culture to leave a gaping hole that is never quite filled again. (The "Take Back Vermont" signs on many homes here are symptomic of this loss.) It becomes incumbent upon someone -- and here is where critics have a role, if they could be so humble as to learn about and partake in ex-urban culture -- to reveal and illuminate the symbiosis of geographical difference, for to restate: in a time of online connection, the negative aspect of these differences no longer need matter.

Availability: Performed vs. recorded

The primary interface for music is the recording. New nonpop recognizes this to some degree, but economics have skewed the character of this interface. Most of the recordings available are of large-scale old nonpop (from Bach through Puccini), small-scale newer nonpop (from Stravinsky through Saariaho), and a large swath of electronically informed creations on the periphery of traditional classical music. There are some exceptions to the large-scale nonpop in the form of vanity label CD "calling cards," but the dominant shape of recorded nonpop is large-old, small-new.

With the exception of a Liebermann or Golijov or Higdon, this shift of availability obliterates a huge swath of present-day composition.

The live performance interface to audiences is smaller and, interestingly, undisturbed by geography. I have no statistical analysis at hand, but a random examination of concert announcements shows new nonpop being performed in city and suburb and countryside with an availability roughly equivalent to population density. And that quantity is small everywhere, with audiences equally marginal.

Here is a responsibility that falls to critics, though it is one they are unlikely to shoulder -- and even reject as ethically unappealing: to cease previewing or reviewing concerts and recordings except for new nonpop, a topic which is expanded with the six recommendations that critics truly speak out, reject the old, become brave, leave the business, transform themselves, teach or retire. These interfaces of performance and recording do not come unweighted and tabulas rasafied to a public, particularly one familiar with public radio or symphonic concerts; they come by way of recommendations, and there are simply not enough composers with a public podium to accomplish what critics can.

Making both interfaces more accessible (including with more online explorations) will ameliorate the present extreme incoherency of experience.

Commonality: Academic vs. public

I can feel the recoil. Didn't this topic mercifully fall off the contents page of new music journals long ago? It did, and I apologize for employing the terms of a weak characterization -- but falling into the trap of 'inaccessible' vs. 'accessible' is a worse muck.

Let me define it quickly, and then I'm open to suggestions. Maybe culturally bonded languages as opposed to jargonesque. I don't know. Here it is: Music that is dominated by niche-culture interior languages and competitive innovation is academic -- and you can grasp that such language and behavior are not limited to nonpop, but are part of jargon-infused pop forms as well. The irony is that where the pop forms offer an intrigue and commonality in the niche and a decoding mystery and fool-the-doorman opportunity for listeners, they present an uninteresting barrier and another-one-down-the-street rejection to the current few generations of nonpop listeners, who perceive it as intellectual exercise. And so, voilà, academic it becomes (including the version meaning 'without practical purpose').

Public, on the other hand, is work that in creation and presentation and language is recognizable and appealing. Remember, we've got to sell this bread. They've already got the bread they like, so how do we get this nonpop on the end cap? It's done by packaging it familiarly -- not big, grody, bulky, floury masses with tumors on it, but with the comparative familiarity of a sliceable loaf.

Okay, you're thinking, gotcha. How does this differ from the inaccessible/accessible concept?

It differs in almost every way. The cliché of accessibility has to do with similarity to century-plus-old compositional constructs, and absolutely nothing with the ability of an audience to take in, metabolize and grow from music. Nor is this a fretfulness over novelty. Outside nonpop, the concept of new being off-putting rarely enters the discussion. It doesn't exist in other music, nor in film or theatre or art. New is what you do. It is the very thrill of the new that brings audiences.

Our critic friends can help out by a conscious vocabulary change and shift of approach. Stop reviewing the music. Review the performance. Start being excited. Placing reviews by the same authors side-by-side reveals an immediate difference of approach all too familiar to composers. Our music is undergoing a verbal witch trial. This duck floats. Stop the trials, change the packaging, reveal what can be metabolized. Need a guide? Try Project Runway.

Iconoclasm: The connected vs. the isolated

This divide is deeply personal, as is composition itself. There is no direct solution because there is no direct problem to solve. Rather it is a problem of consequences. Because the Emily Dickinson or Charles Ives or even Charles Mingus could keep drawers full of work that was eventually heralded by the public doesn't mean it's an eternal paradigm, but it remains the ghost of a dilemma.

Here, in the breaching of isolation, is a role that critics do with immense incompetence. Though the latest Gabrieli scraps may be hailed and revered in the press or critics may flit from city to city to bring back Treasures of the Obvious, the significant work of most composers of our time remains largely ignored. This is not a lock, though. For all the brickbats I've hurled his way, Kyle Gann virtually alone among critics actually works to present new works, known and unknown to the wider public. This activism -- however biased the selections toward Kyle's postclassic agenda -- is a powerful example to the critical culture. It no longer serves to be a G. B. Shaw and clatter on, however literately, about music. The real heavy lifting is to present the music itself, a task possible and significantly more valuable than a simple review.

In that search and ultimate manifestation of the music before the public, the critic can as never before create a bridge between the easily connected composers (connected by friendship, geography, academia, performance relationships, or simply schmoozing) and the iconoclastics or the isolated composers (isolated by choice or otherwise).

Influence: The reviewable vs. the ignorable

And finally, to return to our moutons of the critical realm, to the elements or characteristics of the reviewing drive. The drive is, by and large, economic and as such media criticism shares a place on the stage more with American Idol than with Maria de Alvear. That is, the critic acts in the best interests of the critic, the critic's employment, and the critic's employer.

This is old news. But it is presented here as a reminder that as a class critics are not friends of art. They must be convinced more than an audience, for an audience loses no more than the cost of a ticket; the reviewer risks a job. And there is nothing more deleterious to honesty than the presence of economic arbitration in the journalistic realm. It is hard to see past the changes of the past decade in media journalism to recognize this essential fact because we have been treated to an ongoing show of cowardice from CBS and CNN and their broadcast and cable ilk.

Critics find their places tenuous. In speaking with a professional arts critic not long ago, I was told quite candidly that his job was to balance journalistic interest with his own convictions, that cheerleading and pseudo-objectification (my translation of his words) were required. The review mattered more than what was reviewed. Which allows me to point back to Frank Oteri, who so perceptively says that his readers know "about the disdain I have for the de facto critical position of giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down."

Alas, thumbs rule.

Why believe me?

A blog isn't a credentialed institution, but here goes: innovation, quality and audience success are not three points on a triangle. My experience with creating successful festivals and concerts (standing room filled and lines outside the door for a new music concert in the sticks? yup) and our radio show have informed me as to what works, what works well, what works better, and how much cash it takes to engage public enthusiasm. Visit my résumé and send me the money!

Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde, 1974
On the street during the Delaware Valley Festival of the Avant-Garde, 1974


** I just heard from Frank about his commentary today, and wrote to him in part:

At the point where you were developing the idea, you shifted into 'we do it too' mode (a false balance to my thinking) and then pushed the hard stuff off to Mangan and S21. I wanted to hear Frank's opinion at this point because there is no one more informed about new nonpop, by sheer dint of circumstance, than you. ... You live at a peculiar point in history and have the power to influence thinking well beyond this day and this week and this year. You think clearly and articulate well. ... You are of an age and experience where you can be fearless. Those of us on the downslide into oblivion are no longer heard -- you are. You can make the most important contribution to new nonpop of our time, both as composer and commentator.

Frank answered this afternoon:

Basically, the kind of in-depth essay you were looking for on Chatter goes against the nature of that section of the publication which is geared toward generating a real conversation with multiple perspectives from our readers. I'm happy to see that this particular thread is starting to generate that thanks in no small part to you and the others who have commented thus far. Keep 'em coming.

But, to that end, we try to keep the thread starters to a 5 paragraph maximum. It is not designed to be a soapbox. Funny you wanted more from me; I'm constantly concerned that I might not be succinct enough even with only 5 paragraphs. And besides, if my basic position is that critical opinions are nothing more than an individual person's subjective take on something, which is all well and good but ultimately not about the subject being critiqued, wouldn't it be horridly egotistical of me if not a tad disingenuous and even downright hypocritical to then say, "OK, no one's opinion is that important, but here, read 20 pages of mine."

I'm happy to weigh in some more further into the discussion (I've responded once already); I'm really not afraid to speak my mind here or anywhere else for that matter. I'm sorry you didn't think I was doing that on ArtsJournal; those posts kept me up until 1:30 AM every night that week. But the Chatter pages on NewMusicBox are about everyone having the opportunity to voice their thoughts, not just me or the rest of the thread-starters both based in our office and outside of it. These pages have been conceived thusly in the crazy utopian hope that such a discussion could actually lead to those positive solutions you are so eager to see and are not seeing from the so-called "effete crowd" (moi aussi? say it isn't so!) that is the critical community.

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