Monday, November 10, 2014

critical mass, day 4

I've gotten a few comments on these posts to the effect that criticism is some kind of excrescence on the soul of art. If the commenters really believe that, I have to wonder why they're reading me, because critical response to the art I read, see, or hear is what I'm all about. Nobody's ever complained here that I review the concerts I attend, nor that I've moved to selling my reviews professionally. But I attend a conference to learn from the masters of my profession, and out the tired old anti-critical cliches come.

They should have attended Sunday's session - moved over to UC Berkeley in the morning, as the faculty and students were to attend a concert there in the afternoon (I didn't) - and learned what criticism is for, and why writers about music should learn it.

Tim Page said that journalism is not the only use for critical training. His former students have found their learning useful in any writing they do about music: biographies of composers and performers, program notes, arts planning documents.

John Rockwell said that criticism will continue inexorably, regardless of the crises of journalism, though it needs a new economic model. (Bloggers, he points out, are freer to specialize than sole critics for major papers are.) Criticism's purpose is to mediate between the music and the listeners: not to instruct the performers, or function as program notes, but to help listeners to translate the experience of listening and to give new and different perspectives.

Stephen Rubin said that he sponsored this institute with the goal of giving young writers the training and discipline of excellence in succinct writing.

Anne Midgette said that criticism is a way of participating in a discussion about music, and that writing it is itself a creative act, as any good writing is. A critic can translate an unfamiliar work for an audience that otherwise might not know how to absorb it.

Heidi Waleson added that criticism chronicles what musical institutions do.

Alex Ross noted that this is particularly important with the recent flowering of new music concerts (especially in New York, where he works, but also elsewhere). Critics can give the audience knowledge of how music is made.

The critics also had advice for students. Anne Midgette encouraged them to seek out and publicize (without puffery) the new institutions and venues that are the most creative, because they often outstrip established ones in that respect. John Rockwell said that it's fun to discover someone new and great and make them known. Alex Ross pointed out that this isn't just the critic's self-promotion: it makes you constructive. John Rockwell cautioned that it's hard to shake a reputation once established, but Tim Page said that once you're past the stage where everything is either great or terrible, you should feel free to be enthusiastic (a point Alex Ross also endorsed). Anne Midgette also warned against inflexibility and never changing one's mind, to which Stephen Rubin added that the artists you review can change in style or ability.

And that was it, for this audience member. It's been informative.

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