Friday, November 7, 2014

criticism institute: day 2

Thursday's feature was a high-powered panel, with writers whose books I am proud to own (John Rockwell, Tim Page, and especially Alex Ross), plus other distinguished names: Anne Midgette (Washington Post), Heidi Waleson (Wall Street Journal), and Stephen Rubin (formerly of the New York Times). They talked about the profession of criticism and their own roles in it.

Career paths: Some of them had always wanted to be critics. Others (Ross and Midgette) aimed more generally at being writers of some sort (Midgette wanted to be a novelist), loved music on the side, and happened to fall into criticism. All of them emphasized their early careers as freelancers and doing other work than criticism. That they eventually nabbed regular staff jobs was just their good fortune. (Of course they're good writers, but so are others who didn't have that luck.) So the "entrepreneurial" notion, in today's collapse of journalism, of careers made by patching together bits and pieces of jobs is hardly a new thing. It's what they did, and what their students in criticism, like the student fellows at this institute, can expect.

After this, it was flooring when when the first audience comment, from Gil French of American Record Guide, protested that they're training their students for jobs that no longer exist. We're not, they all responded. "I'm just going on what you said," French insisted, but that's only true if he has an opposite switch in his head, which translates what you said into the opposite of what you said.

At least the comment generated some useful elaborations. Midgette forcefully warned us not to confuse the decline of the journalistic institutions with the continuing usefulness of the critical tools. Page, who is now a professor at USC, noted that his students apply what they've learned in a variety of jobs. (Thus following examples like Waleson, who began her career as a publicist.)

Blogging: Except for Rockwell, who quit blogging because he didn't see why he should do for free what he'd been being paid for, all spoke well of blogging and bloggers. Ross gave Lisa Hirsch as a good example ("Is she here? No? Oh well"). There's a great amount of talent out there, the good ones rise in prominence (and sometimes move into paid work) while the ones with "verbal diarrhea" (Rubin's phrase) just don't get read, and the whole milieu keeps the professionals on their toes.

Editing: Only Ross said that his editors have really helped shape and train his writing. Rockwell said the editorial function is to catch stupid mistakes. Others said they learned to write by doing it. Midgette defied us to see any difference between her edited newspaper and unedited online pieces.

Is classical music criticism unique among arts criticisms? Most said yes. Rockwell called non-programmatic concert music the most abstract of arts, with only abstract painting matching it. Waleson cited the technical language and the lack of shared knowledge among the readership that exists in, e.g., film. Ross disagreed: every art form has its technical language and is fundamentally inscrutable in words. Even writing about poetry is hard: you can quote Wallace Stevens, but what is he saying? I forget if it was Ross or Page who dismissed the maxim "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

Taking notes during concerts: All of them do it, though Midgette quit because the details she was noting overwhelmed her reviews. (I have that concern about my own reviewing, and try to use the details as examples of what I mean generally.) Several confessed that they can't read their own notes afterwards, but said that the mere act of writing them helps. Page noted that when he was on tight deadlines, he tried saving time by writing the parts about the work, rather than the performance, beforehand, but he gave that up because they turned out not to fit into the thrust of his reviews. (I've had that experience.)

Most fundamental question: What do you most value in criticism? Rubin: immediacy, the sense that the critic is taking you to the concert. (This is why he likes Virgil Thomson.) Page: as a teacher, he's interested in the process by which you reach your opinion than what the opinion is. As a reader, he likes good prose. Rockwell: yes, but the prose shouldn't be too flashy and distracting. Ross: the ideas that the critic can introduce him to. Midgette: the variety of opinions. She loathes the idea of everyone agreeing with her all the time.

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