That question was posed, back in the previous millennium, by a reader who didn’t like a review I had written in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Good question, then and now, deserving an answer more extensive and timely than the “about the author” mini-bio at the top of the blog.
The A stands for Alexander – first question answered.
As we ring out another year – or finish being wrung out by it – the time seems right to give you an overview of what’s posted here, what isn’t and why not, who it’s coming from and where it’s going.
– Come January, I will have spent 50 years writing about music for publication. I do not play a musical instrument – my keyboard produces words. I can sing, but hearing me sing wouldn’t make your day. I used to whistle at near-perfect pitch, but that was when I had all my teeth. I can read music, but notes on a page don’t translate to sounds in my mind’s ear. My only real musical skill is listening. I’ve had a lot of practice at it, and I wish some musicians had more.
– I have pretty settled preferences – I’ll get to them presently – but I can appreciate the way a piece of music is composed and performed without craving repeat performances. When I hear a new piece, I prefer to describe it than to render some thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdict on it. The history of music is littered with critics misjudging new works – fun reading if you’re into Schadenfreude. I try not to contribute to the comedy of critical errors.
– People normally listen to music when they’re in the mood for it. For many years, I was paid to listen, in the mood or not. Nice gig, lucky to get it, but I’ve often envied civilians.
– I miss going to concerts – I’ve attended only one during the pandemic – but I’m still leery. Too many people remain unvaccinated and don’t take sensible precautions in public spaces. In a crowd of strangers, it can be tough to avoid the ones who are incautious, inconsiderate, oblivious or just plain ornery. I long for the day when “Don’t Cough on Me” packs more punch than “Don’t Tread on Me.”
– My attention span is healthy, but increasingly taxed when I listen to many works of late-late-romantic vintage – roughly, 1890s to 1930s. This was an era of contemplative rambles and blowsy epics: 90-minute symphonies, hour-long concertos and other pieces that deliver the goods in their own sweet time. The way this music is so often performed today – turgidly or tersely seem to be the choices – doesn’t help. Some more recent genres (looking at you, minimalism and “ambient” music) tax my endurance even more.
– I loathe Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, but appreciate Rachmaninoff more than I used to. . . . Mussorgsky and Janáček warm me; Puccini and Rodgers & Hammerstein (musicals as a genre, really) leave me cold. . . . I think that Mozart’s piano concertos are better than Beethoven’s, except for the Fourth. . . . Schubert at “heavenly length” rarely enraptures me, but I love Elgar’s lengthy Violin Concerto, which must tickle some sweet spot in my Anglo-Celtic cultural DNA. . . . Chopin and Debussy excelled in short pieces, and are best served in modest portions. . . . Most musicians nowadays play Brahms too slowly and thickly, and their Beethoven is too fast and facile. . . . Historical performance practice is an interpretive tool, not the whole toolkit. . . . Hymn tunes and tumbleweeds notwithstanding, Copland’s music should sound French – he said so, take him at his word.
– In Trackings, Richard Dufallo’s 1989 collection of interviews with composers, Witold Lutosławski identified two “sources of tradition” in modern music: the Second Vienna School of Schoenberg & Co. and their serialist descendants, for whom form outweighs expression or sensory qualities; and what Lutosławski called “the Debussy tradition,” carried on by the young Stravinsky, Bartók, Varèse and Lutosławski himself, a compositional style more attuned to harmony and tone color. To my ears, “color music” (appropriating Michael Torke’s title for a set of orchestral pieces he wrote in the ’80s) is the best work being composed today and shows the brightest promise for the future. Today’s musicians have the ears and technique to play it well. Electronic instruments and music-generating software, with their seemingly limitless tonal resources, might have been designed for it. The same can be said of the organ, the original sound synthesizer. Color music can enhance and enlarge multi-media productions. Heard on its own, however, a composition needs perceptible form – beginning, middle, end – to make sense to the listener. Coloristic composers sometimes overlook that.
– Folk music was the first kind that I listened to more than recreationally, and the only kind I’ve studied formally. Not surprisingly, I think that the best classical music has audible folk or vernacular roots. Not necessarily a native’s roots, though: Some of the best Spanish music was written by Italian, Russian and French composers.
– Edgar Schenkman, the founding conductor of the Richmond Symphony, once said that among well-known composers the three most underrated are Handel, Haydn and Dvořák. Their stature, especially Haydn’s, has risen since Schenkman’s time. If asked to name three underrated, or at least under-performed, 20th-century composers, my nominees would be Carl Nielsen, George Enescu and Bohuslav Martinů. Three live ones we should hear more of: Pēteris Vasks, Caroline Shaw and Michael Gandolfi.
– Speaking of Haydn and underrating: Humor and wit are as admirable and rewarding as passion and profundity in “serious” music. As they say in showbiz, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
– Critics, academics and other “expert” observers of classical music have been predicting its demise for generations. In recent years, the most-cited bits of evidence have been the aging of its audience, the decline of music instruction in schools, and shrinking attention spans. The art form survives because it boasts an accumulation of masterpieces that accomplished musicians want to perform and music-lovers want to hear, and because no mode of creative expression has emerged yet to take its place. There has always been a limited, predominantly older audience for long-form, abstract music – whether Western classical music, Indian ragas, Indonesian gamelan works or post-bebop jazz. Regardless of their education and attention spans, listeners’ responses to lengthy instrumental pieces depend on how they are played. A compelling performance outlasts the passage of time and can win over even the most casual or passive listener.
– The real threat to classical music – to any kind of music, really – is that we simply hear too much of it. Music has become sonic “wallpaper,” background sound to accompany work, shopping, exercise and other daily activities. Because it is ever-present, experiencing it as foreground sound – truly listening – requires real effort. The way to reclaim the gift of listening to music, paradoxically, is to hear less of it. I learned that by chance some years ago, spending a long weekend doing home-maintenance chores with my sound system unplugged. After 72 hours without music, my appreciation of it and concentration on it were vastly enhanced.
– I’m a longtime, hardcore collector of recordings, but I rarely post reviews of them. Writing a credible record review requires much more time and a different level of listening than reviewing a concert. Concert reviews (at least the ones I write) are primarily first impressions of singular experiences; record reviews are about performances meant to be heard many times. A flub that may only briefly distract a concertgoer can ruin a disc or download. Before writing that X’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” sounds better, worse or about the same as versions by A through W, a responsible reviewer has sailed an awful lot with Sinbad. After spending hours comparing multiple recordings of the same piece, my bottom line on all of them probably would be, Boy, am I sick of this music – a shaky foundation on which to build a fair critique. If I were to write more record reviews, I would be inclined to review performances of new or unjustly neglected music, sharing discoveries rather than revisiting the familiar.
– Most of what I’ve learned from talking to people has come from people who are now dead. You might be surprised to know how many of them were not white men. Or not surprised if, like me, you’re a Southerner.
– I try to balance being sensitive and sensible in characterizing artists, individually or grouped, and in discussing how their lives and lineages may inform their art; but I don’t aim to be performatively enlightened (woke). As James Carville likes to say, this isn’t a social-sciences faculty lounge. Cancel me if you like, but I may never know you’ve done it. I don’t use social media; I’m clueless about and indifferent to their tempests.
– I fiddle with what I post here – tweaks more than rewrites, updates and corrections when needed. It’s easy to do on a blog, I want to get things right, and there’s nobody telling me I can’t. I’ve noticed that when errors are corrected in articles posted online (factual articles, anyway), it has become common to see end-notes acknowledging errors in the initial posts. I have adopted that practice. Sadly, corrections usually don’t catch up with errors. Mark Twain said it best: “A lie can travel around the world and back again while the truth is lacing up its boots.”
– Journalism is time-devouring work if it’s done right. Newspapers and other media are being scooped up by outfits much more committed to $$$hareholder value than to gathering and reporting news, most critically local news. Their costliest acquisition – to us, not them – is a reputation for cutting staff and gutting content. Non-profits and freelancers are left to fill information voids. It has been 15 years since I covered a beat daily and in depth, taking as long as it took, and I’m not keen to resume that slog. It’s a quandary.
– Like many people over 70, I seem to be falling apart at an accelerating pace, physically more than mentally (so far). I’m missing performances that I had hoped to hear, should have reviewed because they were noteworthy, but didn’t feel well enough – or, in the pandemic, safe enough – to attend. Sorry, folks, that’s life in autumn. I enjoy doing this, but I don’t promise to keep it up until someone has to pry my cold, dead hands from the keyboard.
Happy New Year.