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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

You <3 Mark Swed

"The criticism we are going to be discussing here is not the thumbs-up/thumbs-down, opinions-with-attitude style of reviewing," my arts journalism prof intoned on the first day of class. He was trying to teach us that criticism could be, at its best, reportage, analysis, evaluation, and a work of art unto itself. My guess is he read this blog entry with a smile:

[T]he most boring and worthless criticism is that which is about taste. We’ve all got our likes and dislikes. We’ve also got opposable thumbs that, besides going up and down, can be used to grasp things, maybe even to grab prison bars and shake the ego free.

A-to-the-men, Mark Swed. (Okay, that "shake the ego free" bit is a little over-the-top, but you get the idea.) There is a certain type of critic who feels the need to insert him or herself into every review, spend the wordcount reporting on the reviewer's own feelings about Schubert rather than reporting on the performance—as if his or her ideas on the score were so much more interesting to the readership than, say, Thomas Quasthoff's that the latter hardly bore mentioning. (Don't make me name names.) Clearly, the critic's feelings, education, heck life story are inextricable from analysis and judgment, but a music review can still be about the music and not about the reviewer.

Swed checks off, just before the above-quoted, a list of his early prejudices:

I had no use for Ralph Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Samuel Barber, Benjamin Britten, Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, Tchaikovsky (even though I grew up in a Russian household where Tchaikovsky was a minor deity). Mozart, I could take or leave. All those attitudes, of course, required changing.
Another minor revelation! You mean it's possible that, if a critic hates Rachmaninoff, it is not entirely Rachmaninoff's fault?

If you're wondering what Swed's talking about, see the review where he suggested, apropos of the Shine movie tie-in David Helfgott concert tour embarrassment, that the Rach 3

has some fiendishly difficult piano writing in it, some clever use of instrumental sonorities and some sure-to-please gushy melodies. It can certainly be an effective piece. Vladimir Horowitz made a great display out of it, as does Martha Argerich today, and there is nothing wrong with that. But great art it isn't.
For comparison, he offered up Xenakis' Keqrops for piano and orchestra, which... heh. You people know I am wild about Xenakis, in particular his works for piano, but to suggest that his monuments of musical design are in any way comparable to what Rachmaninoff accomplishes in his concerti—sister please. Rachmaninoff did not want to be Xenakis, Xenakis did not want to be Rachmaninoff, and if either of them had tried he would surely have failed, hideously. Let me state it for the record: When a critic gives the thumbs-down to Rachmaninoff, it is not the critic but Rachmaninoff who is administering the test, and the critic has flunked.

(Greg Sandow, who was dissed on this blog in an especially petty moment, delivered a canny rebuttal in the pages of Swed's own paper.)

How refreshing, then, to read a critic who actually takes the F. An erroneous judgment, rendered in good faith, is still more noble than an accurate verdict rendered according to a critic's self-indulgence. One advantage of writing online is the ability to repair your mistakes with revisions and addenda after the fact, and admit comment and dissent from your readership; remember this great example over at Steve Smith's place. But Swed concludes:

I’m afraid this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t believe in regrets. Anything I wrote yesterday, I would write differently today. Meanwhile, I live for tomorrow. And that’s the advantage of writing for a newspaper.
So it's a manifesto of music criticism, it's a sweet sad love letter to print journalism, and I didn't even mention the main thrust of it, which is Swed's changing opinion of Philip Glass. Go read it, it's so good.

1 comment:

Plattypus said...

"Clearly, the critic's feelings, education, heck life story are inextricable from analysis and judgment, but a music review can still be about the music and not about the reviewer."

Useless metacritical musing: I don't read a whole lot of music reviews or criticism, but my general sense of all criticism of the arts is that, finally, it isn't "about" either the reviewer or even the work or form under analysis: it's "about" the audience--the critic's idea of his own audience and also his idea of the work's audience--and the work of the review is the work of sorting through, in the rhetorical texture of the review or essay, how those two ideas of an audience overlap, pull apart, contradict each other, etc.

(And I have to think that this would only be more true in the case of bloggers who don't write their criticism directly for a paycheck. That mercenary element introduces a third audience: an employer.)