Thursday, September 16, 2010

More Tales from the Tank

I love Mark Swed. (So do you!) When I lived out West I used to feel like he was my critic, in a way that I have never quite felt about our East Coast critics.

Also, I hate to look like I'm leaping to the defense of Nico Muhly, a composer who really couldn't need my support any less. He's got his own damn blog, for one thing, and for another, hasn't he already gotten a metric ton of love from the classical press? Also, I can't even pretend to be objective about (#1) a friend who has (#2) paid me American dollars to write about his music in the past. Still, I couldn't help but laugh, "fa fa fa," at the way Swed's review of Nico's latest CDs is basically begging to be deconstructed on Nico's own aforementioned blog. Swed uses all these Code Words! Here, let me show you what I mean.

First, read the review in full. Isn't it well written? But very negative!

OR IS IT. Let us examine, shall we, its Nico-related passages:
Here the chorus is being used to persuade a wider public than New Yorkers about Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of that town.

Muhly, who turned 29 last month, has already received two of New York's top accolades — a New Yorker profile and a Metropolitan Opera commission. Although less known elsewhere, he has L.A. champions in Gershon and also the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Jeffrey Kahane. Plus, Muhly has also composed appropriately treacly soundtracks to "Joshua" and "The Reader."

Muhly can be a precious and facile composer, a showoff.

But Muhly also has a delicate touch, and when the sweet sounds of ethereal early music singing meets post-Minimalist rhythmic rapture, the music floats in its own special space.

A young composer begging attention couldn't ask for anything more.
This reminds me SO MUCH of this passage from Philip Brett's essay on Britten (which I already quoted, appropriately enough, in my liner notes for Nico's first album):
To appreciate the fact that there was considerable tension surrounding not only Britten's homosexuality, but also the success that he enjoyed despite it, one has to dig a little deeper beneath such blatant attacks as that against "bachelor composers" in the Craft/Stravinsky conversation books. What is revealed is a curious set of opposite and equally loaded critical terms. On the one hand Britten's music was characterized as "mere cleverness," "devilish smart." On the other it was accused of sentimentality. Behind both attitudes, of course, lay the unspoken fascination with Britten's homosexuality, both labels being the reverse sides of the oppositions claft/cleverness, sincerity/sentimentality, which belong among a whole plethora of binarisms that Sedgwick has claimed as "epistemologically charged pairings, condensed in the figures of 'the closet' and 'coming out.'"
Tell me I'm wrong! In fact, I was actually delighted to discover that we could easily go through this review and switch out these loaded words of faint praise for nearly exact synonyms, and by merely substituting tonally different (often, less "gay"-coded) adjectives, totally invert the apparent meaning of the review. Watch:
Here the chorus is being used to persuade a wider public than New Yorkers about Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of that town.
Sounds like a con job! How about:
Here the chorus champions Muhly, a young composer who is the talk of New York.
Same meaning, totally different connotations. But let's get to the gay-bashing:
Plus, Muhly has also composed appropriately treacly soundtracks to "Joshua" and "The Reader."
"Appropriately treacly" soundtracks to a creepy kid movie and a Holocaust picture? What could be appropriate about treacle? Well okay, I'm not arguing with his actual opinions here, it's fine, I'll let it go. But:
Muhly can be a precious and facile composer, a showoff.
Aren't "precious" and "facile" TRANSPARENTLY ways of complimenting an artist in a mean way? You could just as easily say:
Muhly is a meticulous but prolific composer, a virtuoso.
Except when you say it that way, it doesn't sound faggy enough.

Anyhow, you get the picture. How could such a positive review be so mean! Well, I sort of understand where Swed's coming from. There's this weird provincialism in New York that assumes that it's the classical music center of America, if not the Universe, and when you're working in a market that is constantly getting dismissed, you gotta represent. And there's nothing to sour one on an artist like the stink of Media Hype.

But the problem is that neither of these things is Nico's fault ("begging attention"? he doesn't even have a publicist!), and even if they were, they wouldn't be audible on the CDs under review. Please, music critics, review things that are audible!

Of course, I'm prejudiced totally oppositewise, so you're probably taking all of these opinions with a grain of salt as well. (If you ain't, you oughta be.) Thanks to Proper Discord for bringing this one to my attention—there is not enough Swed in my life. But, maybe somebody should say something to him.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nico already once blogged about 'precious' as a coded word for gay. It got me thinking about it - the definition of the word is "affectedly or excessively delicate, refined or nice". I would say this is certainly a reasonable criticism of quite a number of contemporary composers' music, but it crosses the boundaries of sexuality - it could be used to describe some of Oliver Knussen's work for example, whom I don't think is gay. The question arises however, do critics have to avoid certain words for fear of seeming homophobic? I think precious is quite a precise criticism and it could be meant sincerely. Take Matthias Pintscher as an example - I personally do find his music "affectedly or excessively delicate, refined", or 'precious'. My question is, is anyone who accuses a gay composer of writing precious music automatically homophobic?

September 16, 2010 at 9:44 AM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Duh, I should definitely have linked to Nico's remarks on "precious," as PD did.

I certainly don't think Swed is homophobic, and yes, there are quite a few straight artists whose work is frequently described, rightly or no, as "precious." But I think that it's a slur almost inevitably tinged with a contempt for effeminacy. A composer who indulges a fondness for celeste and children's voices (like Muhly, or Britten) when he could be working his trombone to a thundering climax is bound to be viewed as if he were wearing a dress. Muhly's music says, what's wrong with wearing a dress? And so he does.

September 16, 2010 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Here's that link:

September 16, 2010 at 10:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My point is just that it becomes hard to criticise these things if we're going to get accussed of hidden agendas. Didn't John Adams say that Nico and others were sometimes in danger of writing music that is 'too pretty'. I don't think he has contempt for effeminacy (if El Nino is anything to go by), I think he was just levelling a valid criticism. Music can be too effeminate, or 'affectedly effeminite', the same way it can be too macho - I saw a performance of a Beethoven piano concerto the other day where the soloist had so much male ego oozing out of him it made me feel the entire concerto proposition was an overly male pursuit. On the other hand, you're almost certainly correct that there are lots of hidden and inappropriate agendas out there, so what to do? It's a tricky issue.

September 16, 2010 at 10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mark Swed wrote a quick review after the Ojai Festival's Zappa Concert last June that reviewed the audience almost as much as the concert. Let's just say that not all of the audience took well to his characterization of them. The comments are fascinating.

September 16, 2010 at 4:19 PM  
Anonymous Proper Discord said...

Can somebody please explain to me how a composition can possibly be homosexual?

September 16, 2010 at 5:24 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

PD: Although there are certainly culturally constructed ways in which gender or sexuality can find expression in music, I hesitate to lend any weight to the notion that there is an essential connection between a composer's sexual preferences and the way his or her music sounds, so I really don't know about a "homosexual" piece of music.

That said, Matinées Musicales is pretty fucking gay.

September 16, 2010 at 10:09 PM  
Anonymous Toby said...

Thank you for calling this out! "Precious" does have its uses. But Swed manages, in this brief review, to use not only "precious," but also "sweet," "treacly," "facile," and "delicate."

In how many reviews of music by heterosexual male composers has he used all of these code words?

Maybe that's setting the bar too high, so:

In how many reviews of music by composers not openly gay has he used, say, even three of them?

October 18, 2010 at 1:41 PM  

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