Monthly Archives: June 2011

On What Music Criticism is Not

I normally try to ignore the random angry missives sent to me from cyberspace, but every once in a while I get to feeling kind of frisky and internet-bellicose.  So here goes nothing:

In May of 2009, a piece of mine was released on a CD.  The album was reviewed rather favorably in the press, including a review in Fanfare Magazine by a contributor named Jerry Dubins.  The album included a piece by a colleague of mine, one Egon Cohen.

Mr. Dubins’ wondered about Egon’s piece,

why a young, Jewish composer would be drawn to this deeply Roman Catholic 13th-century sequence that meditates on the suffering of the Virgin Mary.  Surely, as Rochberg and many other Jewish composers have, Cohen might have found an equally moving text from the Hebrew liturgy.

I took issue with this comment on my blog, because, well, it just doesn’t seem like a germane thing for a music critic to second-guess a composer’s choice of text based on nothing more than an assumption about the composer’s cultural or religious identity.  I wondered if Mr. Dubins would lodge such a complaint against Mendelssohn’s Christus or Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei on the same grounds.

Well lo and behold, because the internet is a crazy place, TWO YEARS LATER, I get an e-mail in my inbox from one Jerry Dubins.  He writes:

Well um, excuse me, Mr. White. But Mendelssohn did write a very popular oratorio based on the biblical story of a Hebrew prophet. The work is called Elijah. But then I’m sure you already knew that, which is why your question makes no sense.

Right, so a) you are excused, b) yes I did know that, and c) I’m pretty sure you missed my point entirely, so let’s see if I can clarify:

A music critic’s job is to review the music that a composer did in fact write.  You might begin by trying to figure out what the composer set out to accomplish in his or her piece.  Then you might ask if he did it well.  You might try to describe the experience of listening to this music on a visceral or intellectual level.

This particular review involved a vocal work, one in which a pre-written text was set to music.  So yes, the composer’s choice of text is a perfectly valid compositional element to comment upon.  It’s essential to the composer’s work.

Now, if you feel that the composer did not do justice to the text that he chose, so be it.  If you have cause to suspect that the composer’s personal background may have adversely effected his setting of the text, we get into a little bit of a danger zone, but there could still be valid room for criticism.  There’s a lot to be said, for example, about the fraught relationship between Mahler’s Jewish heritage and later conversion to Christianity and how that affected his music.  It is a well-documented subject and one rife with interest.

In his review, Mr. Dubins suggests that Egon ought to have found a suitable Hebrew text to set simply because he (Egon) is Jewish.  Actually, since I’m assuming that Mr. Dubins never interviewed Egon, it’s more likely that he assumed Egon was Jewish because of his name.

Is this really the purview of the music critic?  Mr. Dubins states in his review of Egon’s piece that,

The music effectively captures the doloroso character of the text.

So, that’s great then!  That’s music criticism.  Not very insightful music criticism and not very much of it, but music criticism all the same.  Speculations about the source of another text that the composer might have chosen instead is not music criticism, and it doesn’t belong in a magazine purporting to publish the same.  If Egon’s piece ‘effectively captures the doloroso character of the text,’ what does it matter if he is a Jewish, Catholic, Hindu, or Lithuanian Orthodox composer?

In regards to Mr. Dubins’ point about Mendelssohn’s Elijah, I’m not sure I quite get it.  Is he implying that, because the Jewish-heritaged Mendelssohn also wrote an oratorio on a Hebrew subject, he earned the right to compose another one on a Christian subject?  That doesn’t exactly make sense to me, but when logic’s off the table, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.

Travel diary

Last week was a deusy – I was in Montreal Monday night through Wednesday morning for a Conducting Competition.  A conducting competition is this thing where you fly to a semi-foreign country, walk around said country for 8 hours, show up at a pre-determined location in said country at 5:00 pm, wave your arms in front of 2 pianists for 5 minutes, thankfully run into an old friend, and go out together for a great dinner afterwards.  That’s what a conducting competition is.

Speaking of Montreal though – pardonnez moi, Montréal – that place is a linguistic mess.  Do they speak French?  Do they speak English?  The answer is no.  I began every conversation in French.  The average Joe on the street would immediately switch to English.  Why?  Because even if you speak beautiful Continental French, it is so very different from the French spoken on the streets of Montreal that you immediately identify yourself as an outsider who there’s no point in humoring.  And, truth be told, you can’t understand a word they say anyway.

Par contre, if you go into the classier districts of the town, the people speak a much cleaner, more metropolitan version of the language, and they are glad to speak in their native tongue.  So, good for them.

The bilinguistic situation does cause some unintentional humor (see above).  I mean, if I’m French, do I really need to see the word “Hôtel” underneath the word “Hotel” to know where the hotel is?

The second part of the week I spent in New York – Baldwin, Long Island, to be precise.  I was there conducting a premiere of a piece that I wrote for my friend Scott, who runs, hands-down, one of the best high school music programs in the country.  What’s even cooler is the fratty atmosphere that he cultivates in his department.  The students play well, hang out, and just really get into music.

But no trip to New York would be complete for me without a pilgrimage to the grave of Leonard Bernstein.  He’s buried in  Green-Wood Cemetery (which, should be noted, has a surprisingly hipper-than-I-would-have-thought web site).  It’s a gorgeous location, somewhat deep in the heart of Brooklyn.

This was my fourth such trip, but the third accompanied by my friend Eric Benson.  We usually make a day of our excursion to the cemetery – Sunset Park is a great place to get Vietnamese sandwiches – and revel in taking pictures of ourselves in semi-erotic poses at the grave site:

I always bring a single red rose for Lenny – it savors more of the jilted lover than a bouquet.  I also make it a habit to move one of the rocks on Lenny’s tombstone to Felicia’s, because honestly, it’s the least she deserves.

This was a special trip to Green-Wood though, because Eric and I stumbled upon one of the ponds that dot the cemetery grounds.  Now came the big surprise – there were four 50 lb. snapping turtles swimming in the pond!!

These turtles were sufficiently Mothra-esque to give one pause, living as they were at a cemetery.  But then the fauna just got weirder, because we went to another pond, and met the most Lynchian duck of all time.  This one little duck was all alone by itself, just walking around.  It quacked its beak off to get our attention:

It seemed to be telling us something – like it wanted us to follow it!

It perched itself on the edge of the pond,

and then dove into the water!

Which was where we drew the line (for the obvious reasons – I mean, that has got to be the scummiest pond in Christendom.)  OK, so a duck dives into the water.  But the quacking.  I cannot understate the poignancy and urgency of the quacking.  I have never met a duck that seemed to have such an agenda.  I think there is something going on with the fauna at Green-Wood Cemetery, and this duck wanted us to know about it.

Unfortunately, it was quacking in Canadian French.