Posts Tagged: American Choral Premieres

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.

Critical Commentary

Fanfare Magazine’s review of the American Chorale Premieres CD has just come out, penned by one Jerry Dubins.  It’s not much of a review, and I’m guessing that very few people will actually read it outside of the Cedille Records administration and Choral Music Junkies (if such things actually exist), but I simply must take issue with Mr. Dubins’ overall critical approach.

First off, let me just say that this is not an argument against his “review” of my piece.  In fact, he doesn’t really review my piece as much as offer a vague and vaguely dismissive semi-description of the music sprinkled with biographical misinformation (I’m well known in the Roman Catholic community?  For my choral music?  When did that happen?)  Since he doesn’t even attempt to figure out what my piece is about compositionally, there’s not much that I can respond to.

Where I really take issue is with his review of Egon Cohen’s Stabat Mater.  In the interest of full disclosure, I do know Egon, as we were both students of Easley Blackwood at the same time, and I would list him as an acquaintance – not exactly someone I would rush to defend under most circumstances.  I do quite like his piece on this disc, but that’s neither here nor there.  Here’s what Mr. Dubins had to say:

Finally we come to Egon Cohen (b. 1984), the youngster among this assembly. His Latin-titled Stabat mater set in English translation was written in response to an invitation to submit a piece for this CD. The music effectively captures the doloroso character of the text; but it does give me cause to wonder 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.

Um, Excuse Me? You wonder why he couldn’t find a Hebrew text?  That so clearly falls into the category of None of Your Goddamn Business.  Would Mr. Dubins conclude a review of Mendelssohn’s Christus by asking the same question?  How about Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei?  How about John Adams’ A Flowering Tree, for that matter?  Any critic who can’t understand that a composer might possess a vivid enough imagination to think outside of his closest cultural boundaries is truly wanting and kind of missing the point of a vast swath of artistic output.

I have no way of knowing if this Jerry Dubins is himself Jewish, and is perhaps a Yenta-ish figure of some sort, bemoaning the fact that a member of his tribe couldn’t meet a “nice Jewish text”.  Even in that case, I don’t really think that a music criticism magazine is the best venue for such an opinion.

Call me crazy, but I kind of think it’s a critic’s job to get inside the piece, whether or not it be his cup of tea.  David Effron, my conducting teacher, tells us that it’s our job to love any piece of music that we’re conducting.  Well, clearly it’s not the critic’s obligation to love everything he reviews, but I do think that a decent critic loves the process of delving in deep and trying to take a piece on it’s own terms.

This is where so many of the critiques of Inglourious Basterds go wrong.  I’d say about 90% of the reviews fail to penetrate the surface, or at least the immediate sub-surface level, even some of the more sophisticated ones.  For example, take Stephen Rea’s review in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Tonally schizoid and rife with anachronisms (a David Bowie song on the sound track, out-of-era vernacular), Tarantino’s Third Reich folly is utterly exasperating.

Umm… “rife with anachronisms” is as far as you got?  OK, fine, this is a particularly shallow analysis, but most of the reviews don’t get past listing the many genre references that pervade the film.  Almost none of the reviewers get to the heart of how QT uses the genres artistically.  To me, the Big, majorly subversive element of the film [oh, btw, spoilers a’plenty follow] is not so much QT’s re-writing of history, but in how this interacts with our pre-conditioned genre expectations.  Because of films from The Longest Day right up through Saving Private Ryan, we the viewers damn well expect realism from the WWII genre — it’s almost like an unwritten moral code.  Even in more fictional WWII films, the details of an individual squadron or battle or whatever may be made up, but the outcome is always the same.

Tarantino absolutely knows this, and that’s why the third act of his film has tension — because the viewer is sitting there wondering “How is this plot going to fail?“.  Now, the problem is that that’s really the only reason why the third act has tension — there’s very little internal to the movie to make you yearn for the success of the grueling finale.  Within the film, the American “Basterds” are depicted as way more brutal than any of the Nazis, and the character of Hitler is imbued with a Mel Brooks-esque buffoonery; Tarantino is relying completely on the viewer’s personal sense of history to justify his (Tarantino’s) violent end to the Third Reich.

I’ve got a feeling that there might be a much, much deeper message here, that Inglourious Basterds is an Anti War Film – that is, both an Anti-War Film and an Anti War-Film, if you know what I mean.

So Jerry, what’d you think of the movie?

Pardonnez-moi, monsieur.

I’m just sitting here in the office trying to mind my own business, and this creepy old dude keeps staring at me:

pierre the lech

Sir, though you may like what you see, please do avert your eyes and get to conducting something by someone named Igor or Johannes, if you would.

In other news, I’m happy to report that a certain JvR was pleased with my not-so-recent efforts which have just been released on disc.  Do you think that means I should take back some of the mean things I said about him?  Well, maybe not… but I guess I didn’t have to call him John Boy.

But while we’re on the subject of the American Chorale Premieres CD, might I suggest that you buy it?  Or at least download one track in particular?