Serious Music Today

By John Rockwell

From my years as the chief rock critic of The New York Times in the 1970’s, I am lucky to retain several rock critics, two in particular, among my closest friends. By and large, they are suspicious of Art, classical music especially: to be accurate, one is grudgingly respectful but utterly indifferent, the other hostile. Their suspicions are shared, insofar as they are considered or articulated at all, by the wider swath of rock critics, musicians and pop-culture academics who attended last spring’s annual rock symposium/confab at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. Rock critics are not talking about contemporary classical music, which they never hear. They are talking about the standard repertory, and they consider that music hopelessly irrelevant, odd-sounding and crippled by class pretensions.

Before we dismiss such ideas as ignorant philistinism, and to some extent it is just that, we should stop and think. How vital is classical music as an art form? What is the connection between the comfort food of bread-and-butter standards and edgier (or pitifully pandering) new classical composition? How is classical music supported, especially in this country, and to what extent does it fulfill spiritual vs. crassly social needs? What is the audience, and how old is it? Some of the answers to those questions fuel the rock critics’ disdain.

For classical critics, these issues crept furtively to light during this summer’s “critical conversation,” a communal blog conceived by the intrepid Doug McLennan, founder and guru of and himself a former pianist and classical critic. And, one might add, an NAJP alumnus and, now, board member.

Doug’s idea was to see if a clutch of critics could identify “the next big idea” in classical music. They couldn’t, which may speak to the sadly fragmented state of classical music today and may indicate that Doug’s question, while properly provocative of a larger conversation, was not quite the right one to ask at this moment in musical history.

A larger conversation it did indeed provoke. We live now in a rather bland period in which everybody professes openness to everything. No more the fierce polemics of the modernists vs. the traditionalists, the serialists vs. the neo-classicists, the downtowners vs. the uptowners, or the minimalists vs. everybody else. Benign, dispassionate, mostly passionless tolerance reigns.

As an advocate of such tolerance in my 1983 book, “All American Music,” I am amused and bemused by all this loving feeling. Amused, because it proves I was a good predictor of the immediate future (and I hasten to add that I haven’t always been so sure-footed, as in my pronouncements in 1980 that rap was a transitory phenomenon, or in the mid-80’s that the CD represented a sonic improvement over the LP). Bemused, because there is something enlivening about a good fight, and some of the lifelessness of the current classical scene may have to do with the dulling of its polemical edge.

But lurking beneath the ripple-free surface lurks Nessie, in the form of the old resentments. Some critics attempted to intimidate the others by all the music they’d heard. Others trumpeted the vitality of pop over the moribundity of classical composition. Still others let their old hostility against commercially-minded vulgarity seep back up to the surface. But in the end, everyone agreed that we need to be more open to everything.

Having fought the high-low, cultivated-venacular, uptown-downtown battles for decades, I’d like to try to hasten over those hoary dichotomies here. Hence the title of this essay, which anyone who knows me will instantly understand suggests that “classical” music has no lock on “serious” music.

What do I mean by “serious”? There are those, aesthetical neo-cons of the Hilton Kramer sort, who lament the loss of standards that any erosion of classical hegemony may entail. That is nonsense. My rock critic friends are among the fiercest elitists I know, rigorously imposing judgments of quality on all the music they encounter.

The trouble with standards, and maybe their greatest glory, is that they remain stubbornly resistant to objectification. Whenever a critic has tried of “prove” the superiority of his or her favorite music, by adducing its complexity or its ingenuity within tradition or its freedom from crass commercialism, the paradigms break down under the most casual scrutiny. Simple music can be great; so can conservative composers (Bach) and radical ones (early Stravinsky); all composers relate, willingly or defiantly, to tradition, no matter how determinedly innovative; the loudest populism can be thrilling (the Rolling Stones). Standards are really the subjective taste of a knowledgeable, compelling person, reinforced by sophisticated consensus.

By “serious,” then, I mean good. By “good,” I mean worthy of our attention and enthusiasm, worthy of being trumpeted by those who like it to those who don’t yet know it or haven’t yet accepted it, worthy of rehearing and worthy of inclusion within a critical tradition that might eventually amount to a canon. I hasten to point out, to cover my intellectual-populist flank, that music that seems proudly trivial, or was conceived as a rebuke to the presumed pomposity of seriousness, like “Louie, Louie” or “Roadrunner,” can be serious too, or at least seriously appreciated.

But mostly by serious I mean music that is important, to its creators and to me. And in our time, that can mean music from anywhere by anybody. Not all(ital) music by anybody and everybody, but some pieces from any genre. Which means a far broader range of music than that which derives directly from the Western classical tradition. It means jazz and rock and rap and Latin and reggae and Indian and African. It means ancient traditions and composition inspired by such traditions. It means the cheesiest pop, from Shania Twain to Bollywood. It means artists from any of those genres influenced by other genres (cf. Shania Twain’s Bollywood excursions).

One index of an art’s vitality is its ability to attract the interest of serious artists in other fields. In recent years, that has meant downtown classical music and pop. A remarkable number of young modern-dance troupes choose pop and rock and rap to accompany their choreography. In the remarkable installation this summer at Mass MoCA, the artist Ann Hamilton used music by Meredith Monk – created for a previous collaboration between the two. A surprising number of the classical critics on the artsjournal blog (and even more of commentating readers) argued that pop had seized the high ground, creatively. Which, in turn, elicited defensive reiterations of the old, Adorno-esque put-downs of commercial music.

It’s instructive to compare the balance between high and low in different arts over time. Mozart was popular in his day, but there was still street and folk music he could happily appropriate. Television, as conceived and covered by its newspaper critics, ranges from more or less serious news broadcasts and PBS programs and HBO mini-series right down to Donald Trump. There is no “pop” subdivision of theater or dance or film; those critics cover the whole range.

In classical music, and in the artsjournal blog, one could sniff the panic. There’s a lot of music out there, and apart from personal taste and training, it’s hard enough for a critic to keep up with all the classical composition out there, let alone the canonical and recently exhumed repertory from the past and all the performances and larger issues, like declining audiences (if they are declining) and financially shaky institutions.

When I was writing “All American Music,” which began during my years as both a classical and rock critic for The Times, I could feel the chill of the panic periodically myself. Jazz, for instance, was a field I felt less sure about than classical or rock, which I was actually writing about regularly for the paper and hence for which I felt the need to have some plausible overview. Jazz often seems like a self-contained tradition, with its own artists and impresarios and, especially, critics, all of whom fiercely defend it against all encroaching threats, especially rock. But since I already knew a lot of jazz, I plunged in, seeking to define my own tastes and to get hold of the field in its breadth and, to some extent, its depth.

Ultimately, a critic has to follow his or her tastes, listening to all the music that previous positive experiences (or even grim duty) suggest might be similarly interesting. Again, openness does not mean the abandonment of personal taste, or even standards. But sticking to what you know best and excluding the rest is cowardice or laziness or both (Linda Ronstadt, that most wide-ranging of singers, once argued that all laziness is fear). Music is music. The classical tradition is the aural expression of the larger Western contributions to world history, like modern science, democracy and colonialism. Colonialism and technological innovation have brought the world together, and demoracy has fostered a surge of popular artistic expression. A music critic must deal with all that, not hide from it.

Aside from personal resistance, however, all manner of institutional forces militate against such openness. Classical music has its orchestras and opera companies and trade organizations and publications and a solid core audience that does indeed try to shut most everything else out. The same with jazz and, as I indicated at the outset of this essay, rock. No doubt there are devotees of merengue who care less about other Latin music, let alone Charles Wuorinen’s latest opera. It’s easy enough for a critic like me to proclaim a generously broad expanse of music, on which a happy listener may gambol and play. A DJ or non-commercial, format-free radio can indeed so play, juxtaposing any kind of music with any other.

But even frisky presenters like those at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall or Lincoln Center’s Great Performers run into roadblocks. Their halls are too expensive and too big for many kinds of music. The echoing ambiance demanded by classical music blurs amplified music. Many subscribers to one kind of music don’t want to be bothered by other kinds.

The solution for the institutions is to keep plugging away. Like newspapers, they yearn for younger audiences, and younger audiences do tend to be more open. The range of music at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center may still be tilted toward the classical (that’s where these people came from and that’s what they know best). But they are helping to create new audiences before our very ears.

Another institutional roadblock lurks in the newspapers for which most music critics write. Kyle Gann is an avatar of openness, but the Village Voice is not interested in classical music for the same reasons my rock-critic friends disdain it. Allan Kozinn gets to write about the Beatles at The Times, because he would explode if he couldn’t, but should Tony Tommasini feel the need to review on any regular basis the contrasting vocal talents of, say, Alicia Keys, Norah Jones, Avril Lavigne, Beyonce(acute accent) and Ms. Twain, he would run up against a whole pop-music department full of skilled critics who cover that kind of music already. And those divisions, between pop and classical, theater and dance, film and television, are maintained through bureaucratic inertia, born of the vested interests of the critics who hold those jobs and of the editors who perpetuate the divisions through new hires into old slots.

A lot of newspapers, including my own, have stressed pop cultural coverage to an ever greater extent of late, usually to the detriment of classical coverage. The people who make those decisions, by and large, know little and care less about music (or films or television). They want news, because they were trained as reporters. And they want pop culture because they think it will lure younger readers. Which it may or may not do, since young readers usually want to think of themselves as out of the mainstream, and big-city newspapers are nothing if not mainstream.

The trick, once again, is to be serious about whatever it is you’re writing about. Serious does not mean humorless or graceless. But me, I grow real sick real fast of personality profiles of personalities I care little about. Or of newsy little trend snippets and big photos and acres of white space around the ever-shrinking text. Intelligent writing about popular culture, like that practiced by my rock-critic friends and the current pop critics of The Times, is fine with me. As long as it doesn’t swamp everything else.

An astute reader pointed out in the artsjournal blog that when I wrote “All American Music,” I was arguing for a place at the table for rock and Latin and jazz. Now those arts have bellied up to the table so greedily that there’s hardly room for anyone else.

Ultimately, a critic owes primary responsibility to the art, however conceived, and to his or her own integrity. Hence the popularity of personal blogs, like those of Greg Sandow and Terry Teachout and Mr. Gann on the artsjournal site. Blogs have their onanistic aspects; not every random thought is worth articulating. But blogs are freedom: freedom from pesky editors, philistine corporate strategists, space constraints. Above all, freedom to write about whatever interests you, however serious and however rarified and however specialized.

Pontifications work best as mirrors. A critic must reflect as well as project. But there has to be a dialogue between the actual tastes of readers and the tastes of supposed cultural leaders. You can’t lead your troops into battle unless they are willing to follow you; otherwise you get fragged — or, worse for a critic, unread.

Not everyone has to listen to everything, and write knowledgably about it; there’s a place for depth alongside breadth. I myself get enormous pleasure from reading critics, like Andrew Porter on Verdi, John Steane on opera singers, Paul Griffiths on Euro-modern music, Gary Giddins on jazz or Bob Christgau on rock, who plunge deeply into their own fields, finding breadth within depth.

My confidence in my own position is based on my perception of what’s actually going on out there in music-land, what’s most interesting and what everyone from composers to critics to fans want to hear. I don’t mean to sound hortatory or self-righteous. But the current crop of critics, or those who will follow after them, would do better to respond to the reality of serious music by embracing it in their critical conversations, rather than by ignoring it.