The current state of contemporary music reviews

Monday night’s Sinfonietta/Thierry Fischer concert gets a big thumbs down from Richard Morrison in the Times today. In a sense this review should be written for someone like me – I wasn’t there, but I am interested in a report of the music that was played. However, a lot about Morrison’s review makes me suspicious about his assessment. Take the opening set-up:

To hear the dedicated virtuosos of the London Sinfonietta getting to grips with some perversely opaque piece of avant-garde music is always inspiring. For playing four opaque piles of inconsequential twaddle in succession they should get medals – though presumably they chose the stuff in the first place.

Do people really watch concerts in the same way they watch Ironman contests? Is it really that “inspiring” to watch an ensemble struggle for the sake of it – isn’t it far better (and more true to the Sinfonietta’s case, I would suggest) to want to hear fine music played by a top ensemble? And why is it perverse to be opaque anyway? The value judgments that are set up here – contemporary music is willfully unintelligible and the most pleasure you can expect is in a performer’s hopeless struggle with it – should prejudice any reader against treating any observations that follow with respect. The equation of musical value with audience share – “I hesitate to calculate the cost to the taxpayer of presenting this concert for the benefit of an audience that could have fitted into a village hall” … “the deadly aura of cerebral exercises written primarily to impress other initiates in the new-music ghetto. That’s not good enough in a public venue that gets a vast subsidy” – only deepens one’s reservations. Perhaps the remarks of a broadsheet concert reviewer shouldn’t be taken terribly seriously, but why not? They are, after all, professional listeners. But then so is everyone on this recent New Music Box thread, and it doesn’t stop many of them from making much more bizarrely ignorant remarks about contemporary composition. I like to hope for better.

It’s only halfway through his review that Morrison feels it necessary to mention anything specific about the music, “For the record”. And this is where I lose patience. Not so much with Morrison specifically, but with the wishy-washy representation of contemporary music that this review exemplifies. Because, despite the resounding one star Morrison gives, he has given me every reason to doubt that he took much trouble to engage with the challenges of the music presented to him. It’s “perversely opaque” and that is that. (I’m sure he did engage, at least to some degree, but he has chosen not to write about it here.)

When the music is discussed, it is through a series of clichés several decades old, including an obligatory dentistry metaphor. (Holt’s piece, Sueños, fares a little better.) I say again, the point isn’t that this was a poor concert – it may have been – but such writing does contemporary music no service at all. Anyone interested in what may or may not have transpired musically gets practically nothing; anyone who flat-out assumes that contemporary music is all “inconsequential twaddle” gets their prejudices massaged (and get to assume that Andriessen’s music is much the same as, say, Stockhausen’s, such is the vacuity of those old clichés). The review touches on a bunch of issues – the relationship of contemporary music to its audience, the nature of sonic obscurity, the minimal as an aesthetic challenge rather than new age soma, and so on  – that merit discussion in the public press. And these needn’t been discussions held in the discursive abstract (never going to get past an arts editor), but could be brought directly to bear on the aesthetic experience of Monday night’s concert. It would only need a small leap from author and editor (and an extra column inch or two). Morrison talks of this concert being “a simply dreadful advertisement for serious contemporary music”, but until public discourse on contemporary music starts talking up to its readers once more such advertisements will remain wasted on all but the small few who were there themselves. And then, we must ask, what’s the point of reviewing the concert at all?

4 thoughts on “The current state of contemporary music reviews

  1. The obvious point in reviewing concerts in this way is to serve both the reviewer’s and the presumed readership’s self-esteem. This role has been played by self-regarding conservative publicists since time immemorial. It would be much more interesting to hear from members of the actual audience – most would be glad to do this at no cost and the paper would be relieved of one more payroll. Of course, it is difficult to write about music you don’t get. It’s also possible the review was written *against* you and all other superior bloggers etc who dare to be more knowing than the cowering critic in his self-painted corner.

  2. “The obvious point in reviewing concerts in this way is to serve both the reviewer’s and the presumed readership’s self-esteem.”

    You’re right; I guess my sticking point is with the identity of that “presumed readership”. Why not give them a little more credit? Even take some risks (it’s not like people will stop buying papers on the strength of the few hundred words they devote a week to classical music).

    “It’s also possible the review was written *against* you and all other superior bloggers etc who dare to be more knowing than the cowering critic in his self-painted corner.”

    Possible, but somehow I doubt it…!

  3. This is a great post. The point that’s sometime hard to get across is that we who care about music (new music, old music, any music) would like *nothing better* than a powerfully-argued negative review, whose negative opinions are grounded in specific facts about the performance and concert experience. I mean, we’ve all been to dreadful contemporary music performances, but the trick is to articulate why THAT performance was lacking. Morrison’s review could mostly have been written before he got to the concert hall. (I’m still pretty deeply ashamed of my one spectacular failure on this score back when I was blog-reviewing…)

    The issues are slightly different, but my friend Daniel recently made a similar baleful observation about the state of new music broadsheet reviewing. I guess the moral is: hooray for blogs. (Except when they, too, suck for entirely different reasons.)

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