Critical Can Opener

Critical Can Opener

Is it possible that listening and composing are contradictory impulses?

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

There is something wrong
with this poem. Can you
find it?
—Richard Brautigan, Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt (1970)


This week I am taking a complete break from going to concerts after going to one or more every day for nearly two weeks. It is a much needed hiatus after reaching what I’m worried might be a serious philosophical impasse.

Nearly a year ago, I began writing a series of short essays on these pages in which I outlined a critical goal of attaining tastelessness. But after some of what I heard last week, I’m finding it hard to practice what I preach. Not wanting to say something hurtful or dishonest, I found myself running out of a couple of concert halls hoping not to make eye contact with anyone. I know this is the stance of many a music critic and one that I have always deplored as socially irresponsible. I have no desire to cast aspersions on any composer or musician, so I still won’t name names. Suffice it to say I walked away from these events extremely disappointed and confused.

Let me explain: My M.O. has always been to seek out experiences I might not like at first, yet later love. There is so much music that I initially loathed that I now profoundly treasure because I forced myself to examine it more closely—everything from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (believe it or not), the symphonies of Franz Schubert, and the Triple Duo of Elliott Carter to Frank Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Ice Cube’s AmeriKKA’s Most Wanted. Indeed, most of the significant compositional epiphanies of my life have resulted from following John Cage’s famous advice: If you’re bored by something you’ve heard for five minutes, listen for ten; if you’re bored by something you’ve heard for ten minutes, listen for twenty, etc. But right now it’s very difficult for me to fathom a reason why I would ever want to rehear some of what I sat through this past week.

I’m approaching my birthday; could it be possible that my mind is starting to close up a bit? I’m reminded of my tirade against curators and other cultural arbiters whose taste results in de facto censorship of a great deal of artistic expression. Could I be turning into one of them? Whatever happened to the glee I had when I purchased scads of LPs of music I had yet to find interesting?

The last thing I ever want to subscribe to is the mainstream classical music canard of only extolling masterpieces that everyone acknowledges, yet I cannot deny the basic human urge to spend my limited free time doing things I already know I’ll enjoy. It’s why certain people always order the same entrée every time they go to a certain restaurant. I’ve always been someone who tries to order something different. But what happens when nothing else on the menu tastes good to you?

While my approach to critical listening has had untold benefits on my compositional process, could my compositional aesthetics now be getting in the way of my ability to accept everything I hear? In February 2005, we published an essay by San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic Joshua Kosman in which he explained his distrust for critics who are also composers arguing that behind the criticism there’s always the risk of a hidden and sometimes not-so-hidden compositional agenda. As someone who self-identifies as both a writer of music and a writer about music, I’ve always vigorously fought for the importance of such a dual mantle. A critical response to work will inevitably offer far greater insight into the critic than the criticized whether said critic is a composer or not. The heart of the critical stance is supposed to be objective subjectivity, an oxymoron that’s hard to top. But what insight might you glean from someone whose only goal is just to listen and not formulate opinions that get in the way of that listening?

But herein lies the contradiction. Though I eschew passing judgment when I write about music, I make judgments all the time when I am writing music. Not to flog a dead horse I targeted here previously, but no matter what your compositional aesthetic, the very act of composition is a subjective process based on making judgments. Even when you are allowing your compositions to be completely determined by chance, as did Cage, you are ultimately still making a judgment about process and therefore somehow limiting the possibilities. Listening to music, on the other hand, should always be about being open to something outside of yourself. Like meditating, truly listening to something requires getting your thoughts out of the way.

But being a composer makes it difficult to always listen with non-judgmental ears. What happens when what you hear is diametrically opposed to what you would do yourself? Is it ever possible for a composer to hear the value in something that is so contrary to his or her own standards? I’ve found that opening myself up to standards that were not mine expanded my compositional aesthetics, but there are still places I won’t go as a composer. Does this mean there is music I will somehow never “get”? And, if so, what am I losing as a result both as a composer and as a listener? I’ll continue to probe this when I next find myself sitting in the audience, but not until next week at least.