Getting Beyond Criticizing the Critics

Getting Beyond Criticizing the Critics

The NAJP Classical Music Critic Survey and the upcoming National Critics Conference in Los Angeles have Critics Critic Frank J. Oteri thinking that maybe it’s time to get beyond the criticism and to rally together.

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’s a lot being made on Sequenza21 right now about the first-ever Classical Music Critics Survey released by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University on May 16. The hefty 54-page PDF certainly contains its share of thistles for contemporary American music aficionados: e.g. the average critic devotes only 20% of his or her time—well, 74% his—to the music of our time; not a single American composer made the list of top 20 favorite historical composers; more American critics think the center of the scene is in Europe rather than America; less than half those surveyed were familiar with the music of Henry Brant, etc; I could go on all afternoon.

Yet in all the fervor of dissecting the minutiae of this survey, no one criticizing the critics has remarked how timely such a survey is at this juncture in our field and in our society at large.

Later this week, the Omni Los Angeles Hotel will be the host of the first-ever National Arts Critics Conference. Angelinos might want to start getting their picket signs ready! Although, seriously, this first-ever coming together of journalists who cover the visual arts, drama, dance, and music (classical as well as jazz) beats promises to be a major event in the world of arts coverage and something we should all be excited about.

I’ve long been one the first ones to criticize the critics. My antipathy with the word “critic” and in fact the very essence of criticism I’ve already addressed ad nauseam. Yet I’ve continued to be involved with the Music Critics Association of North America. After serving on their Board of Directors for 2 years, I’m actually still a card-carrying member of the organization. (They actually issue cards.) Despite our seeming irreconcilabilities (isn’t opinion what criticism is about anyway), the ability for people with differing opinions to talk to each other is extremely valuable and something we are losing sight of more and more in our society overall. In an era when a major TV news program and a major national magazine both recant stories they’ve run that are supposed to be journalism, is there even a place for editorial writing anymore?

All the more reason for journalists to rally together, especially those of us who cover frequently marginalized realms such as the arts. The opportunity to share widely divergent opinions should be even richer through the addition of perspectives from other artistic disciplines. In our age of over-specialization, niche marketing, and web surfing only on topics of predetermined personal significance, there is a dangerous tendency to become too insular and to overlook solutions we haven’t already figured out. That’s one of the many reasons I’m heading to L.A. this week even further charged as a result of the NAJP survey and my reactions to it.