Should Composers Read Music Critics?

A conversation between composer John Supko and critic Jeffrey Edelstein

Written By

John Supko and Jeffrey Edelstein

Olin Downes

Olin Downes, music critic, 1947 (Wikipedia Commons)

John Supko, composer: Should composers read music critics? Yes, because reviews should be a delight for composers to read. If a premiere performance is reviewed, the review should be positive and sympathetic. Negative reviews are so old school, so pre-21st century. Critics can’t possibly imagine that negative reviews serve a purpose any longer, if they ever did. In the current era and for the foreseeable future, critics—an endangered cultural species—should consider themselves in a symbiotic relationship with composers, another struggling life form. Like the relationship between clownfish and sea anemone, composers provide essential “nutrients” to critics, and so a critic’s role should be primarily advocatory. Reviews of new pieces will also have an expository dimension, but critics might consider avoiding those topics best left for later—and more sustained—reflection, such as a work’s ultimate worth. Between advocating for composers and the new music they write, and explaining those works to a general readership, who would find time or space for carping?

Jeffrey Edelstein, critic: I agree that many composers might find value in reading some reviews of their own music and of their colleagues’. But I also think the work of a critic should speak to many audiences simultaneously and offer something more than advocacy and whatever you mean by “explaining.” Perhaps I should say what I try to do as a critic and why I think this might interest composers. The aim of my reviews is to describe concerts vividly and in a way that allows readers to disregard my judgment; to report accurately while inspiring readers to hear the music themselves. But something transpires in the process of describing a performance: the score disappears and the sound of the performance remains. The review grows from the thought and emotion the music evoked and uses the words I find to convey a personal response. The classical music critic of The New Yorker magazine, Alex Ross, captures this process, calling it “a very tricky thing.”  He discerns:

you are reporting on how you, yourself, felt. And this is where I start to think, “I’m sounding absurd,” but nonetheless there is a curious kind of labor in sifting through your own impressions, letting them settle—hopefully you have a little bit of time to process these impressions…

There is more than this in a concert review, of course, such as an account of the facts of the concert, relevant history and context, an assessment of the instrumentalists (and technology), self-aware advocacy, education, judgment, contribution to a broader critical conversation, and so on, but practiced description is the part of a review that may prove useful to composers. Description should be evocative, but it is rarely objective.  It is feedback translated into prose that momentarily closes a circuit of composing, interpreting, and listening. A concert review is a signal that a composer can use to ascertain if and what their music may be communicating. And it is different from the signals a composer might receive from a teacher, colleague, or friend. A composer may ignore a critic’s reporting and judgment or consider why someone who listens carefully reacts the way they do. I do not want to generalize about the value of reviews for composers. Some composers may be emotionally vulnerable in a way that serves their music, but precludes an interest in what listeners think. I hope some composers take the advice proffered by Michael Kors on Project Runway. Kors, chastising a contestant for taking his advice completely and abandoning their personal style, insisted, “listen to the world with one ear.” This is why a concert review should not be pruned of complex, even contradictory, emotions and opinion or staked to advocacy for the art form. Judgment and enthusiasm are perhaps the parts of a review that a composer can profitably overlook. Yet if these aspects are offered exclusively, what might be seen as a flowering plant, even one with prickles, becomes etiolated for other readers.

Supko: It’s all well and good to advise composers to disregard the judgments or predilections of the critic—or to write in a way that, as you say, takes this eventuality for granted—but those judgments will go on existing in cyberspace at least until the next solar storm, whether or not the advice was heeded. The unprecedented accessibility and apparent indelibility of reviews on the internet necessitate, I believe, a change in the way they are written and read. Foremost in my mind here are not the tender sensibilities of composers or even the damage a gratuitously negative review can do to a career, but rather the integrity and relevance of music criticism itself. There are many critics I admire and enjoy reading. I appreciate your discipline’s thoughtful engagement with mine, but I can’t disguise a certain uneasiness with the status quo; somehow it’s just not me.  When reviews were only accessible in newspapers and ultimately destined, like society pages and advice columns, to cushion cages and cuddle fish, the post-premiere assessment of the critic could be filed the-night-of without posing much of an ethical dilemma. If the verdict was positive, it could be clipped and pasted in a scrapbook. If not, well, at least it would one day physically disintegrate, along with its author.

Thumb the pages of Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective and marvel at the virtual anonymity of the critics fulminating therein. Such is the book’s charm, but let’s not ignore the object lesson it provides. If those poor souls had known what old Nikolai Leonidovich had in mind for them, I contend that they would have written differently. They couldn’t have known, of course, nor could they imagine a time when everything they’d ever published would be instantly accessible for scrutiny on a device the size of a cigarette case. You might say that libraries provided similar accessibility in bygone eras.  “Ah!” I might exclaim. “But books are not written and published overnight,” I might continue.  Which brings me to the gravamen of my position: no matter the quality or the quantity of thinking done in the hours between a double bar and a filing deadline, I don’t think it’s possible to arrive at a critical assessment of a new musical work, usually heard only once, that merits a permanence surpassing the wildest dreams of monumental masonry. There was something in the “throwaway culture” of print journalism that made publishing first impressions less compromising for the critic. How many of today’s reviewers would like to rephrase or retract Google Result No. 3? I suppose we won’t soon know, but I’d consider any such admission a badge of honor.  The current editorial paradigm, a holdover from the 19th century, is cruelly inadequate for the 21st, and history demonstrates that that cruelty is principally visited upon critics, not composers. Who today remembers Jean Poueigh or, moreover, his savage review of Erik Satie’s Parade?  If one hears of him at all, it is most likely in reference to the defamation suit he brought against that composer for sending him retaliatory postcards (“I am writing this from where I shit on you with all my force”) that could have been read, so the suit claimed, by the concierge and every tenant of Poueigh’s apartment building.


Satie (left), 1917, the year he sent the postcards to (and got sued by) Poueigh (on right)

As with the invention of the book, technology has once again changed the way information is disseminated and consumed. Shouldn’t the prospect of tweeting or blogging one’s very next thought to an audience of three billion internet users be reason enough to slow down, think, forget, re-listen, think again, lay aside, return, re-re-listen, think some more, and then, perhaps, publish a few months later?  By and large, it hasn’t happened yet. Our appetite for content, especially of the commercial variety, won’t permit it.  Instead, it seems the speed and efficiency of modern technology have prompted us to attempt to think as quickly as our machines function so as to match their productivity. Don’t you agree there’s something fishy going on?

Edelstein: I keep a copy of Slonimsky’s Lexicon on my desk along with the collected writings of Virgil Thomson, John Rockwell, yellowed Xeroxes of Charles Michener, many others, and a few eight-inch floppy disks that I think of as my lost reviews.  Two related issues that you mention intrigue me:  the ramifications of new technology for critics, particularly the permanence and the pace of public writing, and the inherent value of concert reviews.

But first I need to procrastinate­­—in this case indistinguishable from empirical research. I think I might want to refer to a word used by New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe to evoke the sound of a violin—”burr.”  I find the original review easily and I’ll return to the drypoint analogy.  Now I’m looking for Woolfe’s review of an American Folk Art Museum exhibit of quilts at the Park Avenue Armory.  I don’t find it.  And I don’t find all of my own reviews as they were originally published; others require detailed search phrases.  I recall Anthony Tommasini’s thought-provoking essay, An Opera Can Take Its Time, or Yours, in The New York Times, a discussion of the pacing of opera; it was very much on my mind in 2009 when I was writing about Gregory Spears’s opera Paul’s Case.  I don’t find it immediately, or my own review as originally published. And then there was Daniel Johnson’s blog post on Nixon in China.  I thought I’d locate it via a link on Alex Ross’s website, The Rest is Noise.  No luck.  Bruce Hodges, Steve Smith, Heidi Waleson, David Allen, Kyle Gann, Anne Midgette, many others; I’m not finding specific reviews I’d like to revisit.  Mark Swed’s evocative feature on Ligeti.  No.  John Corigliano’s Andante website dustup with Justin Davidson; it was located on the website of Buffalo’s NPR News Station.  Nico Muhly’s sly responses to his critics (when he read them); I believe I could find these had we but world enough and time.  All this is to say that I don’t think the permanence of concert reviews and blogs on the internet is much of a drawback.  I suspect that some things will survive long into the digital age—I Love Lucy, almost certainly—but most concert reviews will fade from memory even if archived in the “cloud,” behind a paywall, or in a salt mine.

I also mean to suggest that there’s a rich critical conversation that may be of use to composers.  There’s immediacy in critical description that discloses how music sounds to an attentive audience member, tells a composer something about the spirit of the times, and something about fashionable obsessions that may cause music to be misapprehended.  And concert reviews reveal how critics change their minds about what they hear.  Is it challenging to separate description and judgment?  I don’t think so: consider Virgil Thomson on Sibelius.

Naturally I can’t find the contemporary music review by Zachary Woolfe I’d like to use as an example.  Instead I’ll return to Woolfe’s use of the word “burr” describing a violin “tone translucently smooth at one point and with a dusky burr at another.”  Burr, onomatopoeic, a rough sound, a word that conjures up the drypoint stylus incising a printing plate and forcing shavings to the edge; the process gives a texture that you see in fresh impressions, a texture that diminishes each time you print the plate, and a richness to the line.  Such a word in a review (a phrase or paragraph) can tell a composer something about the sound, something about a trustworthy stranger’s emotional response.

I agree the potential of the internet to enlarge and diversify the chorus of critical voices has not been realized.  And daily newspapers and magazines maintain a fast pace, but that pace need not be imitated.  There are few reasons independent critics and bloggers (who may not be paid and supported by editorial staffs) should not take considerably more time to think and write: time is one thing they have to offer composers, subtle idiosyncrasy and nuanced uncertainty another.  But there are a number of inspiring examples among the fast-paced professionals.  Steve Smith’s Night After Night playlist. Alex Ross’s website The Rest is Noise is a cynosure of the music world and a clearinghouse of selected links, resources, and reasoned opinion. NewMusicBox contributes similarly. The blog posts of composer Nico Muhly are a casserole of description and deliberation: orthography and gastronomy served as metaphor, seasoned with a composer’s preoccupations, and baked into redemptive allegories.  Muhly’s live tweeting during the premiere of Charles Wuorinen’s opera Brokeback Mountain seemed the apotheosis of precise description, immediacy and satire, spite and insight.  Muhly may be the Virgil Thomson of the smartphone set.



The credibility of a concert review is established within each review.  That’s its value for composers.  When a composer reflects on the alchemy of a review—how listening, reflection, and writing catalyze a memory of the music—they may gain perspective on their own work and their colleagues’.  When vocabulary and metaphor sprout from a composer’s sound world, some phrases become revelatory:  Alex Ross’s characterization of Philip Glass’s renown in popular culture, “his ubiquity as a purveyor of motorized musical melancholy,” or Alastair Macaulay’s classification of Gregory Spears’s Requiem, music accompanying a dance, as a “shimmering medieval aura—positively High-Elven.” A composer can do what they will with a critic’s words and metaphors, but I take Luigi Nono seriously when he equates listening with composing and performing—not to mention the sound of a tree falling in a forest.

Supko: Max Reger’s cheeky anticipation of recycling long ago demonstrated that composers will “do what they will” with critics’ work, and with trivial consequences. The more pressing question is: what will critics do with composers’? You’ve twice used the word “conversation” in reference to your craft, but there must be some mistake. Composers release works into the world with the understanding that public performances might be reviewed, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for an invitation to dialogue, much less critique. Unless the composer is very famous, most premieres—if they are reviewed at all—receive only one notice.  An assessment is quickly made, then published impressively beneath a masthead for all to read, and that’s that.  There exists no context or venue in which a composer might respond to a review or “converse” publicly with its author.  There are Letters to the Editor, certainly, but that seems like a premature escalation. There are blogs—you’ve mentioned Nico Muhly’s ingenious, controversial approach to his—but when has a critic ever responded to a composer’s blog post?  It would be impractical, I suppose, if reviews automatically initiated public exchanges with every concerned composer; the workload for a single critic would quickly become unmanageable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an easy solution.  Luckily, I’ve already proposed it.  Given the brief lead time and the slippery, subjective, even arbitrary, nature of first impressions, not to mention the precarious position concert music and other fine arts cling to in our country, reviews of new works should be written from a distance that befits the critic’s unfamiliarity and minimizes the composer’s need for rebuttal.  In other words, these reviews should be positive, sympathetic, and serve as an occasion for new music advocacy.  It may well be that the work in question one day falls into oblivion, but there’s no good reason for an editorial shove to help it along after only a single hearing.  Besides, if the work does ultimately slip into the oubliette of history, chances are it will pass more than a few critics on the way down.

Edelstein: I’m speechless.  But the recyclers of press releases won’t be.


John Supko

John Supko

John Supko is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of Music at Duke University, where he co-directs The Emergence Lab with Bill Seaman. Supko’s music can be heard on the New Amsterdam and Cotton Goods labels.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Jeffrey Edelstein (far left)

Jeffery Edelstein is Director of New Music at Crane Arts, Philadelphia, and a critic.  Some of his writings are collected at his website: The Ultracrepidarian.