The Trouble with Composer-Critics

The Trouble with Composer-Critics

No matter how brilliant their insights or how sweeping their knowledge of the art form, there is something compromised and compromising about trying to fulfill that dual role.

Written By

Joshua Kosman

Joshua Kosman
Photo by Nan Wiener

A couple of years ago I managed to offend some folks at a gathering of the Music Critics’ Association of North America by making what I thought was a fairly innocuous comment. Music critics who are also active composers, I said, are critics I don’t entirely trust. No matter how brilliant their insights or how sweeping their knowledge of the art form, there is something compromised and compromising about trying to fulfill that dual role. And in the end, that divided loyalty—which in practice is often not really all that divided—is more troubling to me as a reader than whatever good may come from their perspective as a practitioner.

This is not a widely held view. (Just as I was finishing up this essay, Alex Ross, who knows whereof he speaks, posted an item to his blog with the lead sentence, “Composers often make the best critics.” Oh well.) The reasons are obvious. Compared with many other musical types, composers tend to have a thorough mastery of the subject, both the external topography of the field (who’s writing what and why, who learned what from whom, etc.) and the internal workings of the craft. A composer who really understands how music works, and has the literary skills to make that understanding available to a reader, can be a force for good.

And of course, the counterexamples are glaringly plentiful, from Berlioz and Schumann through Hugo Wolf and Virgil Thomson to Kyle Gann and Greg Sandow in our own time. These are all writers who, to a greater or lesser extent, have used their own expertise to illuminate music.

Why am I so wary, then? Because the artistic marketplace is an adversarial arena—or at least a competitive one, like any marketplace—and that makes it a setting in which it’s important for the participants to be clear and consistent about their allegiances. A critic’s exclusive allegiance, I am convinced, should be to his or her fellow audience members. A composer, by contrast, has other allegiances entirely—to his or her own creative imperatives, to the larger community of artists, even in some cases to posterity.

The critic’s task is not to be the mouthpiece for any of the people responsible for the purveying of art—not the performers, not the composers, not the administrators, not the press agents. All of those people contribute mightily to the musical landscape, but their interests are never identical with those of the audience. The critic’s interests should be. We are audience members first and last, listeners who are fortunate enough to have a pulpit from which to present our side of things.

Now, by “interests” I don’t only mean economic interests, although that too is surely part of the equation. There is the brute financial aspect of musical life, in which favorable reviews can translate into tickets and CDs sold, and where the importance of propriety is well understood. But there are intellectual or esthetic interests as well, and those can be out of phase when the needs of artists, performers, and presenters to attract and maintain an audience comes into conflict with listeners’ needs to seek out and experience the music that fascinates and pleases them most.

As a matter of fact, composing is merely one of many things I’m not sure music critics ought to do. They also shouldn’t run symphony orchestras or manage singers’ careers. They shouldn’t give piano recitals. They shouldn’t write opera librettos.

Does this sound priggish? No doubt it does. But notice that some of the taboos on that list would hardly raise an eyebrow: Does anyone really believe that orchestra execs or artist managers can double with propriety as music critics? Yet composers—whose conflicts of interest are, strictly speaking, just as pronounced—are often regarded as being beyond such strictures.

Again, there are good reasons for this, primarily the fact that the best composer-critics have such a strong track record at explicating the music of their colleagues and contemporaries. And though only a fool would turn down enlightenment from whatever source, it’s worth keeping in mind the terms under which that enlightenment is being offered.

The best example of what I’m talking about is Kyle Gann. As long as I’m being all fastidious here, I suppose I should mention up front that I consider Kyle a friend, although that only came about long after I had decided that he was by far the smartest and most engaging writer commenting on contemporary music. Personally, I’ll read Kyle on any subject, any time; his breadth of knowledge, his technical acumen, and the keenness of his perceptions are always a source of delight and awe.

But I never lose sight of the fact that he has his own motives in all this, and that I as a reader am not necessarily the intended beneficiary. Like Schumann or César Cui before him, Kyle uses his journalistic outlets to carry the banner for a particular faction in the musico-political scene, a doughty Davidsbund of downtowners, post-minimalists, rock-and-rollers, improv artists and other sorts of freethinkers doing battle against the (decreasingly) entrenched institutional power of the academic elites. He’s the most eloquent spokesperson imaginable for that side of a particular cultural divide.

The relevant fact, though, is not that he’s partisan—any critic worth a damn has a point of view—but that he’s arguing his case from within. He’s fighting to make a secure place in the musical arena for the kind of music that he and his allies, loosely and inclusively conceived, write. It’s a good fight; I support it entirely. But as a listener (and by extension, as a listener-critic), it isn’t my fight. What I want is to make a secure place in the musical arena for the music that I and my allies out there in the audience want to hear. Those two goals are obviously linked—neither composers nor listeners can exist without one another—but they’re not identical.

Richard Taruskin, in his magisterial new Oxford History of Western Music, traces a version of this dichotomy to its 18th-century roots, distinguishing between the “critic as public spokesman” and the “critic as public adviser.” The terminology is poorly chosen, I think. (It’s not clear, at least to me, which term is meant to apply to which type of critic, or why.) But he’s right to detect a difference between critics who act as delegates from the world of composers and those whose existence is firmly rooted in the same community of listeners that their readers inhabit.

That difference, and the resulting difference in the kinds of judgments that critics arrive at, is analogous to a distinction that Taruskin draws elsewhere in the book between two approaches to art, which he labels the “poietic” and the “esthesic” (from the Greek poiein, to make, and aisthein, to perceive). Poietic historiography or criticism takes the creative intention of the artist as a given and judges the resulting work in that light; esthesic criticism considers the work from the perspective of the tastes, expectations, and experience of the audience.

Both perspectives have their place, but they differ in what they emphasize. Composer-critics, writing from a poietic perspective, are apt to celebrate technical innovation, the solving of artistic problems, the musico-political implications of new work. The esthesic concerns of the lay critic are blunter and more elemental: Does it have a good beat? Can I dance to it?

The difference between these two approaches, which may seem comparatively small in the moment, becomes more marked with the passing of time. As the present becomes the past, the writings of composer-critics take on increasing weight as historical testimony, while those of the other sort tend to recede into the well-known dustbin of daily journalism. And this is another, complementary aspect of my difficulty with composer-critics: Like the modernist composers who keep one eye trained on posterity, they sacrifice the present for the sake of the future.

Taruskin outlines this divergence in contrasting the representative cases of the two leading music critics of 1940s New York, the Herald Tribune‘s Virgil Thomson—in many ways the paradigmatic composer-critic—and the New York Times‘ Olin Downes, a musical amateur.

“It is understandable that history has favored Thomson,” he writes. “It is the very conflict of interest in composer critics that claims the attention of history. Their words are inevitably read as advocacy—even propaganda—rather than objective judgment.

“This may lessen their effectiveness in the short run, but it serves in retrospect as a lens through which to consider not only their own work as composers, or that of their subjects, but also, more broadly, the nature of the relationship between the creator of musical works and the audience that received them . . .”

This is true as far as it goes, but it’s unnerving to see Taruskin skipping so lightly over “the short run”—especially in a work that throughout its thousands of pages militates so tirelessly against the Romantic historicism that takes a long view of the processes of art from some imagined transcendent perch. In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes famously remarked, we’re all dead. The short run, like “days” in Philip Larkin‘s beautiful poem, is where we live. It’s where we make music and go to concerts and play CDs and wonder what to make of it all. The short run is where we need critics most urgently—those critics who can help interpret the experiences of the audience, not of the artists. History can take care of itself.

Thomson is indeed, as Taruskin says, the better-regarded figure today, and it has become fashionable to shrug off his unblushing use of the pages of the Herald Tribune to advance his own standing as a composer. “Virgil used to cut corners outrageously,” goes this line of argument, “but who cares about that now?” (Thomson’s most fervent admirers generally refer to him as “Virgil.” That is because admiring his work seems to come much more easily to those who knew him personally.)

But “who cares now?” is precisely the wrong question to ask. The real question is, “who cared then?” What did Thomson’s conflicts of interest mean at the time to those whose artistic ambitions had to make way for those of the influential critic of the Herald Tribune, and to the readership whose window into the musical culture of their time was clouded by those ambitions? Nothing good, obviously, and I don’t see that the durability of Thomson’s writing provides any kind of retroactive balm.

Even though Thomson is gone now, his heirs in this matter still walk among us. One night not very long ago I was on my way to a new-music concert when I ran into a man I know who is both a critic and a composer. We exchanged a few words about the upcoming event, and then I said, “Well, I guess I’ll see you at intermission, huh?”

“Oh no,” he said, “I’m not going. That guy never comes to my concerts, so I stopped going to his.”

I have nothing to say about the composer-to-composer aspect of this little display of pique. I’m sure snubs hurt, and for all I know composers do this kind of thing to one another all the time—inflict wounds, carry and settle grudges. But for a critic to behave this way is, by my lights, an unconscionable betrayal of the people to whom any writer owes his first and only allegiance—his readers. This guy sold them out to indulge his artist’s pride. They weren’t going to find out what he thought of the concert; they weren’t even going to find out why. He was a critic right up until the moment he decided he was a composer first—and any composer worthy of the name, critic or not, is a composer first.

Joshua Kosman, whose last attempt at composition was for a required undergraduate seminar in 1978, is the music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.