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The Problem with Music Criticism

Writing about music is tough. I am talking about the music itself—not the concert-preview pieces, which are inevitably P.R.-influenced because the performance hasn’t happened yet, and the lighter but more personality-focused features and interviews with performers. I have written about this before at SundayArts, but I got to thinking about it again this week after reading Nancy Franklin review the hit FOX series “Glee” in The New Yorker. Describing her frequent dislike of the music in that show, she writes, “Even people who love these songs may find something to hate in the style of singing sometimes showcased in “Glee”—the earsplitting, maniacally melismatic car-alarm whine that Whitney Houston popularized.”

While I agree that Whitney Houston got in early on the “maniacally melismatic” style, I don’t think it’s fair to describe her timbre as earsplitting or akin to a car-alarm whine. Houston may have her faults, but when it comes to her sound … it’s warm, round, and a bit shimmery; it doesn’t come close to harsh, even at full throttle. This is not meant to be a referendum on Whitney Houston, and for the record I do agree with Franklin that several “Glee” cast members—notably Kristin Chenoweth, who has a recurring role—are nasal and ear-splittingly loud in that hideous modern-Broadway way. Franklin is a TV critic, not a music critic. But it just points up to me how difficult it is to write accurately about musical sound, even an essential attribute like timbre.

My broader point, though, is that this happens in the classical-music world, too.

In the June issue of Opera News, Brian Kellow writes about the brouhaha that ensued after Leonard Slatkin conducted a performance of La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera this March. New York Times classical-music critic Anthony Tommasini’s review stated that he had “seldom heard such faulty coordination between a conductor and a cast at the Met.” It was pretty damning, especially from the careful-tongued Tommasini, and after the Times review came out, Slatkin bowed out of the production. Kellow’s column doesn’t dispute the particulars of the performance, which he did not attend, but he rightly (in my view) points out that if Tommasini was going to point to really, really bad coordination between conductor and cast, he should have provided specific, numerous examples of places in the music where this happened. (Interestingly, Kellow’s column has engendered an anti-critics column—or maybe anti-critics-against-critics response at Parterre Box essentially saying, don’t bash the critic if you weren’t at the performance, either.) But to get back to the main point here, reviews need to be as specific as possible—you would expect no less if you read a write-up of yesterday’s baseball game describing a pitcher in poor form, which surely would describe things like just missing the outside corner, problems with the slider or fastball, poor mechanics, stiffness in the motion, or what have you. We should expect the same specificity from music critics. Do people just not notice anymore when arguments about culture or live performance are based solely on opinion, not backed up by basic facts? Or do music reviewers think we just don’t care?

I am happy to report that this week, in Alex Ross’s New Yorker column about film composer Michael Giacchino (subscription required), there’s an example of how to do it right. It’s a column about Giacchino’s process of writing music for the TV series “Lost.” Ross’s column is highly readable, but through numerous descriptions—of everything from methods of producing sound on the harp to descriptions of major/minor, bar numbers, dynamics, and, yes, actual notes—you can actually understand in some detail how the composer does what he does. I have a glimmer of what this composer is about. And it makes me want to hear the music, even if I’ve never watched one episode of “Lost.”

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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