Top Ear

Reflection on music criticism

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Leonard Ip writes

As much as I enjoy music and writing about it, music criticism is a business as knotty as any other in the world. The premise of that realization, of course, is that one has already read a certain diversity of writings on music. Sometimes it would not hurt to read about music one does not know about, but mostly knowing one’s music – having one’s own conception towards the music – is the most important thing in dealing with music criticism. There is a limitless variation in opinion of different people, who may be brought up differently and have different experiences and mindsets. All of these determine how they evaluate music and performance. To know what one truly is looking for and how one should makes of such divergent views on music (be it the critics’ or the artists’) are of utmost importance if subjectivity is still the heart of many things on the world, like art.

Both of us on Top Ear read reviews on often, though we (mostly I) do have problems with their verdict and, more fundamentally, their rationale and standards. Musicweb-International and Gramophone are two other of our main source of music criticism on the internet. Writing monthly for Hifi Review (a Hong Kong magazine on hifi and music), I am familiar with another way of doing things. This “other way of doing things” includes the writing of number of authors in Hong Kong (printed or online), most notably Wong Muk (黃牧), a venerated and retired critic. Books by H. C. Schonberg, of course, are classic and for there is much to learn from them. If I am asked I would say, of the critics I have read, I find Alex Ross the most admirable for his erudition and exceptional literary capacity.

It is natural to ask one question after reading my reminiscence above: what is this “other way of doing things”? To me this brings the discussion to a much broader extent, but let us start with the most basic observations – using as an example. One thing one will notice reading reviews by David Hurwitz and Jed Distler (and their colleagues, who write in uniform style) is the extensive citation of details, which is usually succeeded by rhetoric and point-making. Not surprisingly this pattern is reflective of one criterion that, I dare say, matters the most when it comes to judging whether this is a good recording or not, namely, technical excellence. If the trumpets flubbed a loud chord at the end of one symphony, the recording in question is nothing but doomed. There are times when they say, “this minor clinker hardly matters” – but that is uncommon, and even if they say so it is bound to be followed by something such as “given the overall excellence of the performance”. I am sure Distler will agree that there is no more brilliant performance of Moszkowski’s F major etude than Horowitz’s even though his scales were not very even, but more often he is bashing recordings, saying “John Doe still is the last word in textual transparency”.

I feel obligated to try to make a clarification, lest anyone is tempted to ask (if not to shout out), “isn’t technical excellence something indispensable in professional performances?” Yes, indeed. But why am I making such a fuss with Hurwitz and Distler stickling with technical details? The answer is also simple: I feel there is more about playing music than just technical polish, given each artist has different ideas towards playing one piece. What is not simple, however, is a most dangerous hole that hides itself amidst heated arguments over “Furtwangler’s Berlin Philharmonic plays excellent Brahms” and “Horowitz/Ormandy Rach 3 is as good as his previous efforts” – exactly how much technical excellence are we talking about? How many percentage it would take, if there was to be a marking scheme for every recording? This is the ambiguity that no one can hope to make clear because it varies for every writer and every piece of review. This is also the reason why, if asked, I will never bother to explain my arguments against Hurwitz with exasperated sentences like “I’m not saying technical details aren’t important, but it just doesn’t matter that much!”

Having taken a look at one side of the matter, it is time to do the same for the other. On the surface, again, Chinese critics do seem to care less about details and like to talk about “feelings” more freely. (I am not, of course, talking about bad critics – bad critics exist in both the East and the West, and I have no intention to dig into their babble.) In Hong Kong, one seldom, for instance, cite details as Hurwitz does (“Check out the opening of the finale” or “Notice how naturally Wit integrates the glittering piccolo solo transition to the Chorus Mysticus”). Artistic temperament is more often spoken of, which of course means that the performance is discussed as a whole, rather than examined in separate details. Characterization and figuration are common ways of expression and are used in a freer manner than that in the West. It would not be a surprise to see a Chinese critic using Chinese poetry to describe a performance, but how often does one see Western critics doing the same with their poetry? Incidentally, in many cases with reviews in Chinese, information about the artist, the recording label, the particular performance, the recording and the music themselves are included – something Western critics seldom, or to a lesser extent, do.

Up to this point I seem to have covered the major differences between music criticism in the West and in Hong Kong, but there is in fact one more aspect yet to be discussed. Comparison among recordings is an important aspect in music criticism, and it is true to say that everyone, in the West or in Hong Kong, does it. As a matter of fact, critics compare recordings to look for differences, and sometimes it is necessary for them to make value judgments – to separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak. To serve the purpose Gramophone has “selected comparisons” in their reviews, and has “reference recordings” as their benchmark. Comparisons with these recordings in one review of one recording almost invariably lead to a conclusion that whether this recording worth your investment, or whether it is as valid and reasonable as other established conceptions of the piece. Chinese critics, however, never do this. At most, a critic may mention other recordings to his own liking or do a bit of comparison, but it is very rare to see a recording damned (or praised) based on direct reference to other recordings. Mostly, one recording is discussed and assessed by its own – be it a short review of a few hundred words, or a lengthy essay over two thousand words.

I tried not to reveal which side I am taking in the above discussion and I suppose I did succeed in giving both sides more or less the same amount of exposition. Nonetheless, I do write reviews myself and I can imagine those who read them will fathom that I, in fact, take something from both sides. As I see shortcomings on both sides, it’s a solution as natural as any to try to take only what I deem advisable. I do cite details (arguments have to be backed up by evidences, don’t they?), but minimally (how the artist performs a detail mostly has little to do with the overall presentation, and overwhelming my reader with details does not seem constructive either). Hence, I make my final judgment less by technical assessment than by feeling what the recording offers integrally.

But it seems that I made it quite clear that I am more inclined towards the Hong Kong/Chinese side. Let me therefore elaborate a bit on my antagonism for more extreme portions of the Western critical circle.

To me really is the most extreme example of the Western – or, if no one will take the offense, the American way of doing things. Critics there make it very explicit: “This is not a bad recording, but while we have these magnificent reference recordings, why settle for less?” I would say that is a very cogent question indeed. The counter-arguments, however, sound every bit as cogent. To start with, there is the fact that I (and many else too, I surmise) will be bored to death if every time I want to listen to Sibelius’ Violin Concerto I can only turn to Heifetz or Perlman, because they are “the best all round”. Moreover, “settling for less” is a rather arbitrary description – how is a recording “lesser” than another recording? It may be less well-recorded; there may be a handful more wrong notes – relatively more measurable parameters, these – but how about the tempi, the tone, the dynamics, the articulation, the sense of proportion? How can we say for sure that “this fortissimo is outsized” and “that tempo is too slow”? Or the eternally powerful verdict, “it’s too cold and emotionless”?

The truth is we cannot. Every judgment in music criticism is subjective – everyone has different feeling towards one same tempo or one same choice of dynamics. But this is not the end of the world, and it does not mean we have to sort this out by raising a benchmark for everyone to follow (90% of Marc-Andre Hamelin’s none-too-extreme recordings are cited as “standard-setting”). What makes music criticism readable and useful is the sharing of subjective feelings through the maximum amount of rational reasoning. The rating system on, clearly, is an attempt to completely rationalize what is essentially subjective (or just to make it looks rational and objective – in that case I shan’t comment on the reason why they do so).

Many will be reminded of the very similar situation with Robert Parker, the famed wine writer (or marker), as I mention rating system. Parker started out, I believe, with the good intention to untangle the overly subjective and unreliable commentaries around wine appreciation. Of course, there were more factual concerns to Parker – primarily the conflict of interest critics traditionally have, since most of them are involved in the wine industry. But what Parker did was more than simply establishing a source of criticism independent of the wine industry. The creation of his rating system brought nothing short of a paradigm shift to wine writing – a paradigm that is remarkable similar to’s; one that stresses on a uniform standard by which all things must be judged, and one that has tradition, culture, cultivation and artistic enjoyment far removed from critical assessment. This manifesto, published on Parker’s newsletter The Wine Advocate, might as well be said by David Hurwitz: “…wine is no different from any consumer product. There are specific standards of quality that full time wine professionals recognize.”

Again, like I said in the fourth paragraph, I am not going to argue that this is not true, because it is true. The difference, however, lies in the extent to which this way of criticism is applicable. Hugh Johnson, the British wine writer, is a notable naysayer to Parker’s new paradigm. To Johnson, Parker is a “dictator dictator of taste”. “Proust has his madeleine, and I have my claret” was how he began a paragraph in his memoir, A Life Uncorked. Cultivation and lifestyle, not to mention human relations and social life, are to him as important as the taste of the liquid, and are not something dispensable in favour of an objective, universally valid value system – because there simply cannot be one. Apparently, Johnson does not rate wines and nor he tastes wine as clinically as Parker does, yet no one can accuse him of being too subjective or even sentimental – something that I hope will one day happen with music criticism that does not depend on technical details and competitive comparison.

The connection between wine writing and music criticism should be not only easy to see but alarmingly illuminating too. What do we taste wine for? And for what do we listen to music? By returning to these basic questions, we may realize how art criticism – at least the two cases in question – has gone off the wrong track. Wine is drunk and music is appreciated because we enjoy doing so. To some, their interest in art, if they are not by profession an artist, lights up the otherwise laborious and unenjoyable life they must live on, for whatever reason it may be. To me, music simply is something that I cannot live without. What music offers is unimaginably rich and fulfilling if one makes the effort to learn perpetually. As Mr. Wong Muk goes, “you can imagine, if you can easily name twenty different recordings of Beethoven’s Appassionata and, by their exquisite differences, determine what is to your own liking, how great (and unintelligible) such pleasure would be!”

With the nature of music appreciation made clear, the point arrives that I can summarize my views on music criticism hitherto. Critics should be no authoritarian, especially when they are not exactly the one who practices and studies twelve hours a day to perfect one passage. It makes me sick seeing some critics write as if they actually think they know Bruckner better than Sinopoli and Mahler better than Abbado – a Hong Kong critic practically made fun of himself (deservedly, though unwittingly) by, in his review of a Hong Kong Philharmonic concert, teaching Edo de Waart the right way to conduct a piece. They are in no position to, on one hand, dismiss a serious artist’s endeavours, and on the other hand, tell their reader what is right and what is not right. Rating systems, as convenient as they are, make too huge a sacrifice to do justice to any artwork – they simplify the multifold elements in the fullest enjoyment of art, and, most dangerously, kill off the diverse, infinite possibilities of artistic understanding and rendition, implicitly imposing a hegemony in value judgment.

Who are critics? Critics are no more than art-lovers who know and experience enough to share with others their knowledge and opinions. Sometimes they write pragmatically for the consumer, and sometimes their writing is readable simply because it can provoke new insights, or that the reader can relate to it. “So here is a memoir written with a cockscrew; a book of tastes and opinions, a few assertions, a few conclusions – and not a single list. […] I will tell you what I have understood so far.” Thus spoke Hugh Johnson. Yes, critics have their own tastes and opinions; they may disagree with an artist’s vision, or think that another interpretation makes more sense. These are certainly subjective views, but an attitude of sharing makes the subjective worth reading and serviceable to people with different tastes. The sort of art criticism that I am talking about for all the time, after all, is relatively pragmatic, unlike those which are not, such as Nietzsche’s critique on Wagner and Bizet, or Adorno’s appraisal of late Beethoven. It would not be unreasonable, I believe, to say that Nietzsche’s and Adorno’s writing are intended to appeal to a lesser amount of readers than David Hurwitz’s or Alex Ross’.

This conclusion prompts me to look back to what I have written at the beginning of this article (without planning the rest of it), and not until now I realize that I was, throughout the article, talking about the same thing. In the last two paragraphs my point has been what music criticism should be – sharing is the word – and, ultimately, it should serve to educate and cultivate the artistic individual, and to foster the development of serious, well-reasoned and communicable subjective judgment. The joy of music comes from communication and sharing as much as from solitude – this is, for now and for the future, something that I can truly testify.


Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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