Monday, October 18, 2004

Shifting Ears Conference/Columbia University/Oct. 16

The fellowship program I have an association with hosted this weekend symposium about (in all caps now) THE PRESENT STATE AND FUTURE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC CRITICISM.

Now, I don't deign to consider myself a classical music critic, but I've been the editor of a classical music critic and I do like classical music and I get so frustrated with the way this field holds itself back, I thought I'd check it out for bit.

I was most interested in John Rockwell's portion the proceedings. Rockwell is a New York Times critic who was brought to the paper in the late 1960s to cover classical and then found himself writing about that new fangled thing called rock-n-roll. And he didn't even have to create a fantastical spear-throwing last name to do it. My name's John and I rock well. He's one of those really, really smart guys who has a really, really large head. I don't mean ego. I mean, the circumference of his head seems on par with Mars. I think there is probably a correlation between head size and intelligence (not to get all eugenics on you) because two of the smartest people I worked with at ye olde alternative weekly had heads so big they couldn't find glasses to fit around their noggins. Now, I personally have a small head. And a big butt. I won't go into what that might mean...

So, anyway, where was I? Ah, yes. John Rockwell. Rockwell talked about how classical music coverage need not be so sniffy and serious. His main argument, which I have a real passion for, is that there really shouldn't be a separation between pop music coverage and classical music coverage. Yet, like Romeo and Juliet or J.Lo and Ben, there are forces at work---strong forces---that work real hard to keep them separated. Both the music and media institutions are real set on keeping them apart. Fear. Prejudice. Ignorance. These are the ingredients.

One thing I like about Rockwell is that he's this established know-everything-guy, yet when people in the audience kept talking about how you have to know everything about the history, the canon etc...he'd say, well it helps, but that a good music critic does not make. He argues that one of the main reason classical music coverage hasn't grown is because "a critic confronted with radical music has a problem of feeling insecure in his or her knowledge...lighten up a little bit." The one upmanship of criticism, where someone would never deign to acknowledge not being an expert and just offer a reasoned opinion, shackles music criticism, according to Rockwell.

Even as editor of the NYT culture section, Rockwell wasn't able to merge the forms as he would have liked. He makes a great point: there's no classic movie critic/pop movie critic; there's no old art critic/new art critic. There's just critics covering the field. What do you guys think of that?

Anyway, it was just announced that Rockwell is switching over to becoming the Times' dance critic after decades on the music beat. He made some analysis I also agreed with: the most interesting, innovative, original music he sees on the big stage these days is at dance performances because the dancers are so attuned to that stuff and aren't caught up in the whole hi vs low arguments that abound within music itself. They know what they like and they go for it. And shouldn't we all.