Both Anne Midgette at the Washington Post and David Ng at the LA Times linked to my review of Renée Fleming’s new rock album.
David quoted the New York Times, the BBC, and me. Does that seem strange to anyone?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. It’s quite an honor to have two such impressively credentialed commentators let me do the talking. It just seems a bit odd that they didn’t do it themselves. It makes me wonder how Fox News might approach arts commentary:
“Some guy in Northern California thinks Renée’s album sucks. We don’t particularly care whether or not it actually does and we don’t want to alienate any potential viewers by taking a position on the subject so we’ll ask you a barely related leading question that allows us to sneak in a completely unverified statement as if it were fact: Should Obama have endorsed the record by inviting her to perform at the Whitehouse? Call us now and tell us your views.”
Maybe this is how music criticism works now. Maybe the nation’s critics have followed my mother’s advice, and aren’t saying anything unless they have something nice to say. Maybe I should do the same. Maybe that’s unfair: Maybe David’s trying to give a balanced report of a record that has polarised listeners1. Maybe somebody at Decca’s PR department has naked pictures of everybody, and that’s why it was so hard to find a negative review of the record from a major news outlet2. Maybe somebody at Decca’s PR department has naked pictures of me too. I didn’t hold back, so I guess we’ll find out now3.
1 …into the two distinct groups of “don’t like it” and “don’t know any better,” because the appreciation of music is completely subjective unless you disagree with me, in which case you’re wrong.
2 Unless you count The Awl as a major news outlet. They went to town on it.
3 NOBODY wants to see that.
I hear it said (though I can’t remember who/what/where/etc) that major publications only do positive reviews because it’s not worth it to them to do bad reviews. Their job is to place and sell products, it’s of no value to them to do bad reviews.
The place/person/whatever where I originally had this explained did a much better job of it…
That makes sense for a magazine like Gramophone or BBC Music, but surely the LA Times and the Washington Post don’t carry arts commentary to attract advertising from record companies and venues – they do it to better serve a sophisticated and cultured readership, which in turn attracts advertising from luxury goods manufacturers. That’s why concert programs tend to contain more adverts for watches and cars than for recordings.
There ARE very few reviewing entities that will give negative reviews to bad recordings because they want to have repeat advertising business from the recording companies. A review means different things to different people. To a recording company it means publicity (i.e. free advertising). For the print publication, the paid-for advertising comes when the free advertising works, and people buy the recordings. A well-written negative review doesn’t do the record company any good (though it does the world of music in general a great deal of good), so it is not beneficial for the publication, which has physical production bills to pay.
I feel that it is a service (actually an obligation) to review recordings honestly, particularly those made by people who are well known. Luckily blogs don’t carry the costs associated with print, so your well-written honesty is safe to quote. It is not the opinion of the print publication, so they can “report” it and shirk responsibility for the “opinion” their reporting reveals to the public (even if they do agree).
It’s one thing to only review the good records. It’s quite another to only talk about the good bits of the bad ones.
The vast majority of records inhabit the bad-mediocre end of the quality spectrum. Glossing over this issue doesn’t do any of us any favors.
I have to disagree. Most of the recordings I review (and I review around 60 a year) are on the good to excellent side, but the majority of them are not on big labels and are not made by well-known musicians. Come to think of it, most of the ones in the bad-mediocre range that I get are on on large labels by made by well-known musicians!
What percentage of the total number of classical releases do you think those 60 records account for? 10%? 1%?
Yes, just say thanks and move on. Enough already.
I’ll bet Decca wishes her classical work got this much coverage.
How about this possibility: a classical music critic and lifelong classical music nerd doesn’t know that much about the songs Renee is covering. She’s intrigued to see a smart review from someone who does know the originals well, and therefore can give a kind of appraisal she simply couldn’t do herself. She cites the review in a blog post — not in the paper — as one of two examples of how pop music writing can be smarter than classical music writing. This isn’t quite the same thing as taking over someone else’s review and printing it in the paper in lieu of her own opinion. Nor does it preclude her publication doing their own review of it, though it’s true that 1. since space for classical CD reviews is limited, one does tend to pick recordings one feels strongly about (I’ve certainly written negative CD reviews) and 2. if she were to assign a review she’d probably give it to one of the paper’s pop critics, for the reasons above.
Your post implies that my blog should function in the same way as my work in the print paper; but if that were true, it wouldn’t be worth my while to blog at all. I often refer to other blogs in my posts, solicit readers’ opinions (I spell this out in the “About this Blog” section of my own blog), and even link to other reviews of a concert I’ve reviewed myself. The blog is an enhancement to what I do in the paper precisely because it does allow a back-and-forth that’s not possible in the traditional pronouncement-from-on-high model of print journalism. Your post implies that you expect critics only to make such pronouncements, and that it’s somehow an abnegation of responsibility for us to acknowledge — even in the informal context of a blog — other worthwhile opinions. I have a hard time believing you really think that.
First, thanks for taking the time to respond. I know you’re busy. Second, thanks for being a good sport about this. Third, thanks again for linking to my blog, especially in such a generous context.
If I have a point here at all, it’s about the relative scarcity of negative reviews in general, and the effect this has on the larger musical landscape. You and David both took the time to point your readers to what most people seem to have read as a scathing review. You’re the last people I have a beef with, and I’m sorry if anybody saw it otherwise. It’s a lot easier to name the two people that did something than it is to name everybody that didn’t.
It’s not that I expect critics to speak exclusively in their own words, or that it’s somehow cowardly to quote another’s opinion. I was just disappointed that this was the extent of the dissent on this record.
I didn’t mean to suggest that your blog should serve the same purpose as your work in the paper, and you’re right – there’d be no point in that.
I do think that mainstream publications don’t do anyone any favors of blazingly negative reviews of albums that wouldn’t sell that well, anyway. Most classical releases come out with little marketing, most readers/listeners don’t know the performers, and may have heard once or twice one of the pieces on the album. What’s the point of putting an album on readers’ radar which they’d never seek out themselves if it’s just to tear it down? The good albums with little-known performers deserve to be mentioned, so that more people will hear them. But the exact number will ignore a bad record with a lousy mention as would if it was allowed to die alone.
But in the case of Fleming’s crossover album, that’s obviously not that sort of thing, and a justified amount of ink could be spilled to talk about its warts and glories. I’ve only heard a couple tracks, but it seems better than some of her other albums of this sort.
I quite agree. When you’re writing about a record that has both warts and glories, it’s rather misleading to only mention the glories.
re: footnote #3 – you’d be surprised. this *is* the internets you know…
The vast majority of records inhabit the bad-mediocre end of the quality spectrum. Glossing over this issue doesn’t do any of us any favors.
You’ve heard all the classical recordings issued since (let’s pick an arbitrary date) 1956?
The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical music has reviews of 11,600 CDs in his 2005 edition — you’ve heard all those, have you?
Oh, but wait…”The huge increase in the number of recordings issued meant that from 1989 onwards the main Guide appeared bi-annually and in the years between came a Year Book…” So while the original Penguin Guide had a measly 4500 LP reviews, the skyrocketing number of CD releases since 1989 has meant that they just can’t shoehorn in all the new stuff into the current Guide.
Let’s take a specific example: Kyle Gann has a CD library of more than 16,000 discs. That’s primarily contemporary postclassical music recorded and released since about 1985. Out of print impossible-to-find stuff like Elaine Radigue’s Adnos I, II and III 3-CD set, or the CD with James Tenney’s orchestral work Critical Band, or the compilation algorithmic computer music CD The Devil’s Staircase.
You’ve heard all these…?
I seriously doubt that.
Let me tell you what I’ve noticed about contemporary postclassical music. What I used to do when there was a Tower Records (this was before the internet but after the CD format) was I used to go down and rummage through the “contemporary classical” section and whenever I saw some composer I’d never heard of, I’d buy that CD. Used to go down and grab $200, $300 worth of discs at a time, all composers I knew nothing about, their name didn’t ring a bell, never heard of ’em, knew nothing about their music. Bonus points if the CD cover was intensely weird — say, a photomicrograph of salicylic acid under polarized light, or some El Bizarro expressionist painting from 1952.
You know what?
Almost without exception, I found that those CDs were fabulous. Just knockout stuff. Absolutely killer. Kick-ass recordings, amazing music. David Behrman’s “On the Other Ocean,” John Chowning’s “Computer Music,” Maria de Alvear’s “En Amor Duro,” Aaron Jay Kernis’ “Symphony of Waves,” David Obst’s “Crystal Worlds,” the Wergo Computer Music Spectrum series (real bonus ponits there for wack-a-mundo early 1980s computer graphics on the cover), “The World Of Harry Partch,” Tom Johnson’s “An Hour For Piano,” Penderecki’s “De Sonora Naturam,” Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s “Photopsis,” Gyorgy Ligeti’s keyboard works Vol. 1, “Music of the Russian Avant Garde 1920-1929,” the list just goes on and on. I’d never heard of any of these people when I picked up those CDs starting 25 years ago and almost without fail, the CD turned out to be dynamite.
Maybe you’ve been listening to too much pop music. My experience with contemporary postclassical music is the same as Elaine Fines’s — an astounding percentage of it is excellent.. And that’s not cherry-picked “best of” discs, that’s pure random sampling out of the record bins (well, back when there were record bins).
Let’s not even talk about series like the RCA Red Label reissues on CD. I have yet to hear one of those that’s bad. And those Vox Box reissues are great. Real hard to find a bad performance or a poor recording in the lot.
Any argument that hinges on how many records I’ve heard and the validity of my subjective opinions is going to be dull and ultimately fruitless.
You mention the very large number of releases. Let’s talk about that for a minute.
The biggest classical record stores carry about 100,000 recordings at any one time. If we assume that these average an hour in length* then, listening for eight hours a day and taking two weeks off for vacation each year, you’d get through them all in half a century.
I count about 400 classical new releases for this month on the International Record Review website. It’s a fairly safe bet that they missed a few, but just keeping up with the ones that made the cut would require a 96-hour work week.
If somebody tells you that they’ve listened to them all, they’re probably fibbing, but there’s a sound argument to be made that they’re not all that great. Just take a look at what is on IRR’s list.
Chopin’s entire compositional output (including his very worst music) only fills 17 CDs.
In one month, one music magazine is listing 25 discs of his music. Keep that up for a year, and you have enough Chopin releases to record every single one of his compositions 17 times. This is a big year for Chopin, but who is listening to all these recordings? Do each of these people really have anything new to say?
Bach’s St John and St Matthew Passions each make the list three times, and it’s not a big year for Bach. It’s not even Easter. Can the universe really create three great recordings of such complex works every month? Does anybody have a thirst for 72 passions a year? Who thinks this is sustainable, and for how long?
The first recording of a piece must also be the best recording of that piece, at least until a second recording comes along. As you observe, variety makes life pretty spicy when you’re listening to these albums. If these were the only recordings I consumed, I’d probably be a lot less bored of listening to music.
As the number of recordings increases, it becomes less and less likely that a new recording will be the fastest, slowest, loudest, quietest, most exciting or most restrained. Consensus does horrible things to the creative process. Interpretations converge on the middle-ground. Musical life gets less interesting for the aficionado and more confusing for the novice. The chances of buying a duff recording go up. Would-be classical fans miss the chance to be captivated by something magical because they bought something safe.
Back in the days when you were shopping at Tower, they might have had 10 recordings of Beethoven 5 on the shelf. They’d carry a few classics and a few recent recordings. Labels would compete for shelf-space by putting out a new one every few years. It was a quirk of the retail marketplace that had a big effect on the way labels did business. It worked, so they got used to it.
Today those recordings litter the shelves of online stores, competing for a smaller and smaller slice of the pie. ArkivMusic.com carries 288 recordings of Beethoven 5. Some of them are most certainly better than others. If we’re calling all of them good, then I think we’re setting the bar too low.
When I say that the majority of records inhabit the bad-mediocre end of the spectrum, that’s what I’m talking about.
* Some will be duplicates in different packaging, a few will be short, some will be multi-disc sets and some of those will be very large indeed. I think that 60 minutes is a conservative estimate, but even an 80% margin of error here wouldn’t be the death of my argument.
Anyone with an IQ exceeding .01 should avoid purchasing this pablum at all cost. It is a watered-down, quarter-baked, insincere tryout at audience-building via pop/rock. But make no mistake: Fleming, 51-year old suburban mom and looking beyond silly in her hair extensions, is no indie rocker. Small wonder, then, the album sounds so fake, for it is all fake. She and her publicity people may succeed in fooling a few of her American soccer mom fans but no one else. A deeper explanation, in true alternative/indie spirit, can be heard, seen and read here, in 3 minutes:
Wow. Just… wow.
Allow me to add the following for folks who may avoid watching the video above: If you want to hear REAL and ORIGINAL indie-rock (as opposed to FAKE COVERS), you owe it to yourselves to listen to SENTA STUDER, daughter of legendary and celebrated (and TRUE) classical/opera soprano CHERYL STUDER. Here are Senta Studer & Q.AGE:
~1000 Years of Love~
It is genuine indie-rock artists like Senta that the media ought to be covering, not to mention her own mother’s fabulous work. Both are ignored by the American media. It is all symptomatic of a rather diseased music coverage scene, afflicting all kinds of music, classical and not.
By the way, great job, your blog!