The Spectacle of a Mind 

Wednesday, Feb 25 1998
Here's a letter, one of many. Its writer - whom I'll identify only by noting that we have the same initials - has been rendered morose by my words that suggest a negative reaction to music closer to his heart than to mine.

"There is no composition of any era . . . that deserves the words 'trash' or 'abomination,'" the writer claims. Ah, if only it were true; the post of music critic could then be abolished, and we professional listeners could spend our days eating lotus and wallowing in the trashy abominations of the Scharwenka Fourth Piano Concerto and the Rach 3 - whose self-appointed protector Mr. R. has become. He invokes the name of Eduard Hanslick, the well-known scourge of Wagner and Tchaikovsky, the defending angel of Brahms and Verdi, the role model of any God-fearing music critic who dreams of getting turned into a big operatic role, as Wagner transformed Hanslick into Die Meistersinger's Beckmesser. "Hanslick tried to dispose of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto . . . as 'odiously Russian,'" my correspondent goes on, "but aside from academics, who remembers Hanslick?" Gotcha that time, Mr. R.; everybody remembers Hanslick, who also wrote of Tchaikovsky's concerto, "It stinks in the ear."

"Music is the most abstract of the arts," proclaims Mr. R.; no problem there. "So writing about it must be painful," he continues, on shakier ground. Sure, there are pains of the standard variety: long hours, meager pay, 405 freeway to Costa Mesa in a rush-hour cloudburst, or letters like this one. Mr. R. has only to check out his Freud to realize how close pleasure and pain can sometimes be. (Sometimes, I said.) I have the feeling that after Hanslick relieved himself on the matter of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, he tumbled into bed purged, proud and happy.

It's the very abstractness of music that warms the backsides of letter writers. Whether you listen for pleasure or pain, or for both plus a paycheck, music cuts you adrift to think and react for yourself. It comes with a few user's manuals, of course; Aaron Copland's What To Listen For in Music, first published in 1939, is (despite its grammatically clumsy title) an infallible guide for directing your ears toward the music itself, its chain of events, and the composer's skill in inserting a few surprising and thrilling links into that chain. What it tells you eventually, however, cannot be more than "This is the music, this is what happens in it, and this is how I react": not a brainwasher, in other words, but a role model.

Related Stories

  • 5 Great Recipes for Peaches and Nectarines

    If you still don't think climate change is real, maybe you're not spending enough time at farmers markets. This year has been even wonkier than usual (or catastrophic, depending on who you talk to), between the sudden heat waves and the semi-permanent drought. What this means in terms of the...
  • Ramen Coupons! 3

    We have the Japanese-language free magazine Weekly LALALA to thank for many things, notably the Ramen Festival that has twice brought thousands of ramen-lovers to Los Angeles to slurp bowl after bowl in our permanent sunshine. This weekend, they're doing it again, sponsoring not a giant event but your own personal DIY ramen festival...
  • Stop-Motion Madness

    For those Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer-fixated misfits who suffer the ghastly ennui brought on by the realization that they've already seen every Rankin/Bass "animagic" holiday special extant, the sick people at Cinefamily and Screen Novelties have got a Grail-scale Christmas gift for you: Nutcracker Fantasy, a visually feverish, culturally...
  • Now Open: East Borough, French-Vietnamese in Culver City

    East Borough, a new restaurant collaboration between Paul Hibbler, Jason Neroni and John Cao and chef Chloe Tran, opens today for lunch in Culver City. Hibbler and Neroni are best known for their collaboration at Superba Snack Bar (Hibbler is also the owner of Pitfire Pizza), and Cao and Tran already...
  • Dudamel's 1st Film Score

    Gustavo Dudamel, conductor of the LA Philharmonic and one of the few actual celebrities in the modern concert hall world, has branched out to do something often looked down on in that world: He scored a movie. He’ll conduct a suite of his new film score at a concert this...

For Mr. R. - and his co-complainers by the hundreds - being cut loose to form your own musical opinions is frightening; finding opinions differing from your own in the exalted state of printed permanence is all the more terrifying. At the supermarket you find packages labeled with everything you need - calories, carbs, protein - to identify the quality of the product. If each of those packages also bore a label with dissenting facts and numbers, you might become confused and start writing hostile letters. That phenomenon, however, doesn't exist in supermarkets; it does in concert halls and record stores.

With deference to Aaron Copland - the hem of whose toga I am unworthy to touch - I gladly admit that role modeling is the most important aspect of setting down opinions about the experience of music, even more so (despite colleagues' howls of protest) than in writing about film and theater. "This is what I heard, where and by whom," the rubrics of journalism ordain at the start. "This is what the music was like" - continuing our trek toward the heart of the matter - "what the performance was like. How does it match up with my personal vision of the music (in the case of a familiar work), and (in the case of a new work, and quoting the eternally crucial line of the worldly-wise composer/critic/curmudgeon Virgil Thomson) "is it merely a piece of clockwork or does it actually tell time?" And finally, "This is what I heard, this is what I thought about it, and these are the reasons I arrived at this opinion and the processes that got me there. Now go do it for yourself."

Mr. R. does get into deep water at times. He has nursed a canker since last summer, when I objected to incongruous cadenzas inserted into Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. "A cadenza," he reveals from his own podium, "is a tribute to the work performed," and an opinion to the contrary is "a stupid insult to the performer . . ." Fine and dandy, provided the improv sounds as if it belongs to the piece itself, as last summer's pianist's did not. About the recent performance of John Williams' Violin Concerto, he is miffed that I should be miffed that Williams hasn't yet conquered the classical field as well as other fields. "That's called creative growth, Mr. Rich," he glowers; so would it be if I took up bricklaying along with my modest talent as an answerer of letters. I know better, and tried to express the wistful wish that John Williams knew better as well.

Writers of letters to music critics have their own repertory of cliches. "I wonder if you and I heard the same concert . . ." is one of the most familiar. "You need a hearing aid, and I enclose a catalog" is another. Mr. R. falls back on one of the hoariest, the fact that such-and-such

a performance drew a standing ovation and, therefore, how dare I, etc. "Mr. Rich probably would react by thinking, 'So what?'" True enough. It would take only a few concerts to convince Mr. R. of the particularities of the Los Angeles standing ovation, which you can get just by showing up onstage in matching socks, and which has become the Music Center equivalent of the seventh-inning stretch.

The critic has the responsibility to develop a writing style - throbbing with passion, including such value-judgment words as "trash" and "abomination" - horny enough to attract potential converts. "Hey," I like to think of myself as saying, "there's something going on out there, and I'm excited about it, and here's why, and maybe you should check it out, too." The worst that can happen to a musical community is to be drained of curiosity about anything beyond the Top 50 Masterworks. Los Angeles at the moment is well-served symphonically, less well operatically, and terrifically within the thorny stalks of new music. I'm enough of an egotist to believe that the critical press - thanks to the improvements at the L.A. Times above all - has something to do with this.

"There will be 'wrong' critics only as long as there are lazy listeners," wrote Virgil Thomson. "The critic cannot stop at merely handing out grades . . . but also to nag, wheedle, cajole and - if the occasion calls for it - pontificate. It is not the 'yes' or 'no' of a judgment that is valuable to other people. What other people profit from following is the activity itself, the spectacle of a mind at work . . . A musical judgment is of value to others less for conclusions reached than for the methods they have been, not even arrived at, but elaborated, defended and expressed."

Fifty-plus years old, Thomson's brave new words say it all.

Related Content

Now Trending

  • A Sex Play That's Not Really About Sex

    Oh, sex: Can we ever get over it? And if we do, what will there be to write about? What would the state of the world be if it weren't largely defined by overt and subliminal sexual impulses? Ian MacAllister-McDonald's new play, The Sexual Lives of Savages, presented by Skylight...


  • A Day in Griffith Park
    Pack a picnic basket and escape the hustle and bustle of L.A. by spending the day in beautiful Griffith Park.Stop and grab a cold drink at Trails, then go hike. Stroll around the Observatory. Cruise past The Greek Theater to the Bird Sanctuary, or practice golf and grab a snack at the Roosevelt Cafe. Just remember, you don't need to be a tourist to enjoy what Griffith Park has to offer. All photos by Michele McManmon.
  • FANFARE-LA: Fine Art Nude, Fetish, and Risque Exhibition (NSFW)
    FANFARE-LA, the Fine Art Nude, Fetish, and Risque Exhibition was held Jan. 31st to Feb. 2nd at the Hamilton Galleries in Santa Monica. Here is a peek of the sexually-charged, fetish-fine art that is featured in the show. More info at fanfare-la.com.
  • Gloryhole 2013 @ The Pleasure Chest
    The Pleasure Chest's annual anniversary party, Gloryhole, took place Thursday night, transforming the popular West Hollywood sex shop into a pleasure den filled opportunities to get spanked, tied up and dominated. For those of a more voyeuristic nature, the live XXX Gloryhole installation offered a glimpse of erotic play and sexuality. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.