“Why we are so nice”
Public talk about music journalism
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
10am, 6 September
I’d like to thank the Bendigo Library for hosting and David Chisholm for suggesting this talk, which I’m proud to say is the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music’s first fringe event. Writing it has been a great opportunity, as many of the panels and talks at the festival will be, to reflect upon what we do all year dispersed across this continent and around the world. In this talk I am basically going to explain, if not defend, the “kid-gloves” style of Australian music criticism by pointing to the economic circumstances that have shaped it. I will then show how writers and readers subvert this paradigm and how the circumstances could arise in which a new form of criticism becomes necessary.
My efforts as a journalist are currently concentrated on a contemporary music blog called Partial Durations that is supported by RealTime Magazine, which is one of the last bastions of contemporary music criticism in Australia. As you will have realised, I am terrible at coming up with titles. I was trying to think of a name for the blog but all the good puns had already been taken. I had been rifling through an archive of sketches by a composer called Xavier Darasse and came across a formal plan of a work including a section labelled “durations partielles.” When my partner suggested “Partial Durations” as a title for the blog I said “no, no, that’s really bad. I would never call the blog ‘Partial Durations’” A day later I could not think of anything better so I said “Okay, Partial Durations it is.” I then sent the title to Keith Gallasch, the editor of RealTime. He responded “No, no, we can think of something better.” A day later I called and he said “we can’t think of anything better, we’ll have to go with it.” So there it is. There’s a pun in there about partiality and impartiality, as well as the ephemerality of performance and judgment. The idea that short-form criticism is somewhere on the way to a more established and qualified judgment. Only later did I find out that it’s also a term in economics and to that I can probably attribute about half of the blog’s international traffic.
Providing a record and discussion of contemporary music in Australia is an enjoyable project in itself, though its financial prospects are not promising. Music journalism in print media went through the sort of wholesale cuts decades ago that we are only now seeing in other parts of newspapers. The effect on music writing has not been completely terrible, because writing for smaller publications frees critics from the postures of sensationalist journalism common from the nineteenth century through to the demise of newspaper music journalism in the 1980s and ‘90s. Music criticism is still, however, enmeshed in a web of conflicting commitments to performers, funding agencies and perhaps even the writer’s critical integrity.
There have always been tensions between critics and musicians. The first professor of music at the University of Melbourne, G. W. L. Marshall-Hall, told a parable to the Victorian Artists’ Gallery in 1893 (Table Talk, 12 May, 1893 [delivered 5 May]) to illustrate this eternal antagonism. He imagined “a respectable looking middle-aged gentleman, decently dressed, affecting a slight limp” entering the world on the seventh day of its creation. The critic proceeds to sit through a celestial symphony with “occasional head-shakings accompanied by half-suppressed grunts” that one can still hear in auditoriums today. The critic, whom we find is called “Mr. Satan,” proceeds to limp through heaven and the Garden of Eden, casting half-baked dispersions upon the sun, moon and the peacocks on the lawn, offering titbits of advice cloaked in self-deprecation. He takes his leave saying:
As you well know my home lies in Chaos, and our critical labours leave us no time to exercise our talents in other directions. In fact I must wish you good morning. I have to produce at least two columns by tonight and sometimes one hardly knows how to fill them up.
There are artistic reasons for Marshall-Hall’s attack on newspaper criticism. Marshall-Hall, a radical Wagnerian in the day, was resisting the anti-German and pro-Arthur Sullivan tendencies of the “English musical renaissance” and their cheer-squad of newspaper critics. These included Joseph Bennett, who wrote of Das Rheingold that “[r]arely, indeed, do we come upon a passage that can strictly be called melodious, and, for the most part, the ear has to endure the musical equivalent of ‘bald, disjointed chat’” (Letters from Bayreuth, 41).
Marshall-Hall gives some advice to the critics, which I shall paraphrase because he gets a bit carried away at this point. He suggests that critics should withhold their critical judgment long enough to “correctly and honestly” describe their impressions of the work. Marshall-Hall assumes here Herbert Spencer’s theory of the link between musical expression and the evolution of human gesture, so that an unprejudiced hearing will inevitably reveal the emotional content of the work. I’ll translate this into contemporary terms by saying that one should try to understand a work on its own terms. Marshall-Hall argues that such an account would interest both the public and the artists, as well as edify the critic. “There is no doubt,” Marshall-Hall writes, “that in this case while the public would derive no little pleasure and benefit, the work would have a better chance of being understood, and the artist would be spared a vast amount of impertinence.” Evolutionist baggage aside, Marshall-Hall would be pleased to know that his suggested method is now the mainstay of Australian contemporary music criticism.
It could be called the “describe, explain and if you must, criticise” approach to music writing. The idea is to give the audience a sense of what it was like to experience the concert, followed by an explanation of the work on its own terms. This means trying to figure out what you thought the concert was trying to achieve. Programme notes or a chat to the performers can be quite enlightening in this regard. Criticism then follows as an evaluation of whether you thought the work actually achieved its own goals. This could be a purely musical goal, such as bringing out a particular characteristic of a work (its contrasts, its rhythmic organisation and so on) or a conceptual one. The “describe, explain and criticise” method avoids overly subjective opinions, at least to begin with, though can fall into the trap of not saying much at all.
This method of criticism lends itself to the Australian situation because the music scene is broadly distributed. It is the unofficial house style at RealTime precisely because the magazine seeks to bridge the gap between art scenes across the continent rather than to divide it into regions and camps. The style, which can often be seen as too nice or soft, is not without its critics. It is reflected in Norman Lebrecht’s observation that in Australia “the arts are still regarded as a fragile plant perpetually threatened with extinction or maybe a child with mild disabilities.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 August, 2007). Its principal and most successful proponent, Andrew Ford, was the subject of criticism himself in a review by Philip Clark. Clark described Ford’s book, Try Whistling This, as consisting of “affable prose, laboriously reasonable opinions, cosy fireside chats written for whatever the Antipodean equivalent is of Middle England” (Gramophone, 91.1102). To me it seems that if “laboriously reasonable opinions” are what are needed to communicate a multifaceted impression of a work then Ford may continue to chat affably and Clark can go back to retweeting click bait.
Clark clearly feels more comfortable within the long tradition of sensationalist music journalism that, in Marshall-Hall’s words,
is the fault not so much of the critic but of the public at large, which, in order to be amused at its breakfast table, insists that a witty epigram fully excuses the most flagrant injustice, and that it is less important to speak the truth than to turn a sentence neatly—in whose eyes, moreover, the most ridiculous thing of all is to be in earnest.
(It should be acknowledged that Marshall-Hall was not unknown for sensationalist antics. His casting of Satan the critic of heaven was just one public pronouncement that outraged Protestant Melbourne and led to his contract at the university not being renewed in 1901.) Marshall-Hall is referring here to the sort of nineteenth-century journalism that gives us such gems as:
We recoil in horror before this rotting odor which rushes into our nostrils from the disharmonies of this putrefactive counterpoint. His imagination is so incurably sick and warped that anything like regularity in chord progressions and period structure simply do not exist for him. Bruckner composes like a drunkard! (in Slonimsky, The Lexicon of Musical Invective, 80–81)
Marshall-Hall is reacting to the sensationalist style of nineteenth-century journalism whose modern heir is click bait. The Viennese writer Karl Kraus saw this style of journalism as part and parcel of the self-deception of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire and the corruption of its institutions, especially the media. Kraus’ response, published in his self-funded paper Die Fackel, was biting satire couched in impenetrable prose. I don’t think Australian music journalism can lay claim to any great satirists to rival Kraus, but one would find ample fodder in the flagrant bias of Australia’s News Corp publications. What Australian music journalism can at least lay claim to is Kraus’ underlying principle of honesty in journalism and, Marshall-Hall put his finger on it, earnestness.
Despite the slightly sensationalist bent of the newly restructured Limelight Magazine, music reviewers in Australia are largely free from the requirement to write click bait. But perhaps more than in other countries, Australian critics perform the function of, if you will excuse the oxymoron, impartial peer reviewers. Critics are forced into this position because public arts funding panels are so short on music specialists. When assessing a musician’s application, the rest of the panel must rely upon supporting documentation including reviews from authoritative sources. If a musician with an excellent project has no previous reviews, then their application is adversely affected. Not to seem disrespectful to my fellow writers, but is a snappy epigram from a critic really a replacement for the expert advice of an esteemed musician? This depends, perhaps, on which esteemed musician is on your board and it is great to see, only recently, the hard edge of contemporary music in Australia receiving more recognition by national funding bodies. This situation is only exacerbated by the changes in motion at the Australia Council for the Arts, as recently reported on by Jo Caust in The Conversation (5 September via RealTime). Genre-specific boards will be merged into a single pool of “peers” who will judge works based on “artistic merit” (read hunches and newspaper reviews for non-specialists), “organisational competence” (read private funding) and “contribution to the strategic goals of the Australia Council” (who knows? But the possibility of the Australia Council becoming a propaganda machine are worrying). It is clear that the funding cuts to the Australia Council will principally affect individual artist grants and small to medium organisations where the majority of contemporary music takes place.
There may even be a sort of “congratulatory inflation” at work as the reliance upon reviews leads to competition between applicants from different art forms to find the most hysterical hyperbole describing their work. Writers thus experience pressure to pepper their reviews with sound bites. This puts the reviewer in an awkward spot, because even if one were inclined to farm out sound bites, only so many composers can be the “most original voice of their generation” or an ensemble “Australia’s most dynamic interpreters of the twentieth-century canon.” The only respectable response is to ignore that whole game and give praise only where it is due. Australian writers and readers have thus clued in to the Art of Restrained Encouragement. That is, an almost Krausian strategy of discussing a work so matter-of-factly and making one’s writing so devoid of decoration that there is no way of extracting a flattering remark from it. No doubt the artists respond with ever more creative uses of ellipses in their pull-quotes.
We do this because there are other ends to music criticism than grant applications. There is awareness about the breadth of musical activity in Australia and our ability to talk about it. We need music writers because there is so much contemporary music being performed in Australia that is not being shared and discussed. Composers remake the wheel in different states and our ears stagnate. When I was compiling a weekly calendar of contemporary art music concerts for Partial Durations, before my PhD thesis got the better of me, there were at least half a dozen concerts every week. The problem was, as always, the tyranny of distance. It is the job of music writing to overcome this distance and bring all of this activity together in one place. But distance today has a weird effect on Australia! It’s not the old isolation from the world. It is now isolation from each other. In a weird way, Australian musicians are more aware of what is happening in other countries than what is happening on the other side of the continent. Musical movements that are a blip on the international map become huge here and swathes of history never reach us. I hope one day there will be a streaming service that will allow artists to easily, perhaps with the aid of an app, broadcast their concerts around the country. I should recognise here the excellent work of the ABC in recording and broadcasting some of the most important concerts. This would take the place of the first part of the “describe, explain and criticise” method and allow critics and the public to get down to the second two more quickly. For the moment, magazines like RealTime and blogs like Partial Durations will have to do. I would also one day like to be able to commission work for Partial Durations in other cities, so that it became less Melbourne-centric.
But good writers have to be trained and paid. Since journalism is thought to be less a public good than a commercial activity, there are no development grants for music journalists. RealTime often runs invaluable writer mentorship programs and some of the best guest contributors to Partial Durations have gone through that program. Nor are musicology departments naturally the place to train music reviewers, though some find an outlet for more vigorous investigation there. Musicology and journalism perform entirely different activities. Musicology departments are the only places where the in-depth analysis and research can be conducted that journalists then draw from. Until there are full-time music writing positions in Australian newspapers, this research cannot be conducted by journalists. Without more critical writing, musicians around Australia will continue to be deaf to each other and public discourse around music will suffer.
Bennett, Joseph. Letters from Bayreuth. London: Novello, Ewer and Company, 1877.
Ford, Andrew. Try Whistling This: Writings About Music. Collingwood: Black Inc., 2012.
Slonimsky, Nicolas. Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.