A Critic's Guide

Nov 19, 2009

I’ve run out of dog food for Eloise, so I drive out to the coast and up to Gualala on a windy late November afternoon. I can see the white caps on the Pacific roiling. The water is turbulent, and the seabirds are riding the air current so expertly they look absolutely motionless, caught perfectly poised in the swiftly moving wind.

I’m just pulling into the lot in front of the Surf Super when I see my neighbor, Marcel Proost, getting into his pickup truck. Marcel usually wears Ben Davis overalls, a checkered flannel shirt and an Oakland Raiders hat. But today I see he’s got on a clean pressed shirt and tie, and his hair has that weird look of a wet cat, kind of slicked down and unruly, like it doesn’t want to be combed.

I also notice he’s got a notebook under his arm and a ballpoint pen behind his left ear.

“Marcel,” I say, “somebody die?”

“Naw. I just come from the concert at the Arts Center. I gotta get home and file my review.”

“Your what??”

“I’m covering the concert for the Independent Coast Observer. Didn’t you know?”

Turns out that Marcel had offered his services to our small newspaper as a music critic. This, as you can imagine, truly puzzles me, because I do not think Marcel is in any way qualified to pass judgment on classical music.

“So what kind of concert was it, Marcel?” I am thinking to myself he couldn’t tell a septuplet from a septic tank.

“It was a group up from the big city called the New Confrontations Ensemble. They played contemporary music. Carter, Boulez, Kurtàg, Birtwistle—you know, Euro high modernism. I know, I know—you think you’re gonna nail me on Elliott not being continental, but hey, he just has a different zip code. It’s all the same gang.”

I’m thinking this is ridiculous. Marcel can’t even read music and the only cd’s I seen in his trailer were by some Goth bands like Alien Sex Fiend and Inkubus Sukkubus, which I saw next to his lava lamp. I think he’s just pulling my chain, so I figure I’ll just ask him a few questions and see how far he can bluff.

“So Marcel, how was the Carter?” I calmly inquire.



“Bracing, thorny, a contrapuntal thicket, but intellectually satisfying. Carter, as you know, John, has mellowed since passing the C-mark. I like the new piece,“…come il cacio sui maccheroni,” for three percussionists —stands up quite well on repeated hearings.”

“You’re shitting me, Marcel,” I say. He just stares at me with a look of distaste at my bad manners.

“So, OK. Marcel, I am sure that a week ago, before you went all hoity-toity on us, you never even heard of Pierre Boulez. So how you gonna write about something as complicated as that?”

“Structural clarity. It’s a breeze to write about Boulez. You just say “structural clarity” and you’re home free. Doesn’t matter if you’re reviewing his conducting Mahler or “Pli selon Pli.” It’s all about structural clarity, John.”

“And Kurtàg?”

“Mad Hungarian, of course, like all of them, but a mind of richly fertile imagination. Fiendish miniaturist. The universe in a nutshell.”


“Doesn’t coddle the listener. Every new piece a welcome musical colonic.”

“So, Marcel, if you’re gonna write regularly you have to be open to other stuff too. What will you write if it’s a concert of Minimalist music?”

“Minimalism? Check your brain at the door.”

“And what if the singers are miked?”

“Amplification? End of the world as we know it.”

“Haitink’s Bruckner?”


“The Vienna Philharmonic?”

“Plush strings, burnished brass, mellow winds. Gender issues.”

“How about that new opera that just premiered last week?”

“Formally flawed, but promises better things to come.”

“Gilbert versus Dudamel?”

“Easy. East Coast probity versus Hollywood glitz. But of course you preface your remarks by saying that you’re only reporting that the others are writing about it. You yourself would never stoop so low as to make odious comparisons.”

OK. OK. So I see that Marcel has gotten himself all informed and knows the key words and catch phrases. He’ll be able to a critique a concert and crank out a review just as fast as the guy at Carl’s Junior can punch in an order. His big problem, though, is that he’s being paid by the word, so he’s going to have to figure out a way to flesh things out, find himself some good adjectives and key words to hold in supply. We need to start right now to help him out or he’ll be outta ammunition when the big bucks start running. Here are a few (culled from the local rag):

-for singers: prima, donna, winsome, hankie, helden, tenor, stalwart, shrill, journeyman, indisposed, passaggio, panique

-for violinists: strapless, sixteen, sex, Seoul

-for older conductors: penetrating, probing, judicious, probing, sage, probing, prostate, probing

-for younger conductors: hair, energy, contract, twitter, manager, Mahler, Firebird, youtube

-for orchestras: big, five, deficit, tour, cancelled, Citibank, union, negotiations, empty, seats

-for operas: neglected, masterpiece, bad, libretto, super, titles, second, act, drags, prefer, Puccini

Comments (25)

Luke P.
November 19, 2009

Honestly, how is this a real person? Does he have any musical background? And how does he go from Inkubus to Boulez? Or more importantly, WHY?!

November 19, 2009

Luke, Luke, Luke. Marcel is as real as the Brad Pitt character is to the Ed Norton one in "Fight Club." (Not saying that JA is the Ed Norton character or anything.)

BTW I love this blog. Keep it coming.

Mark K
November 19, 2009

oh crickey : "probing prostate probing...big five deficit...second act drags..."...and the ultimate : "Structural clarity"
..."Dahling, I failed to detect a coherent inner architecture and commendable musical structure at this botched premiere of the new piece."
"You mean he used more than one time signature change to deceive the inner metronome of the listener?"

And : is JA a Nabokovian shapeshifter?

Well anyway, these hellmouth blogs are !

November 19, 2009

Ahahahahahahaha! (bookmarks this page)

Mixed Meters
November 19, 2009

(Thank you for not mentioning Theodor Adorno.)

Your list of adjectives could become the basis for a review writing program - just enter the program, the location and performers and it generates a common-wisdom press notice. There could even be some sort of wiki for individuals to contribute additional descriptive verbiage.

But, in the long run, this would be a bad because all those out of work critics would have to become assistant professors - and they'd teach their kids about Adorno.

November 19, 2009

Excellent post.
The majority of classical music critics these days have nothing to say. (There are a few exceptions) They don't engage with the music, question aesthetic problems, build larger narratives. Nada.

I can also add a few of the typical cliches:
For young-ish composers-
"Knows the orchestra," "excellent orchestration," "energetic," etc. Empty platitudes that are actually damning more than enlightening. If there aren't any interesting musical ideas, say so. Don't describe.

Again, many of our critics are now describers. They tell us what the piece is, but never how good it is.

November 20, 2009

Great blog - love it!

November 20, 2009

It would seem Marcel has spent some time working with The Cereal List's "Automatic Review Generation Helper" (ARGH)!


November 20, 2009

This blog makes some good points, and in a funny way as well - and I like some of the comments, I hope to see Borges again soon. Keep at it John!

David Brighton Towne
November 20, 2009

This is my favorite blog ever.
It is now on my bucket list to meet JA.

Lucy M.
November 20, 2009

I love the links. Structural Clarity is hilarious.

November 20, 2009

Lucy M: Yeah right?

Who the heck cares about structural clarity? Gosh composition teachers (and critics) luuuv that one. I for one care more about dramatic narrative. If structural clarity doesn't serve drama, to hell with it.

November 20, 2009

Brilliant! This is why I don't read most reviews.

November 20, 2009

Man, my eyes can't handle this! I have to click on control/option/apple to switch the light type on dark background to black type on white. Only then can I read without pain and agony.

Just a little FYI. If you care.

But great read. Nearly as good as a great reed.

But not quite.

November 20, 2009

I love the photo of Pierre Lugosi!

j l pierson
November 21, 2009

How does one buy a CD of the premiere of City Noir with the L.A. Philarmonic [famous conductor.]


Out of Work Critic
November 25, 2009

John- I had no idea you were such a wit, on top of all your other accomplishments. Such a clever boy you are.

Jon Appleton
November 26, 2009

Boulez? Always admired the combover. He's the genuine barcode of the new (?) complexity.

anne louise heigho
November 26, 2009

"crikey" is traditionally spelled thus; the phantom proofreader [read critic] strikes again!

permo j
November 30, 2009

no reincarnation of Hanslick imminent in our generation. By the way, how does a Left Coast/West Coast festival translate to 'Northern Californian Composers League'? Bay Area has a reputation for provincialism. Perhaps next time a call for scores?

Gregory S. Isaacs, www.theaterjones.com
December 7, 2009

Thanks for not using my real name.

Alison Beskin
December 8, 2009

Although I should be studying for finals, this is by far more interesting and entertaining :) Thank you

December 9, 2009

Me thinks that someone has found inspiration in Schumann's "Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" with this Marcel character, but I love it so keep going!

Might be one of the best blogPosts I have read in a VERY long time.

December 11, 2010

Haha, it seems an American 'Monsieur Croche' is born...

July 28, 2011

Taking another look at your blog now that I actually know what you're talking about. LOL BOULEZ "STRUCTURAL CLARITY" google search....FIVE HUNDRED THIRTEEN HITS! That is great. Though I don't see how it applies at all to Pli selon Pli, which is a great work, by the way. You, Oliver Knussen and Boulez are probably my favorite composer-conductors. Thank you SO MUCH for introducing people to Andriessen's underrated masterpiece De Staat with the LA Phil. While I can tell what you mean by "riding on those great prairies of non-event" in a work like that, it's undeniably a work of genius.
(Just because it's a tumblr doesn't mean I post randomcrap gifs like everybody else seems to. Instead, I post Morton Feldman, Stravinsky, ect.)

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