Has there ever been a classical music review this damning?
July 8, 2001 3:14 AM   Subscribe

Has there ever been a classical music review this damning? "It's difficult to tell how good they are. If they played a wrong note or lost the rhythm, no one but the composer would notice. Music is dead, and here is the corpse, embalmed on two slices of plastic hell. "
posted by feelinglistless (38 comments total)
It's always a joy to read bad reveiw that is well written.

It should carry a health warning: not to be listened to by anyone not of entirely sound mind. So bleak, stark, draining is this, it might be sold as "Music to Commit Suicide To".

Very funny indeed.
posted by geir at 6:55 AM on July 8, 2001

So they've finally created the Napster-proof CD. Just make it so bad, no one would want to download it.
posted by TacoConsumer at 7:57 AM on July 8, 2001

This guy doesn't like or understand this music. He starts by saying so, and the rest of his "review" is essentially saying the same thing over and over again.

This is no different from some Usenet wanker saying "I hate rap! It's not even music!" It's not especially damning, I don't think, because he doesn't actually say anything about the music or give any arguments why it's bad. Someone who is fundamentally unsympathetic to a type of music just has no business reviewing it.
posted by rodii at 8:21 AM on July 8, 2001

The good news is that music isn't really dead. It's just that some parts of it have achieved that rarified height of self-parody. The trash described here is the musical equivalent of splatters of paint on a canvas which has killed one part of graphical art, leaving other parts healthy and strong. It's cultural evolution in progress.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:26 AM on July 8, 2001

Steven, that hurts my brain. Are you holding Webber up as a good or a bad example?

PS: "trash"? Why? How do you know enough about that music to call it trash? Have you heard it?
posted by rodii at 9:58 AM on July 8, 2001

"Splatters of paint on a canvas" have "killed one part of graphical art?"

I don't get it.
posted by jbushnell at 10:14 AM on July 8, 2001

oh, for a second I didn't recognize this as the "If I like it, it's art, but if you like it, it's trash" thread.

My opinion is that if you are a reviewer, you should at least have the potential to enjoy the work -- subjectively or objectively -- to be able to consider yourself qualified to review. And in this case, it seems to be like a vegetarian saying "well, I like food, so that makes me qualified to review restaurants" and then damn them all for serving meat. Like getting Doctor Laura to evaluate your porn, or me to review a tennis match.

I did laugh at the review, but only as a spite party.
posted by jessamyn at 10:23 AM on July 8, 2001

Don't be dissin' my homeys Jackson Pollock or Jasper Johns. Ah, you like Webber -- I guess I don't feel threatened by your taste.

Webber haters all are highly recommended to view the little-noticed The Tall Guy, with Jeff Goldblum, Emma Thompson, and Rowan (Blackadder/Mr. Bean) Atkinson. The central plot concerns Goldblum's actor character -- in escaping a thankless role working for Atkinson in self-parody mode -- unwillingly finding himself starring in a horrendous Webberesque send-up, a musical based on The Elephant Man ... complete with "concept" posters and giftie shoppe items like coffee cups. I swear you will die laughing. I did, I'm only posting here thanks to the miracle of CPR. Plus, Emma's topless.
posted by dhartung at 11:51 AM on July 8, 2001

Wait a minute. Sorry, Stephen, I was reading your post through rodii's interpretation. I get it now.
posted by dhartung at 11:52 AM on July 8, 2001

I didn't have an interpretation! I was genuinely puzzled. Steven has out-subtled me a few times lately, so all bets are off as far as I'm concerned.

I actually try to like all genres, at least in principle. That doesn't mean I like all music, but that I don't ever dislike a piece of music because it belongs to genre X. Webbermusique is where my aspirations always run aground, though.
posted by rodii at 12:12 PM on July 8, 2001

One thing I realized recently is that in pretty much any work of art, there's something to like and something to dislike. It's all about where you focus your attention.

Of course, we all like some music better than other music anyway, so this realization doesn't get us very far.
posted by speicus at 12:31 PM on July 8, 2001

sniff sniff... I don't understand this stuff... how can I write an intelligent-sounding article about something I don't understand? I know! I'll just make fun of it instead!

Ah, the classic bully tactic. What a great review!
posted by daveadams at 12:48 PM on July 8, 2001

Sorta off the subject, but the best thorough trashing of any nominally creative product I've read in some time is Tom Shales' review of the new season of The Real World.
posted by raysmj at 1:00 PM on July 8, 2001

in pretty much any work of art, there's something to like and something to dislike.

And if there's not, then it might not be art after all.
posted by kindall at 1:01 PM on July 8, 2001

I've heard (and played) this type of music before, and I agree with the review. The joke has been taken too far, namely the whole "I'll make music with no rhythm, melody, harmony, or time signature and then see which artsy types I can get to play along" joke. Ha ha! Whatever floats your boat. I don't see why the reviewer can't state his opinions on the matter. And yes, it is funny, as long as you aren't threatened by the skewering. IMHO.
posted by norm at 1:02 PM on July 8, 2001

What type of music?! There's no information, ubnless you count "random patterns of a-rhythmic notes scattered across the soundscape" which has been used to describe music the reviewer dislikes more or less since the beginning. See Sloninsky's Lexicon of Musical Invective if you don't believe me.
posted by rodii at 1:26 PM on July 8, 2001

a secular musical culture which has entirely lost its way, has nothing to say and insists on continuing to say it anyway

Surely he's talking about the radio and MTV?

Like all other arts, music is de gustibus. I've seen rock fans' heads turned by a new girlfriend to listening to country, and Bach fans switch to roots blues. A review like this (properly described by gear as a 'bad review') is completely akin to all the face-reddening over 'piss christ' ... which, to some, decided it as art.

Norm, whatever it is that has to be there for something to be called music differs all over the place. Wind chimes are often described as musical, yet there is no discernible melody, harmony, rhythm or time signature. Look up the story, if you haven't heard it, of the public reception to the premiere of Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring'... outrage, though it had all of those 'necessary' elements.

Is music then a 'pleasant' experience? Well this goes on all day. In the end, you either relate to the intent of the performance or you don't. And if you don't, you don't write reviews. It's a bad review, for one, because it doesn't state its point of comparison. Zero stars compared to what? A Hindemeth string quartet? Iannis Xenakis? A 16th century French madrigal? Eminem?

Reviews like this are old hat. After its premiere, a reviewer said "Beethoven's Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideously writhing wounded dragon that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect." Maybe... but it's sold a lot of records, innit?

All that said, I agree wholeheartedly with the reviewer that The sound of the musical establishment writing to impress itself on "Music Now", while the rest of the world looks the other way, utterly alienated… is not one I often listen to with enjoyment. But *some* of it *will* stand the test of time, and all the rest, as with 99 and 44/100 percent of the stuff written in the 1800s, and the 1990s, will fade into deserved obscurity. Much to Salieri's dismay, the system works.
posted by Twang at 2:29 PM on July 8, 2001

...random patterns of a-rhythmic notes scattered across the soundscape ...

In almost every piece the same distant, a-melodic piano repeats what may as well be the same uncommunicative figure ...

These two sentence fragments are the only bits of actual musical criticism in the whole piece.

I doubt whether I would have liked this stuff, but give 'em a break, a review instead of a rant.
posted by caraig at 3:11 PM on July 8, 2001

I consider Webber a good example of music. I take the reviewer of these two CDs at his word that these are trash. I consider splatters of paint on a canvas to be a waste of good canvas. I'm going to hide now so I don't get killed by a mob.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:15 PM on July 8, 2001

Steven sez:

I consider Webber a good example of music.

That's OK with me. Cagean that I am, I wish I could hear what you hear in them.

I take the reviewer of these two CDs at his word that these are trash.

Why? Has he said anything to persuade you? Is it just that what he says accords with your own biases? Then why read the review at all?

I consider splatters of paint on a canvas to be a waste of good canvas.

OK, this is the crux for me. I don't care whether you like any particular piece of art or not, but: is there any criterion that would allow you to make a distinction in quality between two spatters-of-paint art? Say, between a Pollock and a Sally-the-elephant painting? If not, fine, you don't like splatters-of-paint art. But wouldn't you agree that that would make you a poor critic of that art?

That's the way I am with Andrew Lloyd Webber. If someone comes to me for informed critical opinion on him, I have to shrug and say "I'm not really a good person to ask." I could choose to rant and rave about how shitty it all is and how it makes me want to die when I see those "Phantom" commercials, of course. The word for people like that is "dicks." The reviewer of the poor Liverpool music above is being a dick.

I'm going to hide now so I don't get killed by a mob.

Oh, please. The Macintosh mob have had dibs on you forever, anyway. :)
posted by rodii at 3:45 PM on July 8, 2001

If the reference to paint "spattered on a canvas" is to Pollock, then perhaps it might be useful for you to know that Pollock didn't "spatter' paint (a word which suggests that the paint was thrown in an uncontrolled way), but rather the paint was dripped in a highly controlled way onto a canvas that was laid flat on the ground. This may have been a bad way to make a painting (Pollock's canvasses are incredibly fragile now, only fifty or so years after their making), but it is not inevitably a way to make bad paintings. Pollock's paintings are highly structured and fascinating to look at.

If you are talking about Damien Hirst's wheel paintings, fair enough.
posted by Grangousier at 3:54 PM on July 8, 2001

Well, I guess I have to say what I think art is. I actually wrote up something about that for my own site, and here it is.

Rod, I consider a negative opinion of a piece of art, or even of a genre of art, to be legitimate. I don't require that a reviewer be sympathetic to the genre and I don't consider the fact that he despises a genre to disqualify him. His review might be a denunciation of the entire genre and that is legitimate. I do, however, require that the reviewer justify his opinion and not merely declare it. I thought this one did do so.

I consider random notes to not be art, and I consider splatters of paints, no matter how carefully made, to not be art for the same reason: there's no message. To me, art is communication. (That's spelled out in much greater detail in my article.)
posted by Steven Den Beste at 4:20 PM on July 8, 2001

Has there ever been a classical music review this damning?

I think that Emperor Jozef II's "Too many notes, Mozart" for Die EntfĂĽhrung aus dem Serail holds that record in perpetuity. For similar reasons.
posted by holgate at 4:36 PM on July 8, 2001

is there any criterion that would allow you to make a distinction in quality between two spatters-of-paint art? Say, between a Pollock and a Sally-the-elephant painting? If not, fine, you don't like splatters-of-paint art. But wouldn't you agree that that would make you a poor critic of that art?

I, for one, like the Sally the elephant paintings, but that's due to me cutting her some slack because she's an elephant. I expect more from a talented human. Sorry to horn in on the question, Steven.
posted by norm at 4:47 PM on July 8, 2001

A general question...

Would you say that a Mondrian is art? If so, what would be your reaction to the fact that a computer can generate faux-Mondrian works which are preferred by most viewers to the real thing? (True.)
posted by kindall at 4:55 PM on July 8, 2001

OK, then, I guess we have to agree to disagree. That's OK. (You see, I'm in the Macintosh mob too, heh heh. :)
posted by rodii at 5:06 PM on July 8, 2001

No, actually, I have a wee bit more to say.

Steven: Rod, I consider a negative opinion of a piece of art, or even of a genre of art, to be legitimate. I don't require that a reviewer be sympathetic to the genre and I don't consider the fact that he despises a genre to disqualify him. His review might be a denunciation of the entire genre and that is legitimate.

I can't really disagree with any of that, though obviously I don't find it entirely satisfactory. So that leaves me trying to figure out exactly what raised my hackles so about this review.
posted by rodii at 5:09 PM on July 8, 2001

Rodii, can I suggest that your problem with the review is the nagging thought that the reviewer didn't give it a fair, honest listen before writing his/her review? That's the problem with people who are predisposed to dislike a genre of art -- I could go to a Webber musical and I can almost guarantee you that I would walk out complaining about three wasted hours of my life. That review, such as it is, would be utterly useless for Steven, who might enjoy, say, Jesus Christ Superstar but not Starlight Express. (Steven, if you enjoyed Starlight Express, umm... More power to you, I suppose.)

Everyone has had the experience of parsing a movie review to see why the reviewer liked or disliked a movie; picking out what aspects of A.I. a particular reviewer highlighted in a (uniformly positive) review convinced me not to go to it. But there's very little of such parsing that can be done with the review in question; I can't tell if it's an interesting atonal mash or not.

Steven dislikes paintings and I dislike musicals, but I think we can agree that there are degrees of success that a given painting or a given musical can achieve. When, as a paid reviewer, you dismiss an entire genre you're failing your readers because they can't make any smaller judgments if they disagree with you about the big one.

And that's not even going into the streak of reverse snobbery the review contained.
posted by snarkout at 8:20 PM on July 8, 2001

You all realize that this review will spur sales of this disk BIG TIME, no?
posted by ParisParamus at 8:21 PM on July 8, 2001

I don't dislike paintings, as such. For instance, I find Dali and Magritte endlessly fascinating.

I dislike Modern Art; I find it pretentious and vapid, obsessed with shock value and devoid of message. There may well be a few paintings done in one of those styles which would appeal to me, but I have no wish to shovel my way through thousands of lumps of coal to find a diamond or two.

On the other hand, there is quite a lot of static graphic art which is valuable and meaningful. Painting has largely become intellectually bankrupt IMHO, but graphic art overall is still going strong. It's not so long ago that a "comic book" (indeed, a non-color one) won a Pulitzer prize, for instance and rightfully so; it was superb. Art Spiegelman took the form to an entirely new level. Maus was a masterpiece.

And the second book, which finished the story, was named And here my troubles began. Thinking about that title still makes me feel a bit sick to my stomach because when you encounter that phrase in the book, its context and the event it describes is simply beyond belief. I'm not sure I can conceive of that story being told as effectively in any other medium.

And animation has come into its own as an art form in the 20th century. I don't think I need to describe that in detail; we're all familiar with the results. It's not "static art" but it's clearly an offshot of the form.

So there's nothing wrong with graphic art now, as such. It's just specific parts of the field I object to.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 9:44 PM on July 8, 2001

> To me, art is communication.

There's no worse art than art that tries to say something, that has a "palpable design" upon us. The misomusist "takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic."
posted by pracowity at 4:30 AM on July 9, 2001

[I doubt anyone will actually read this, but...]

Steven, I'd love if you could tell me the message behind Mozart's Horn Concerto No. 2, K.417. Or Debussy's Page d'Album. Or or or... Are they about something more than their own beauty? Is that enough of a message to be considered "art"? In your essay you expect to keep getting great messages from great art. Well, you've never heard this music. Just because it sounds "a-rhythmic" and "random" to the reviewer doesn't mean it is.

At first listen, most of Anton Webern's post-student works probably seem random and just another instance of ridiculous Modern Art trying to create art out of shock and spectacle to most people. But more listening reveals the painstaking construction, a logic and a formality that is quite beautiful. Each time I listen I hear new things.

I'm not familiar with the "paint splatter" paintings as I'm not a student of the visual arts. But I've seen works similar to what you describe. Just because that type of art may not speak to you does not mean it isn't art. Just because a huge amount of the art produced today isn't really all that great (as if things were any different 200 years ago), you shouldn't dismiss an entire genre as worthless and valueless. Whether you want to take the time to dig through the coal to find the diamonds or not, that doesn't mean you should dismiss entire categories of art as "dead". That's disgustingly arrogant.

As for the review. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a writer doing a piece on how so much of modern music is crap, that music is dead, that it's nothing more than random notes played only to shock. I say more power to him for stating his opinion so boldly. But the review itself, as a review of a musical recording, is totally worthless.
posted by daveadams at 8:03 AM on July 9, 2001

From Steven's essay: What message is communicated by a twenty-mile-long curtain? What does it make people feel? .... Great art is memorable; it sticks with us. On one visit to NYC I visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. I walked through the entire thing. I saw many paintings and sculptures there. I don't remember a single one of them

So what I read you saying, Steven, is that you are the final and only arbiter of what is art. "I, Steven Den Beste, know art when I see it. Great art is memorable. I saw a painting and now I've forgotten it. Thus, the painting I saw, in fact, the entire genre of painting, is not great art!"
posted by daveadams at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2001

Steve wants art you can whistle.
posted by Grangousier at 10:05 AM on July 9, 2001

Dave, WRT Mozart: that kind of music has the ability to induce a state of mind. In the case of Mozart it will often be a general cheerfulness, a feeling of energy, but the real point is that while you're absorbed in the music you forget yourself. Temporarily you are Mozart.

By the way, if it was possible for me to quantify the message in that Horn Concerto in just a few words, then it wouldn't have been necessary to write it. By my (highly dubious) definition, it takes art to communicate the things that we cannot easily quantify in a few words.

And despite studying music all my life, I'm not at all impressed by Webern. He's the musical equivalent of splattering paint on a canvas. I'm not disturbed by dissonance, God knows, since my two favorite composers are Bartok and Shostakovich.

Equally, I'm not entranced with Glass and the minimalists. "Tedium" is a message, but not one worth repeating. The only Glass piece I've ever liked is the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi; it worked there, but that was because it didn't stand on its own. It was part of something larger.

What is communicated by art isn't necessarily a message in the restricted sense of communicating information, and I don't think that is what art is necessarily about (though it can be). What it does do is to permit the artist to make the audience feel what the artist wants them to feel. It's the difference between saying "fear" and really feeling fear. Or awe, or tenderness, or fascination, or perhaps things for which we don't even have words.

The extent to which the artist succeeds in this is a measure of the greatness of the art. The more people who are affected by it, and the deeper and more intense the feeling inspired in each, the better it is.

"you are the final and only arbiter of what is art". If that's what you thought you read, then I expressed myself extremely badly. But I really don't see how you came to that conclusion. From my essay:

"What is art? That's a question people have been debating as long as the word has been with us, and I'm sure not going to settle it now."

"My own tentative definition of art..."

"With that highly dubious definition..."

Does that sound like someone who is certain he has the final, true, universal answer? All along here, and in my essay, I was expressing my own opinion. I've never tried to claim, and I know that it would be wrong to claim, that my opinion on art is universal or should be binding on anyone else.

Grangousier, it's rather difficult to whistle the second movement of Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra", a piece I find endlessly fascinating. Bartok was attempting something intriguing: to try to write a melody which had no identifiable key. Not just that it kept changing, but did not have one at all even on any single note. There is interval and movement but no notes. It works, but it's impossible to whistle. (If you have heard it, you'll know what I mean.)

It's also rather difficult to whistle "King Lear".

I object to the definition that "art is anything that anyone labels as art." That doesn't mean I want everything to be Velveeta.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:46 AM on July 9, 2001

I once whistled Rodin's Monument to Balzac, and I was fine after a brief hospital visit.
posted by webmutant at 12:07 PM on July 9, 2001

I just want to say that I do sit here and write 500 word essays in response to this point and end up leaving just one-line sarcasms in frustration.

I've just done it again. You should have seen this post before I snipped it.


Essentially it's not so much that "art is anything that anyone labels as such", but that something that happens within a specific context (the gallery, the theatre, the concert hall) is considered to be a part of a specific artistic practice.

Anything that happens in front of an audience is taken to be part of the performance, whether it's scripted or rehearsed or improvised or entirely accidental. Sometimes things and events that happen on stage remind the ausdience that everybody is just a bunch of people in a room but this could just as easily be occasioned deliberately as a part of the performance (like Brechtian Alienation technique) as accidentally or due to performer incompetence. It's the Suspension of Disbelief and all art requires it to function at all.

Furthermore, things do not intrinsically possess meaning. Meaning is given to an object by the observer. An apple is an actual thing, but its significance, its meaning depends on the observer - an apple "means" entirely different things to a botanist, to a chef, to a theologian or to a worm. But the "thing itself" does not change from one "reading" to another.

So the "meaning" of an object depends on the audience and the ways in which they give meaning to the object. The context of an object conditions the observer to the way in which they are expected to read the object - put a symphony orchestra in a concert hall and the audience will listen to the sounds they are making, put them in an art gallery and the audience will be just as likely to consider their clothing or the forms of the instruments because things in concert halls are to be listened to and things in galleries are to be looked at.

Put simplistically, anyway.

So a Duchamp readymade is not "just" a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel, but is placed by Duchamp in full understanding of the way in which placing that object in a gallery, in relation to an audience with certain expectations of an object in a gallery, changes its meaning. Because the observer gives meaning to the object, they do not derive meaning from the object.

It's in that context (roughly) that a lot of work has been constructed over the last century. Not interested in those concerns? Fine. Don't go to the shows. But please don't just dismiss the work as "trash", because if you do that you are demonstrating a lack of critical understanding not of the work itself but of the ways in which art is made and consumed. It makes you appear no more sophisticated than those people who dismiss Stranger in a Strange Land as trash for no other reason than that it's Science Fiction, or who dismiss Maus for no other reason than that it's a comic book.

Is that what you want?
posted by Grangousier at 5:33 AM on July 10, 2001

Yep, that covers most of the main points. Better get your pencils sharpened because there will be a short quiz next period.
posted by feelinglistless at 3:27 PM on July 11, 2001

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