Thursday, 15 October 2015

Dealing with criticism

How do artists deal with critique? Or, how should they deal with it? The stories of artists, arrogantly maintaining that they never read reviews, should not be believed: every artist is curious to know whether his achievement has been understood and appreciated, and if not so, whether this would be a reason for self-reflection and improvement, or rejection of the critique. As for classical music: the central performance culture makes use of published reviews, agents use them to 'sell' their musicians, programmers and promotors look quickly through them in the many proposals they receive, but everybody knows that the value of a review is very relative: a concert can have been really good and have caused an uproar of grateful applause, but may not have pleased 5 people, one of them coincidentally being a critic. Or there are 2 or more reviews of the same concert and they all offer mutually exclusive opinions as if their authors visited different performances. Music is a subjective art form, and yet: there is an objective reality in performance, otherwise it would be pointless for musicians to try to be good and to practice and prepare their concerts.

Once a friend gave me his ticket for the visiting Berlin Philharmonic, coming to the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with Simon Rattle in an interesting programme: a 45 minutes modernist torture before and Mahler IV after the interval. The torture was excruciating, and I am sure most of the audience was silently and duly imagining that it must be good because it was the Berlin Phil and everybody else was listening quietly and attentively. But some rustling of programme booklets and soft shuffling of feet betrayed an instinctive doubt. Surely we all hoped to be rewarded by our patience and tolerance by the Mahler symphony. But alas, the players had spent so much of their focus upon precise short pointless exclamations in the grinding machinery of progressiveness that the Mahler idiom did no longer come naturally, there was no 'Schwung' and 'Schmaltz' in this most Viennese work, with its tenderly flowing last movement adorned with the famous soprano solo 'Das himmlische Leben'.  Everything sounded stilted and artificial. But the audience gave ovations nonetheless, shouting enthusiastic bravo's.... I guess that admitting a wasted € 200 for the ticket, would have been too much of a disappointment. On other concerts in this beautiful hall, I experienced veritable uplifting musical achievements, but read very lukewarm or negative reviews, or the other way around: boring, uninspired concerts and enthusiastic celebrations by the critic.

Famous is the story of the critic who entered the concert hall just before the first piece were to begin, an OOMP*, having prepared duefully for the première of the new work and really opening-up his ears and soul - but what he heard was a disappointing style imitation of a short Beethoven piece, clumsily scored and as dull as a student exercise with its extremely conventional triads and worn-out phrases. Unfortunately, he had missed the announcement made before the concert, that the OOMP had to be replaced by a Beethoven ouverture because the piece had not been ready in time. We know that also in his own time, Beethoven got quite some critique, and not from the least: Louis Spohr, famous composer and violinist, found that Beethoven lacked taste and aesthetic 'Bildung', and that his late works were bizarre because deafness prevented testing the acoustical result.

A friend of mine, a professional conductor and very apt and sensitive musician, innocently went to a performance given by the Ensemble Intercontemporain led by Pierre Boulez. I did not share the experience with him (knowing what to expect) but we drank a cup of tea afterwards, when he offered me his opinion: 'I have never been so bored in my life as in the last hours'... but the audience had gone wild with enthusiasm. Everybody knows about these things.... and yet, we read the reviews, why? Because we want to see something of our personal experience be confirmed in public space, to see our experience shared by 'the world', and when there is a sharp difference between our own assessment and the review's, we get irritated. But all in all, music criticism is important, because important events should be discussed in media which are accessible to all. That is the function of music criticism: to create a place in the media that gives due respect and importance to the art form. And yet, never has a statue been erected for a critic, or a street named after him, or a biography written about him. The closest the music critic comes to eternal fame, is Nicolas Slonimsky's very entertaining book 'Lexicon of Musical Invective; Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time' ('..... this collection of nasty barbs about composers and their works, culled mostly from contemporaneous newspapers and magazines, makes for hilarious reading and belongs on the shelf of everyone who loves―or hates ―classical music'), W. W. Norton & Co, 1947, 1953, 1965, 1978 etc. ... / 2000. It shows venomous attacks on musical works, most of which have since entered the canonic repertoire. I believe that one of the reasons that so much postwar new music is treated with such well-meaning cautiousness by the music journalism of our days, is the fear to appear in the next edition of this monument of misjudgement.

Critique can be very helpful where it forces us to focus upon our own opinion and / or instinctive awareness of what is meaningful. In my student days at the conservatory in Rotterdam, my composition teacher was a rather mediocre composer affiliated with the then upcoming modernist composers group in Holland, but too introvert to climb the barricades as his friends happily did, loudly claiming attention, performance space and money for their battle against the bourgeois suppression of the masses, a cultural domination where Beethoven's symphonies were used as means of subjugating the proletariat. If I looked into the opposite direction of everything this man said, I found what I needed, and that was discovered in a process of individual exploration, not in a form of being 'instructed'. The advantage of such experience is that one identifies with the results in a way, deeper and more personal than in a simple 'instruction situation'. Of course this was not an entirely conscious process, but when this man said - of a piece of mine: 'I would do this forte instead of your piano, and piano where you have forte', I knew I was on the right track. Another example: he asserted that orchestral tuttis were easy to orchestrate because you can throw-in every instrument available. But when you study the best-sounding tutti's of the repertoire, you discover instead that they are carefully balanced and the masses of sound distributed in a specific way. That goes for Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel, so: unrelated to style... writing tutti's was based upon aural experience.

In my twenties, and exploring the possibilities of writing tonally but with all the freedoms of late Scriabine and early Schoenberg, I was selected for a composition workshop weekend by an ensemble, that in those days made quite a career with new music. The workshop was held in a leafy area in the country side in one of those institutions especially set-up for such occasions, a conference centre combining accomodation for both music making and private space. I had sent-in a polyphonic short piece for some 5 instruments which was, as were the other pieces sent-in by other young composers, practiced and discussed, led by a young musicologist who also composed in his free time. Rather innocent of the conventions of modernist behavior, I gravely sinned against the dress code by appearing in a jacket, while all the others demonstrated their subversive and entirely independent anti-bourgeois idealism in the same T-shirts and jeans, slightly damaged and decorated with the stains of alcoholic progressiveness. Almost all of the pieces in that workshop were up-to-date atonalisms, some of them so wild as to escape the boring need of notation, and the players greatly enjoyed the freedom and daredevil explorations of all these unusual adventures in sound. Inventive squeeking in registers beyond the upper limits of the instruments, as well as the intense rumblings at the bottom, fired general fascination and invoked extensive discussions, which I found extremely difficult to follow because they were so incoherent. When my poor little piece got played and discussed, a general air of disapproval filled the room, and since there was no squeeking and rumbling, I was accused of 'playing safe', a condemnation of lacking any invention and creativity, because using 'normal' procedures of thematic development and variation, and interrelated polyphony. The looks on the faces of progress, expressing deep contempt and scorn, made me feel as if I had let escape an unhappy result of a misdirected digestion process.... I was made felt that the selection of my piece had been a sorry mistake, was isolated from the group and nicknamed 'Johann Sebastian Borstlap', accompanied by contemptuous laughter. At lunch breaks, the ensemble amused themselves by playing Mozart divertimenti in the open air, which sounded quite nice, but which was regularly interrupted by the players' fits of laughter - they did it only to have some fun and to feel superior to this completely nonsensical old music from entirely primitive times.... of which Mozart was the icon, fortunately overcome by new music's progressive revolution. No one of this group, players or composers, has ever been heard of since, while bourgeois Herr Mozart is still around. But this little adventure demonstrated how, in the early waves of modernism, the new ideals attracted both people without musical and cultural awareness and subsidies to have these events organized and given the accolade of artistic exploration, while in reality there was a lot of amateurism going-on, a nonsensical messing-around as I discovered numerous times later in life, within the 'modern scene'. I remember that when, at this workshop, I came up with some questions about some of my collegues efforts, people merely reacted emotionally and hostile, as if new music by young people were surrounded by grave taboos. It all felt like a sect rather than a new music workshop, where unspoken orthodoxy glued the members together as a priesthood of the initiated. However insignificant this experience was, it showed quite aptly the core problem of modernism, as half-baked understood by all these youngsters: the promise of utopia and the hostility to people who do not share the vision of liberation. With musical questions such atmosphere is, of course, incompatible.

The première of a piece, in the nineties, by the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra was received particularly well by players and audiences alike, in four performances in the big cities, but the devastating reviews I found utterly demoralizing. Not only was the music condemned for not being 'modern', and for that reason 'exposed' as 'entirely irrelevant' and 'superfluous', but also the scoring was considered 'bad', which obviously was not the case. During the rehearsels, excellently and intensily led by Hartmut Haenchen, the orchestra's sound immediately 'came alive' and the voices mixed quite well, so much so that Haenchen repeatedly asked me whether this was indeed the very first time that the piece was performed, because it sounded as if based upon experience. (In fact, it was the very first time that an orchestral piece of mine was properly rehearsed at all; whatever experience had gone into it was based upon thorough study of the existing repertoire.) The negative reviews condemned something with categories entirely inappropriate for the music, and the result of the media reception was that the orchestra never wanted to have to do with my work ever since. But there was one positive review, praising the piece as having great commercial value, offending both composer and orchestra who had not the slightest intention to present a new piece for commercial reasons. (Its critic soon after drowned in a french marsh when on a holiday hike.) After some thorough reconsidering the score, I concluded that the critics were all wrong, but also found that polishing the scoring here and there may clarify the musical argument. So I made some revisions - and had to think quite hard whether this was the result of the bad reviews or resulting from purely musical considerations. Would entirely positive reviews have prevented me from reconsideration?

The difficult thing about negative reviews, for a composer, is that - rightly or wrongly - you are exposed publicly as a failure, as if all your efforts and utterly personal utterance is ridiculed as pointless. When you know that the piece in question is actually a good one, you feel as if accused of a crime that you have not committed. And there is no possibility of just rehabilitation: you cannot criticize the critic. Your innermost, personal expression, meant as a contribution to culture, is entering public space and slandered - you have to be very secure about what you are doing to be able to survive such experiences as an artist. Helpful is the study of history, which shows that public space, also and particularly in the territory of culture, is riddled with fashionable consensusses which change continuously. Writing in harmony with the actual cultural consensus will be, if done well, successful; having your own opinion means that you have to pay for it with struggle on all levels. But this also exposes the nonsense which feeds the negative reception by established music journalism, thus offering insights which support one's own developmental trajectory. A well-known music critic, belonging to the rare species of being well-informed about music, old and new, and having a real talent for writing (he later became a writer of fiction), once discussed my music with a collegue of mine, a composer who was all too eager to let me know the critic's negative assessment of my music in general: 'John's music isn't any good - because everything is in the right place, everything hangs together logically as in Beethoven'. In relation to the central performance culture, this would be the highest possible compliment given to a contemporary composer; but in this case the critique was meant as in relation to the contemporary music scene, where any resemblance with the achievements of tradition is seen as a betrayal of modern reality, which is supposed to show the evil and flaws at the heart of European civilization. After all, postwar culture, being it in the visual arts, music or literature, has developed into a convention of celebrating the negative, the dark, the hopeless, the emptiness, the brokenness, the absence of any spiritual consolation or meaning, and the failure of people to lead meaningful lives. In postwar music, this position was first formulated by Adorno, calling any new music which did not acknowledge the tragedy of WW II and the holocaust with screaming, desperate dissonance, as a result from 'false consciousness', one of those quasi-philosophical terms invented to defend the ugly, the negative, the nihilistic, because that was 'the truth' of the present - all else was merely a lie, and could not possibly be authentic creation. (With the same logic, we would have to reject all works by J.S. Bach written in the major key, because the thirty years war had just finished, devastating the entire north of the German lands.) This critic got successful with his fiction which depicts the derelict lives of people, lost in the labyrinth of the modern world, stumbling into destructive relationships and social disaster, and ending into the grave of nihilism. There are many people getting very happy by reading such books. So, a contemporary composer impertinent enough to reject all that negativity and reclaiming something from an 'unthinking' past, cannot be otherwise than on the 'wrong' track and suffering from a 'false consciousness'. However good the result might be, 'like Beethoven', that is not the point: if such music does not reflect the present consensus of suicidal selfdestruction, it is irrelevant and can only be a lie, a parody without any relation to contemporary reality. So, what an instructive revelation! This man never knew what a service he did to me, by giving me the greatest compliment possible and in the same time, for free, his exposure of the modern luxury of nihilist masochism. We should cultivate that kind of critic. - By the way, the music this man wanted to devaluate, does not eschew negative emotional experience, as anybody with a couple of musical ears can establish. But the context is never exclusively negative or incoherent or innerly divided, and that is on purpose, not the result of not understanding modernity. In contrary, I claim that it is exactly the understanding of modernity which has led my development into a traditionalist direction. Or at least: a personal understanding of modernity, in which criticism has played an unintentionally supportive role.

I should mention here the immense support given by some people whose capacities of judgement I respect and believe, people who operate on the highest level of intellectual and musical professionalism. One of them, an English composer of brilliant music bordering on atonal fragmented sonic art, so someone doing something utterly different from what I am doing, and also lecturing at one of the British university music faculties, once demonstrated a clear understanding of the processes in my work: ‘I really admire the musical fluency of expression and the way he revisits the familiar but constantly turns it in new directions. The technical resources necessary for this to happen in a convincing musical way are quite formidable.’ These are the type of people who, independently from each other, form a comparable opinion, which in due course may form the basis of a concensus. Convincing the lowest denominator may bring-in a short-term success, but results will evaporate in the long term.

Publication of some short articles in the Dutch newspapers in which I criticized the lamentable Dutch subsidy systems for new art and new music, and with arguments and facts, provoked an avelanche of comments the level of which was astonishingly primitive: ad hominum attacks full of hatred, burning with envy and whipped-up contempt, which read like comparable utterances in nazi Germany against 'Jewry'. No wonder that the Dutch subsidy system is so fraudulous and flawed, if defended by a consensus in which populism is the basis of the distribution of tax money to nonsense. Any explanation of the obvious is powerless in the face of the mob that wants to have the guillotine restored, to get rid of what it sees as the arrogant aristocracy of art. When I won my court case against the Dutch music fund (and lost it in the same time), and wrote something about it in the newspapers, this also provoked many attacks and expressions of hate. The mere exposition of facts, which indeed were in themselves ridiculous, was immediately interpreted as bitter personal resentment. But I was not bitter or resentful, but angry, and with a very good reason, and demonstrated what had happened with verifiable facts. Now, imagine someone registering a pickpocket theft at the police station, and the officers say to each other, contemptiously: 'Oh, that man is merely angry that he lost his money', and direct the man out of the building without any further ado... that would be a scene in a world as described by Kafka, a world without sense, without justice, with people wandering in mental darkness. Is this an exaggeration? Let's compare..... Some years ago, Germany was shaken-up by a most unlikely act by a court in Nurmberg: in a serious divorce case, a judge had knowingly, and in violation of basic legal rules, ignored an important document which had been sent-in, a letter which contained irrefutable proof of some fact that would have greatly affected the outcome of the case. When this was discovered after a couple of years thanks to a persistent journalist, the case had to be processed all over again, and general indignation went so far that the Bavarian minister of justice came under pressure to abdicate. For a long time the media were full of what went down in history as 'the Mollath case', because if such things can happen, the constitutional state is undermined and thereby, general confidence in authorities. In my court case, the supreme court in The Hague had changed the deadline for sending-in documents retroactively, so that some crucial documents from experts could be ignored and the music fund be confirmed in their decision to refuse payment in spite of their loosing the case. This was a violation of the regulations of the Supreme Court as stipulated clearly in its constitution. I tried to alarm the media about this entirely unlawful action, comparable with the German case, but in vain: no interest whatsoever. In fact, protests from my side as expressed in these articles in the newspapers, against the crazy subsidy system for the arts, and against the courts treating a clear case of mishandling in such a careless way, with a Supreme Court demonstrating contempt and hostility towards the obvious victim of mishandling, merely sparked-off a new wave of critique of my person and my work, leading to something like an excommunication from music life. How to deal with such craziness? It led to what in the thirties was called the 'innere Emigration', inner emigration, and full concentration upon contacts in the music world abroad. Is Holland more vulnerable to such absurdities than other European countries? Everywhere one can find mental confusion and authorities going off the rails.... but mostly, there are ways accessible to put things right. In Holland that is not the case, and this seems to be a strongly ingrained character trait of the nation, fruit of populism and mistrust of anything that might refer to the notion of authority or individual achievement. Rather frightening is a general consensus, in the Netherlands, that every dispute is something personal, in which facts and proofs have no meaning. A friend of mine got into trouble with a builder who had repaired the roof of his house but had deviated from the contract. This was irrefutably proven at the ensuing court case with reports from the city's supervising authorities, but the judge decided that where two quarrel, two were guilty, and he ordered a compromise that involved my friend paying again for the job for the same builder to correct his own mistakes. We can assume that these absurd things happen on a regular basis.

In 2013, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, one of the important musical magazines of Germany, launched a very strong attack upon my book 'The Classical Revolution' by a modernist composer, who described the book as the insane product of a deranged sect leader. (On my website, more can be read about this attack under 'older posts': Modernist indignation.) If a discussion of the book were based upon arguments and clear reading, I would not have had any problems with negative critique, because one way or another, readers will be stimulated to make-up their minds for themselves, and valuable arguments only help to sharpen one's own opinions, including mine. But this 'critique' was a character murder, a completely false representation of the book, as if this composer had read something altogether different, and rounding-off with contemptuous comments upon my music. He had ignored the bulk of the book's contents, and what was left he put through a marxist/modernist mincing machine in an attempt to warn the readers of the magazine to not read this book, to not take it seriously, because of being very, very bad and the devil's work of a right-wing extremist, out there to bomb the musical world. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity of a repartee by the magazine who also invited me to write about my classical symphony - both of which were duly published in the next issues. And I got some positive reactions from readers who saw in this attack an interesting recommendation.... because coming from such thorough modernist composer. In my repartee, I could benignly explain this man's postwar trauma's and his sympathy for North Korea which he had visited a couple of times, no doubt with sincere left-wing sympathy, exposing the modernist psychic problem to the core. So, in fact I was quite grateful to the man, and felt sorry for his state of mind. I did not particularly like it to be publicly defiled as an idiot in a professional magazine, but at least I could react, and the reactions were treated respectfully. That is what I call the difference between a normal society and an immature one.

Critique is valuable if presented with well-thought arguments, thus it can be an instrument of development, both for the person being criticized and for the critic. Clothing a critique, in the cultural field, in sensible arguments is not an easy thing to do, and regrettably the difference between such argued critique - which can be meaningful - and mere mud slinging is, for many people, impossible to notice. The capacities to be able to present a work of art in public space are rare, and thus invoke lots of comments. The relationship between art and the world is expressed therein, and cannot be ignored by the artist and the public.

If the path of an artist's development is strewn with such sharp negative responses, much more numerous than the positive acknowledgements, does that mean that his art must be bad? It fully depends upon whom is uttering these things.... One positive response from a respected expert or a very capable performer is more worth than a thousand primitive attacks, however unpleasant they may be. And the loud protests from a modernist composer, however unpleasant like being attacked by a filth-spitting reptile, is a compliment in disguise. The only way of dealing with such critique is to develop as much as possible an independent mind, and analyzing the expressions to understand where they come from. In politics, critique is mostly expressed in terms tempered by the awareness of power constellations, but in the cultural field many people do not feel such constraints, especially when helped by the modern, egalitarian media opportunities unfiltered by professionalism. Debussy, who was on the receiving end of much slander and was attacked during his entire career, once said: 'For some people, the attempt to create beauty is taken as a personal insult.' Nothing has changed very much since, as far as critique is concerned.

When the question is about art, everybody feels free to ventilate his or her personal frustrations, hatred and bitterness, oblivious of the gift that real art is, a gift to the world, in an attempt to make it a better and more meaningful place. It is very encouraging that still lots of artists, creative or recreative, take all the risks involved and stick-out their neck for something that goes beyond the pressures of the physical world.


* OOMP: Obligatory Opening Modern Piece

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