Criticism Criticism

What are the purposes of criticism?

I wrestle with this question quite a bit in my roles as a critic, a composer, and as a consumer of criticism. When I read criticism, especially of the daily newspaper or weekly magazine sort, I want to know what the event (or movie or book, etc.) was like—how the art in question came off, what the artists may have been trying to do, and the like.

I return to certain critics again and again more because they are fine writers whose prose is a joy to read. Alex Ross is a current example; he is a fine stylist, despite his excessive love for the music of John Adams. Jack Kroll (of Newsweek) was a delightful film critic, whether I agreed with him or not. His opinions were often thought-provoking and always well put.

I bring all of this up as prelude to a couple of reviews of the same event: the world premiere of Kaija Saariaho’s Terra Memoria by the Emerson String Quartet this past Sunday at Carnegie Hall. I’ve indicated before that I’m a big fan of Ms. Saariaho’s music, and that undoubtedly colors my reading of these excerpts.

Let’s go to the tape. Bernard Holland of the New York Times (18 June 2007):

No rough sounds for Ms. Saariaho’s “Terra Memoria,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall and having its first performance here. Ms. Saariaho’s elegant music begins and ends in whispery near-silence. Her care for the sound properties of instruments is a double gift to listeners. The overlapping conversations between voices are received as counterpoint, and yet the assembled sounds create a single cloudlike sonority. Most of the piece sings in a pervasive tenor-to-treble range reminiscent of Ravel or Fauré. The more Ms. Saariaho engages the past, the more original her music becomes.
And Ben Finane of the Newark Star-Ledger (19 June 2007):

The Emerson's final concert of the series, delivered to a packed hall, featured a world premiere by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, bookended by two late Beethoven quartets. This work, "Terra Memoria," is only the second string quartet by the 54-year-old Saariaho.

The premiere of "Terra Memoria" began softly, with low and high strings establishing the peaks and pits of the landscape that was to unfold. Languid motives gradually developed and expanded, sliding up and down the register, advancing and receding within the aural spectrum. The schema of the piece, which was simply to explore a sliding wash of color, made for music that was vociferous and angst-ridden, but also cold, clinical and removed.

Dedicated by the composer "for those departed," the work clearly has an element of lament and nostalgia, but there is no catharsis here. The only brightness in the premiere arrived in the form of Saariaho's vivid pink scarf, which came into view when the composer emerged from the audience and made her way to the stage to exchange bisou bisou (kisses in French, Saariaho lives in Paris now) with the members of the Emerson -- 12 in all for four bewildered players.
Mr. Holland is not what I would call a friend of Modernism, but that does not prevent him from writing a very clear and perceptive description of the piece and of Ms. Saariaho’s compositional evolution. In a few short sentences and telling phrases (“whispery near-silence”), he gives us an impression of the experience and is able to place the piece, (sonically and historically) for the reader. I don’t know for certain whether he liked it or not (that’s not the point), but there is no doubt that Mr. Holland listened, heard, and articulated a musical experience.

Mr. Finane, on the other hand, is all over the place. I’m pretty sure he didn’t like the piece, but I can’t be certain he engaged with it. Some of the adjectives he threw out (“angst-ridden”, “calculated”) seem contradictory, which can be an effective means of communicating an impression, but it doesn’t work that way here, for me.

Mr. Finane falls into the trap of claiming to know the composer’s intentions (“[t]he schema of the piece, which was simply to explore a sliding wash of color . . .”) while criticizing the piece for not having different aims (“but there is no catharsis here”). When a critic does this he is substituting a sort of Platonic ideal of the piece (based on his own private standards) for the piece itself, which is found to be lacking.

I’ll admit to piling on Bernard Holland when I think he is wrong or, more importantly, wrong-headed. But in this case, his piece is a very good example of how good criticism can be done. Especially in contrast.

My Desk, 20 June 2007