(Note: This post has been updated (2) as of 3:38 AM Eastern on 6 Dec. See below.)
Regular readers of this weblog know that the classical music writings of Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker, are a special favorite of mine. Part of the reason why can be gleaned from this sampling of his remarks made at a recent conference of classical music critics held at Columbia University titled, "Shifting Ears: A Symposium on the Present State and Future of Classical Music Criticism" (an article on the conference may be read here):
We're all fighters in a strange guerrilla war in which the object is not to defeat an enemy but to win a place at the table. This doesn't mean you give up objectivity and become a PR agent for the business. It means, instead, that you write with more urgency, more immediacy. The writing itself becomes crucial. Language is our secret weapon.
Classical music has an actual audience and a potential audience. I try to write with both fanatical and unconverted readers in mind. The trick is in finding a language that intrigues both.
If the big orchestra is playing the same repertory ad nauseam, I don't have to complain ad nauseam. Instead, I can seek out youth orchestras, new-music ensembles, chamber groups playing in inner-city schools. Critics can take the lead in showing where music should go.
There is nothing shameful in unchecked enthusiasm. If I walk out dancing on air, I say it in the review, even if my colleagues smirk.
Altogether the way the thing ought to be done (and to which list of do's I might myself add, the deft wielding of the stiletto when called for); all of it, it should go without saying but unhappily can't, in the hands of one who, like Mr. Ross, really knows his classical music in depth, and who can expound on the music's historical aspects and technical peculiarities when necessary or clarifying with civilian-comprehensible lucidity.
But then there's this reported by the author of the above linked article:
The symposium wound up with a dialogue between Ross and Justin Davidson of Newsday that attempted to define the classical music critic of the future. They agreed on one thing: the critic of the future will be eclectic, as demonstrated, perhaps, in their own work. Along with his classical music columns, Ross has written about Bob Dylan, Radiohead and Björk for The New Yorker. At Newsday, Davidson reviews not only classical music but also architecture; he has written on such disparate topics as guns in America and changing definitions of masculinity.
I cannot but see this as a damagingly and colossally wrongheaded way of thinking. Few things could be more calculatedly devised to diffuse rather than underline the importance both of classical music and classical music criticism than that classical music critics should be "eclectic" (in the above sense of the term) in what they regularly write about (as opposed to their personal, private-time interests, or to their writings in occasional, non-classical-music, non-column specialty pieces).
I don't dispute that the case may be that if the classical music critic of the future wants to stay in business he'll of necessity have to be eclectic (again, in the above sense of the term) in his writings. The temper of the times and our present culture unhappily would seem to demand it of him if he wants to be read by a large enough segment of the population to justify his being paid an at least living wage by his employers. But let's not confuse the two matters, please. What's good for the working classical music critic is not necessarily good for classical music generally, and a classical music critic being eclectic in his regular column writings on music most certainly is not.
For overriding example, such an eclectic approach tends, by inescapable implication, to place classical music in the position of being just one of many musics, which postmodern notion is, of course, patently absurd. As I've elsewhere on this weblog noted, classical music is not "merely 'one of [music's many] streams' [as another, ostensibly classical music critic put it], but music's very apotheosis; the one instantiation of music that alone is capable of subsuming and transfiguring all of music's other instantiations."
That's not a classical music fanatic's wild-eyed rant, nor is it the rant of a cultural snob. It's a demonstrable, objective fact. There was a time not long past when acknowledgement of that fact was implicit in the music section of the arts pages of almost all mainstream publications. When the term music was used alone it meant always classical music, all other musics requiring an identifying qualification (e.g., rock music, folk music, pop music, etc.). Today, the opposite is the normative case. It's classical music that always requires the identifying qualification.
For a classical music critic to even by implication suggest, in an attempt to make it appear more accessible, that classical music is other than what I've above described it to be is to do classical music further, even irreparable, harm in the present cultural marketplace; a marketplace already resolutely hostile to such fundamentally and, more to the point, unchangeably elite enterprises. I put it to you that's not something the dedicated and conscientious classical music critic of the future ought to be contributing to, or play any part in.
Declaring unequivocally what the classical music critic of the future should not be or do is, of course, the easy part. Declaring what he ought to be and do and still be able to remain in business is the hard part, and something about which I've no practical suggestions to make because not professionally involved in the field, and therefore unable to assess the viability of, or even identify, any existing alternatives. But alternatives to being eclectic (once again, in the above sense of the term) there must be, for if there are not, classical music and classical music criticism as vital, thriving parts of our cultural life are doomed to go the way of the dodo.
Update (4:24 AM Eastern on 3 Dec): Alex Ross responds. I would only point out to Mr. Ross that nothing I wrote suggested engaging in a "horse race with Beethoven or Charlie Parker out in front." What I suggested was that in order to be effective, and do classical music the justice it deserves, a classical music critic ought to be just that in his regular column writing, and leave regular critical writing on other music genres and sundry other fields to other specialist critics in their own regular columns.
As to G. B. Shaw, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Wagner as examples of those who wrote classical music criticism but who were "writer[s] who...encompass[ed] more than one realm," and therefore are examples of those "whose words will resonate longest" by virtue of that fact, I can only respond: red herring and non sequitur, and for obvious reasons. Nothing I suggested finds objectionable or would bar such first-rate artists in other high culture fields writing classical music criticism on the side as did those men, today or in future. But, then, that speaks not at all to the problem at hand, does it.
As to the case generally, first, it's problematic, to say the least, that "[t]he writer who can encompass more than one realm is the one whose words will resonate longest," although it's more likely to be true than not that the words of such a one will be read by more people, albeit of diffuse makeup. What's also more likely to be true than not, however, and for good reason, is that the words of such a one will never carry as great a weight or as great an authority in each realm as they would were they written by one devoted to that realm alone. I suggest that's a lousy tradeoff when the stakes are as high as they are in the matter at issue.