Alan Rich, music critic

April 29, 2007

alan-rich.jpgI read an entertaining and insightful interview (“Critical Condition” 1 Apr.2007) with LA Weekly critic Alan Rich in the local Arts blog FineArtsLA.com. Alan is a brilliant and witty writer and has covered and listened to more music than probably anyone else on the planet. He has faithfully reported musical life in New York and Los Angeles as he has seen it. When he like something we cheer, and when he doesn’t we are entertained by his lashings. For those of us who have been whipped by him, we still smart.

Holding on to old pain causes cancer as far as I’m concerned. I, and many others, blow up his scathing reviews way beyond their importance, and I/we need to get over it.

Bourland, get over it.

I write this, not because anyone complained, or asked me to, but in updating an old opinion, I have to keep reminding myself that there is no reason to hold on to ancient pain, especially when the pain derives only for someone else’s opinion.

Many blogs and their readers thrive on invective. I have never imagined this blog being one. I am not negative as a person, so to be so here is not being honest to myself, my friends, or my readers. I apologize to Alan and my readers for any biochemical hot-flashes of invective. Public exorcisms can be cathartic for a while for a young blogger, but they begin to smell bad after a while. Wise critics and young bloggers all must learn this lesson.

Alan Rich has been a vital part of Los Angeles culture and deserves some kind of Living Legend (or Living Curmudgeon) for his service. He has hauled his butt out of his house to attend thousands of concerts he likely may have not really wanted to attend, but he did. And reported on it to his thousands of readers. Alan deserves a great deal of credit as a faithful chronicler of music and I blush at my blindness.

And after all is said and done,

I read Alan Rich.

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Here is the first part of the interview:

FALA: What are your strengths as a critic?

AR: I know how to evaluate performance values. I’ve always been able to. The most important influence on my own musical education was Joseph Kerman at UC Berkeley. In addition to being one of the most respected musicologists in the world, he was a performer. He created awareness of performance values at Berkeley by performing — putting on operas and concerts of music all the way from Monteverdi operas to lieder recitals and contemporary music — and he made people aware of the fact that they had not only minds to memorize the dates of composers, but they also had ears to listen.

FALA: What are you listening for when you go to a concert?

AR: When I go to a concert I have a pretty good idea of the music I’m about to hear.

FALA: From recordings?

AR: I listen to recordings, I read scores, I think about what I know of the composer from a long lifetime of hearing his music, and I measure what I hear against what I think I should hear, or what I’d like to hear.

FALA: And the actual qualities of the music you’re listening for? The dynamics of fortissimo and piano? How well the musicians are working together?

AR: Yes, how well they’re working together. I listen for musical shape, both in a piece I know and in one I don’t know. After 82 years I know where a piece of 18th-century or 21st-century music should go based on what it tells me at the beginning. And I watch for how smoothly, successfully and cleverly it goes there. I think I know when a piece of music has reached a satisfactory time of ending. I’m really good at that.

A couple of nights ago I was hearing a whole program of piano music that I didn’t know, and every good piece of music on that program followed a curve and came to an end where it was supposed to. That was good; it kept me awake.

FALA: What is the current state of music criticism in Los Angeles?

AR: Well there are just two of us, really, and there are just two outlets: The LA Times and LA Weekly. There’s also Timothy Mangan at the Orange County Register. But the Times‘ Mark Swed and I both have a passion for new music, and realize that the future of music in Los Angeles depends to a large extent on our support of forward motion. Together we can take a lot of credit for the fact that this is the liveliest music center in the country, both in terms of a very progressive attitude toward performances and toward new music. In terms of quantity we can’t match New York or even Boston, but in terms of quality and state of mind I think we’re right up there, and this is becoming more and more recognized by our colleagues on the East Coast.

There was a story in the New York Times not too long ago called “Continental Shift.” It has to do with Esa-Pekka and concerts of new music, the management of the Philharmonic and at CalArts and other schools, and it has a little bit to do with Mark and me.

[…]

Read the entire article.

For my readers who do not know Alan’s work, start by reading his columns “A Little Night Music” for the LA Weekly. His latest book is “So I’ve Heard: Notes of a Migratory Music Critic.”

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert April 29, 2007 at 9:05 pm

I knew Alan when I was a student at CalArts and even got to tag along now and then if he had an extra comp. I get his LA Weekly column by email every week. I’m regularly amazed at the clear and vivid impressions he can wring out of a few sentences, and if it’s something he really liked, my reaction is usually “I’ll have what he’s having” (and to wish I was back in LA). Alan has his faults, but he always impressed me as someone who went about his business with commitment and integrity.

And yet… I also find myself wondering why someone with a visceral dislike for Brahms should get to publish his opinion on any and every musician he runs across. Not that Brahms is sacred (though I just put on the Op. 99 cello sonata and I have to say he’s pretty damned good), it’s just the arbitrariness of it. With another critic it won’t be Brahms but there’s inevitably something, so it’s not really what’s wrong with the critics but what’s wrong with the system. And it ain’t no fun to end up on the wrong side of it.

Anyways, I agree that it’s in your own best interest, but I still admire your turnaround.

Brad Wood April 30, 2007 at 3:38 pm

I don’t mind the expressions of opinion, however they might be at variance with my own, but when he descends to personal attacks lacking any factual basis, I part company.

Mark Carlson April 30, 2007 at 10:43 pm

Say what you will, but I just don’t get how being a good writer and being intelligent and perhaps even a decent musician justifies the damage Alan Rich has inflicted on others, all in the name of “opinion.” Frankly, I don’t care what he thinks of my music, and if readers didn’t take seriously what he writes, I wouldn’t care about him at all.

Why is credence given to a critic’s opinion on a piece/performance heard just one time—with never a peek at the score—and especially when said critic comes to it with insurmountable prejudices against the composer, the work, the style, the performers—the human beings involved? Why is invective from him any more acceptable than from any one of us?

If I had a sense that Alan Rich wrote with even a modicum of wisdom, I’d say OK. But where is the wisdom in bashing musicians because they don’t fit with his myopic view of the musical world? What is the excuse for that kind of behavior? I find no excuse for it, frankly.

As I wrote before: not one single person alive now—not Alan Rich, not Mark Carlson, not Mark Swed, not Roger Bourland, not any critic or composer—can know what music will last; it’s not for us to decide or to know. It is certainly not Alan Rich’s decision, just because he happens to have a forum in print.

And who cares, anyway? If our music outlives us, we won’t be here to appreciate that fact, so all we can do is to try our hardest to make music that is as beautiful, as well-written, as valuable to our own world now as we are able.

In any case, I’ll happily take creativity over destructiveness, any day.

Roger Bourland May 1, 2007 at 6:50 am

Definition of curmudgeon:

What is a Curmudgeon anyway?

“A curmudgeon’s reputation for malevolence is undeserved. They’re neither warped nor evil at heart. They don’t hate mankind, just mankind’s absurdities. They’re just as sensitive and soft-hearted as the next guy, but they hide their vulnerability beneath a crust of misanthropy. They ease the pain by turning hurt into humor. . . . . . They attack maudlinism because it devalues genuine sentiment. . . . . . Nature, having failed to equip them with a servicable denial mechanism, has endowed them with astute perception and sly wit.
Curmudgeons are mockers and debunkers whose bitterness is a symptom rather than a disease. They can’t compromise their standards and can’t manage the suspension of disbelief necessary for feigned cheerfulness. Their awareness is a curse.
Perhaps curmudgeons have gotten a bad rap in the same way that the messenger is blamed for the message: They have the temerity to comment on the human condition without apology. They not only refuse to applaud mediocrity, they howl it down with morose glee. Their versions of the truth unsettle us, and we hold it against them, even though they soften it with humor.”

– JON WINOKUR

Doesn’t this sum up Alan? As I’m working on a film that deals with autism and Aspberger’s syndrome, I’m wondering whether being a curmudgeon is on that same spectrum. Oblivious to how comments make others feel, socially awkward, and so on… And so, like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” he looks and sees that the emperor has no clothes and says so. Even though the king’s court tries to shush him, he calls it as he sees it, and can’t help it.

Brad Wood May 1, 2007 at 11:33 am

Rand has a character in The Fountainhead who is an architectural critic, Ellsworth Toohey. He is not a nice man, as one would expect for a Randian villain. He builds up mediocrities and tears down creative people.

I’m not sure of the text in the novel, but in my recollection of the movie with Gary Cooper, Toohey is conversing with a presumed businessman at a cocktail party, something like “I don’t suppose you play the stock market, Mr. Toohey?” ET: “On the contrary. I play the stock market of the soul. And I sell short.”

As depicted, Toohey would not be a good exemplar of the Winokur curmudgeon: his intent is consciously manipulative and destructive. The people he champions he has in his control—he knows and so do they, and it isn’t pretty.

Perhaps the world needs a critic of critics. It would be more telling if that person could “kill” with kindness rather than just more invective.

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