Critic’s History Lesson Precedes His Venom

Stephen Hartke is a composer and professor at the USC Thornton School of Music. He lives in Glendale

Musicians and critics view each other with morbid fascination. One group works with the incorporeal reality of sound and the other with the translation of that experience into personal opinion. The art of music is ultimately timeless while the craft of criticism is at best transitory. That musicians and their critics mostly cannot get along arises from the dissonance engendered from the fact that music is a sublimely nonverbal form of communication while music criticism is forever earthbound, mired in the banal necessity of making the nonverbal verbal.

In the end, the relationship between musicians and their critics is fraught and further complicated by the need of critics to have something to write about, thus securing their livelihood, and the need of musicians to have chroniclers to maintain a public record of their own activities and of the constantly evolving state of the art itself.

For the music critic, the challenge is to come to any given concert with a fresh pair of ears, an unprejudiced outlook and a willingness to come to terms with the artistic plan of the program presented and its performance. That was presumably the idea behind Mark Swed’s undertaking to review the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance on March 26 on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella Series.


The review itself (“Painting Musical Pictures, Both Manic and Meditative,” March 28) began with 10 well-crafted paragraphs such as readers have come to expect from a prose stylist as accomplished as Swed. These paragraphs offered a quite detailed music history lecture on the two works performed: Louis Andriessen’s “De Stijl” and Morton Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel.” Both pieces were acknowledged as major statements by their respective composers and as works that manage to transcend their initial inspiration in works by visual artists.

In the hands of another music critic, this lengthy, didactic digression might have seemed a way of evading the real issue at hand--how was the concert?--but the seductive grace with which Swed wheeled us about in the tight embrace of his erudition swept us from irrelevancy to irrelevancy, unheeding of the impending catastrophe.

This is what is most striking about Swed’s style (though, to be honest, in this one must acknowledge the influence of the deadly, hatchet-wielding technique of his predecessor, Martin Bernheimer): his penchant for delaying the thrusting of the blade, the exquisite prolongation of the arrival of the moment of truth, the epee quivering hesitantly at his opponent’s sternum.

Only in the last paragraph did Swed permit the venom to flow--and copiously, at that. With sneering condescension, he dismissed a rare and stunning performance that a large and diverse audience had responded to with prolonged enthusiasm.


And why? Apparently because the ensemble was composed of USC students, and Swed’s antipathy to music in a university setting has been an evident prejudice of long standing. Never mind that this tremendously significant and powerful music would hardly ever get a hearing in this country were it not for a handful of superlative university-based new music groups such as Donald Crockett’s, especially given that most major professional organizations such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic have neither the time nor the resources to mount such oddly scored works.

Any critic who was honest with himself and his readers would acknowledge, for example, that Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel,” one of the greatest pieces of the 20th century, is not exactly a staple of the repertoire of professional choral ensembles.

Such a hypothetical, honest critic would be at pains to laud a hard-working, dedicated and first-rate ensemble such as the USC Contemporary Music Ensemble for bringing vitally important music to our community. And even if he had quibbles about aspects of the performance, as anyone might, surely there were more insightful ways of expressing them than Swed’s petulant assertion that “turning over modern classics to the schools is one step too far.”

This refusal to come to grips with the actual concert is troubling, as if Swed couldn’t be bothered to appraise in appropriate detail the musical experience on offer, preferring instead to dismiss all with a few sweeping generalizations. That he chose this course, as has become increasingly the case with many of his recent reviews, suggests that he is growing weary of us all.

It’s time for a sabbatical, Mr. Swed. Do it for yourself and for us. Then perhaps you can return to chronicling our musical life with the proper sort of empathy and respect that one creative artist ought to afford to others.


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