Mar 10, 2011
What do I do as a music critic? Why do I do it? Perhaps these are questions you have never posed yourself. The more selfless reader, however, might have wondered exactly how I occupy myself in order to come up with the musical selections I present each month. I have been doing this for 15 years. That's a lot of months. You would think that I had nothing more to say; if I were talking about myself, I wouldn't. What I write is only indirectly about me, in that it records my reactions to what I listen to, but it is what I hear that I am trying to describe, not myself. I am just the medium; the message comes from the music and its composer.
Why do I do this? Well, when I first fully experienced great music at about 19 years old -- it was Sibelius's Fifth Symphony -- I was taken so far outside myself that I have never been the same. I liked it out there. I wanted to stay, and I immediately wanted to take others with me. I am not sure that this was an eleemosynary impulse; it was too instinctive. I was more or less driven to it. I started grabbing whomever I could to sit down with me to listen to the Sibelius Fifth: "Let's go to this place far outside ourselves." I sensed it was a better place.
But what exactly happens there? And how does one persuade others to take the trip? This required words. I became a musical travel agent and began writing brochures for my favorite composers. I also began exploring that great beyond -- and, to my delight, there seemed to be no end of it. Music of our own time, which for most of my life meant the 20th century, particularly fascinated me, because I couldn't figure out the prevalence of noise in the avant-garde, as against the beautiful contemporary music that retained its connection with the past and about which no one seemed to know anything. The latter was being ignored. Something had obviously gone very wrong -- and why was almost everyone in the press and in academe calling it right? This led me to acquaint myself with composers personally and to ask them what they thought they were doing. Some of them subsequently became friends. This was a thrill and a privilege, to say the least.
Despite what one might suppose, composers do not usually speak in technical terms of their craft; they speak in terms of ideas and of the spirit. They often sound like philosophers. Some told me that our civilization was going through a spiritual crisis that was manifested in the elevation of ugliness as a norm. The return of beauty, in turn, manifested a spiritual recovery. I was fascinated by the number of contemporary composers who spoke explicitly in terms of spiritual sickness and health. This led to a number of interviews that were later gathered into that last part of my book, "Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music," published by Morley Books.