Mystery score

Mystery score

Monday, March 19, 2007

Fish, Barrel

Bernard Holland on Nico Muhly's concert:
Explaining why Elizabethan church music and pieces by the young American Nico Muhly were found together onstage at Zankel Hall on Friday requires intellectual gymnastics beyond my competence.
Read the whole stupid thing here. I'm betting that Alex or Steve will have something a little more cogent to say.

38 comments:

A.C. Douglas said...

OK. I'll take the bait. What about that review is "stupid"?

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm planning on dissecting the review in some detail later (which may mean later today or later this week). "Stupid" may not be the best word for the sneering, dismissive tone of nearly the whole review. Perhaps I should have written "damned" instead.

Jenny Davidson said...

A lot of NYTBR pieces also seem to be opening recently with an aggressive avowal of ignorance on the part of the reviewer. I find this a fairly extraordinary review partly because one striking feature of the concert (and of Nico's music more generally) seems to me to be its accessibility! And is it not fairly clear that, say, Benjamin Britten would provide a more useful middle term to connect "The Only Music" to the early English choral stuff than the vague remark about "homage to country balladeering," which seems to me virtually irrelevant? I thought the sequence of the last three pieces was quite extraordinary and really pretty transparent in its logic.

Of course this guy's entitled to his own opinion, and Nico's a good friend of mine so I'm not equipped to give an objective judgment, but still... (And yes, I don't like the tone either.)

Steve Hicken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Hicken said...

"Stupid" may be too strong a word for Mr. Holland's review, but it certainly wasn't written in good faith. Its sneering, condescending tone and adolescent attempts at "humor" reveal a deep-seated insecurity and tell us nothing about the music.

The only trustworthy statement in the piece (i.e., the only statement I feel constrained to take at face value) is Mr. Holland's admission that he felt the juxtaposition of styles required "intellectual gymnastics beyond [his] competence".

You'd think that wouldn't be so tough for somebody who went to a concert and wrote about it, all the time with his head up his ass.

Anonymous said...

The review doesn't seem all that sneering or dismissive. If the tone makes it seem like he didn't like it, well, that's quite possible, but he didn't go for the jugular, either. The puzzlement over the placement of the Tudor choral music with the chamber works is understandable since one does not easily hear any resemblance to the choral works. As to Muhly's own work, Holland describes it rather plainly. He could have ripped Muhly but he didn't. If there's anything he's dismissing it may be the elephant in the living room, which in this case is the hype surrounding the young composer.
A lot of musicians I know have commented on the barrage of press surrounding Muhly the last few weeks with some bemusement. The publicity has told us that this is new, fresh, a whole new take, refreshingly non-ideological, someone we're going to be hearing a lot from...the "new pragmatism." Such pronouncements make you sit up and listen, but not without certain expectations. When I listened to these chamber pieces my reaction was: OK, nice, not bad, a little out there but, in the context of new music, not particularly new either. In the personal frame of my own listening it simply did not enchant. There have been quite a few composers writing accessible music that defies category or ideology in recent years, and some of them I would greatly prefer. I'd say let him write a little more and see what develops and I have a feeling that's what Holland thinks, too.

Steve Hicken said...

Then why didn't he say it?

Anonymous said...

Most of what we're talking about here is what we read between the lines of the review. In my between the lines reading, he did. The comment about where Muhly may take music implies Holland thinks he'll write more and something will develop.

Steve Hicken said...

You may well be right, but you have be awfully generous to Mr. Holland to read it that way.

A.C. Douglas said...

Mr. Holland's review is brilliant and incisive on any ground one wishes to assess it: style, content, historical perspective, informational acuity, you-choose-the-ground. It's the kind of sharp, smart classical music review one rarely sees in the daily mainstream media today; a dying breed of review that's genuine criticism, and its writer, a genuine critic; a dying breed of review that's being (been) replaced today by reviews written by reviewers, none of whom is worthy of the name critic, of the Thumbs-Up-Thumbs-Down Joe Friday school of criticism.

Rack up yet another victory for our populist, pop-culture-besotted culture.

ACD

stevehicken said...

Another contentless defense of Mr Holland, ACD. But what in the hell does the last sentence have to do with anything?

A.C. Douglas said...

Another contentless defense of Mr Holland, ACD. But what in the hell does the last sentence have to do with anything?

No wonder you didn't get or appreciate Holland's review.

Work it out for yourself, son.

ACD

Steve Hicken said...

Say what?

What does populism or pop culture have to do with this?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but that's a rather "contentless" accusation. I gave you several detailed reasons why I felt the review was acceptable. Now you're just thrashing around. Enjoy dancing with Mr. D!

A.C. Douglas said...

What does populism or pop culture have to do with this?

"...a dying breed of review that's being (been) replaced today by reviews written by reviewers, none of whom is worthy of the name critic, of the Thumbs-Up-Thumbs-Down, Joe Friday school of criticism."

And if you still don't get it, I can't help you further.

ACD

Matthew said...

ACD, in his opening paragraph, Holland is claiming blitheful ignorance on a question that was answered in his own paper not a week before (in Steve Smith's interview). He doesn't have to like the music (or buy the connection between Muhly and the Elizabethans—hmmm, good band name, that), but I expect Times reviewers to at least do their homework.

Anonymous said...

Do his homework?
All Steve's piece said was that they were works that Muhly says influenced him, which, without further elucidation, isn't really saying much. Clearly, Holland is implying that he doesn't find that sufficient explanation and that whatever connections are supposed to be there are lost on him.

A.C. Douglas said...

Matthew wrote:

ACD, in his opening paragraph, Holland is claiming blitheful ignorance on a question that was answered in his own paper not a week before.... [...] I expect Times reviewers to at least do their homework.

"Claiming blitheful ignorance"? Bernard Holland? What an idea! Holland is claiming no such thing. Here's the pertinent graf:

Explaining why Elizabethan church music and pieces by the young American Nico Muhly were found together onstage at Zankel Hall on Friday requires intellectual gymnastics beyond my competence. Maybe there are deep, even sinister connections that bind Thomas Weelkes’s gentle counterpoint to Sam Amidon yelling hillbilly music at the top of his voice.

Holland is here making an ironical critical statement, not "claiming blitheful ignorance."

Pay closer attention, please. One cannot read Holland the same way one reads, say, Tommasini or his ilk.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

Pay closer attention, please, to what "in his opening paragraph" refers to:

"Explaining why Elizabethan church music and pieces by the young American Nico Muhly were found together onstage at Zankel Hall on Friday requires intellectual gymnastics beyond my competence."

Anonymous said...

Yikes. Talk about your intellectual gymnastics. We've got folks slipping off the balance beams all over the place here.

Rodney Lister said...

I was amused by the "he looks young, BUT WAIT...he's in his mid-20's. Unless your frame of reference is elementary or junior high school, mid-20's IS young.

I thought the review read as though he'd loved to find something wrong with it, but just couldn't.

And for whatever it's worth, it seemed to me to communicate very little sense of what the music or the concert was really like

Lisa Hirsch said...

(Hey, Rodney! Long time, no see, but you were a grad student at Brandeis when I was an undergrad.)

Steve Hicken said...

And for whatever it's worth, it seemed to me to communicate very little sense of what the music or the concert was really like.

That sums it up pretty well for me.

ACD does make a good point that Mr. Holland may have been ironizing with his statement about not understanding the idea behind the program. However, that would be easier to take seriously had the statement not been the piece's lede. There, it serves to justify Mr. Holland's inability to engage the music on its own terms and to let us know what the music sounds like.

A.C. Douglas said...

Lisa Hirsch wrote:

Pay closer attention, please, to what "in his opening paragraph" refers to:

"Explaining why Elizabethan church music and pieces by the young American Nico Muhly were found together onstage at Zankel Hall on Friday requires intellectual gymnastics beyond my competence."


Pay closer attention, please. One cannot read Holland the same way one reads, say, Tommasini or his ilk.

ACD

Lisa Hirsch said...

I understand perfectly well that he doesn't mean it literally, but do you understand that it also means "I'm not going to bother making the effort to understand what's going on here"?

Matthew said...

Sorry, A.C., if that's supposed to be irony, then Holland needs to hone his style. What the pieces were doing together is that Muhly himself identifies Elizabethan church music as an important influence on his own music. If Holland considers that to be gymnastics beyond his competence, then he needs to up his mental glucosamine intake. If he's trying to be sarcastic, he needs to try harder. (Again, he can disagree, but just pretending not to understand it, and not doing so with any sort of wit or sparkle, is far, far, less than I expect from the Times.)

The other thing that strikes me about the review is how indifferent he seems to the experience. I've heard enough of Muhly's music to think that anyone with much of a pulse is going to have some sort of reaction to it, positive or negative. If the best Holland can muster is a wan, world-weary condescension, maybe he should just hang it up. There are plenty of writers out there (A.C. Douglas included, I might add) who give enough of a damn to bring their "A" game, even for a pan.

A.C. Douglas said...

Lisa Hirsch wrote:

I understand perfectly well that he doesn't mean it literally, but do you understand that it also means "I'm not going to bother making the effort to understand what's going on here"?

It means no such thing as it's clear from his review he understood perfectly what was going on there -- which is not to say he was right about what he understood. But on that aspect of the review I can make no comment as I wasn't there, and I don't know this music.

ACD

Anonymous said...

Gee, it was perfectly easy for me to read Holland's review, to understand what was said, what wasn't said, and what was implied. The music didn't do much for him, but he chose not to blast the composer. Print critics don't blast things anymore unless they're really aggravated. Bloggers, on the other hand...

A.C. Douglas said...

Matthew wrote:

Sorry, A.C., if that's supposed to be irony, then Holland needs to hone his style. [...] If he's trying to be sarcastic, he needs to try harder.

If every mainstream-daily classical music reviewer writing today wrote with a mere fraction of the elegance, acuity, and intelligence of Bernard Holland, the classical music world would be immeasurably enriched.

I'm sorry. I can't even begin to agree with your assessment.

ACD

Matthew said...

In response to the last two: A.C., elegance and intelligence, maybe (that's a matter of taste), but Holland's acuity is missing in this review. If I didn't know anything about Muhly's music, I'd come away from Holland's lede thinking that there wasn't any connection at all between the two styles on the program, and that Muhly and/or Adams were just throwing them together randomly or as a surrealist lark, which is clearly not the case. Part of being a critic is being a journalist, and here, Holland is too clever by half, any sarcasm/irony so convoluted that he ends up, for practical purposes, misrepresenting the very premise of the concert.

It's worth pointing out that the program notes for the concert point out in explicit detail the audible connection between the Weelkes piece and Muhly's own "Clear Music." So on this topic, what wasn't said was somewhat important, and any chance of it being implied was swallowed up ny Holland's clumsy attempt at a joke.

Anonymous said...

Well, you are one literal minded, not to mention sorely aggrieved, fellow. On your own blog you say you dream of being on such a level as Holland. Keep dreaming.

Matthew said...

Now who's being literal?

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but I attended the concert on Friday and was also completely at a loss as to why the choral music was juxtaposed with Mr. Muhly's. I had heard so much about Muhly's music, and I was curious to hear it, so I bought tickets for myself and 3 friends. Unfortunately, the concert was a disappointment, not only because mixing the old choral music with Muhly's was a conceit that just didn't work, but also because his music just isn't very interesting. Yes, I read the program notes and knew what I was supposed to listen for, but all these supposed connections and references were quite a stretch. The performers were all excellent, and the choir was especially fine, but I couldn't wait to leave.

Anonymous said...

"Now who's being literal?"

My point, exactly!

Michael Walsh said...

I just read this and, while I'm willing to attribute the tone of Mr. Holland's review to the space limitation of a newspaper column, the editing or writing was just as off as the performance may have been. A statement like:

Ground zero for Mr. Muhly is somewhere between Edgard Varese and Jimi Hendrix.

certainly wouldn't cut it as a Mapquest direction and leaves too much wiggle room to the reader (well-informed or not) to figure out what is meant.

I understand the interpretations of others here, given that Mr. Holland devoted almost one-half of his column (paragraphs 1, 3 and 5) to pithy comments that can be mistaken for "what is it with these kids, anyway?" It does sound like snark for its own sake instead of informed commentary. In a column twice the length, those paragraphs would not have set the wrong tone.

I'm sure, Mr. Douglas, that Mr. Holland is a fine reviewer/critic. But anyone can have an off day, and it seems incumbent on people who write about music to be even more careful about what is said about what they don't like than what they do.

A.C. Douglas said...
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A.C. Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.C. Douglas said...

Matthew wrote:

In response to the last two: A.C., elegance and intelligence, maybe (that's a matter of taste), but Holland's acuity is missing in this review. If I didn't know anything about Muhly's music, I'd come away from Holland's lede thinking that there wasn't any connection at all between the two styles on the program, and that Muhly and/or Adams were just throwing them together randomly or as a surrealist lark, which is clearly not the case.

And as Holland's first graf makes just as clear, Holland's not buying that imposed premise (i.e., imposed in words by the program notes). That's precisely the principal (but not sole) point of the review's first graf. And as for your,

Part of being a critic is being a journalist, and here, Holland is too clever by half, any sarcasm/irony so convoluted that he ends up, for practical purposes, misrepresenting the very premise of the concert.

There's nothing the slightest bit "convoluted" or "clumsy" about that first graf, or about anything in that review. It's all perfectly clear, quite deliciously worded, and richly informative from top to bottom whether one agrees with Holland's opinion or not. And Holland misrepresented nothing whatsoever. As I noted, he didn't buy the imposed premise of the coupling of those musics.

Once again, pay closer attention, please. One cannot read Holland the same way one reads, say, Tommasini or his ilk.

But I repeat myself, and there's little point to my continuing to do that, and so I think my work here is done.

ACD