Sunday, November 02, 2014

What Problem is the Rubin Institute Trying to Solve?

In a comment to my previous, informational, posting about the Rubin Institute, someone has asked what exactly the Rubin Institute is preparing people for. That is the question, isn't it? And it's one I was planning to get to. 

As you can see from the press release, the Rubin Institute exists to train college students to be classical music critics: 
The first program of its kind focusing on music and music criticism, the Rubin Institutebrings together before the public national music journalists, renowned musicians, and aspiring young writers, combining the wisdom and insight of today's highly esteemed critics, the artistry and daring of acclaimed musicians, and the energy and promise of tomorrow's music journalists. The biennial institute comprises a week-long series of public events including a keynote address, performances, lectures by critics, critical reviews, and discussion panels. 
Featuring public concerts by acclaimed musicians from the opera, chamber, and orchestral stages, the performances are reviewed by a select group of student writers (Rubin InstituteFellows). Their work is critiqued in private workshops and public sessions by a panel of highly esteemed national music critics and journalists. Leading up to the Institute, the twenty student writers will work with a preparatory team at each of their nominating universities.
Says David Stull, the president of the SFCM:
This program dramatically enhances the discourse and awareness of classical music and will provide an extraordinary opportunity to aspiring music critics to engage with the great musical artists and writers of our time. I am deeply grateful to Stephen Rubinfor his vision and continued support of this program."
So I have to admit, this left me scratching my head. To start with, I see the value of spending a few days getting feedback from a bunch of top-notch writers, but even intensive tutoring isn't going to give you the knowledge and skills you need to be a good classical music reviewer:
  • Technical knowledge of music itself 
  • Knowledge of the history of performance, performers, and repertory
  • Knowledge of musical styles (the ability to tell a Russian sound from an Italian sound, for example)
  • A discerning ear
  • Good taste
  • The ability to write well
At least in theory, these are the skills and knowledge you get by studying music over a long period of time, in classes, in music lessons on your instruments of choice, by listening to a whole lot of music, in person and on record, and by getting a lot of feedback on your writing skills. Honestly, it takes years to develop some of these skills; music majors generally get several years of classes in ear-training and music theory & analysis. A discerning ear, the ability to tell a good performance from a bad one - well, a lot goes into that.

The 20 Rubin Fellows should have a decent grounding in most of the above skills; they are all music students at UC Berkeley, Oberlin, SFCM, Stanford, or Yale.

Now, you might think, from reading the press releases, that there's a shortage of good classical music reviewers and critics. This is simply not the case, as you can tell from reading those big city papers that still have classic critics on staff, or from reading San Francisco Classical Voice, Classical Voice North America, or Chicago Classical Review. Or from reading some of the hundreds of blogs that cover the classical scene

No, the real crisis, the real problem for classical music criticism today, is that there just aren't very many outlets that will pay you to write about classical music. Newspapers have been consolidating and closing left and right over the last 20 years. Most newspapers don't have even one full-time classical music critic on staff. In the state of California, 50 million people are served by four full-time newspaper critics (Joshua Kosman, Chron; Richard Scheinin, Mercury News; Tim Mangan, OC/LA Register; and Mark Swed, LA Times), with part-timers such as me and the other SFCV writers making up the difference by covering, with varying degrees of interest and skill, the hundreds of performances that take place in this state.

So I am both sympathetic to the aims of the Rubin Institute and exasperated by the particular problem it's solving. We have plenty of critics and potential critics. What we really need is more ways to make a living writing about music. 

A few notes that I can't squeeze into the above:

  • The Rubin Institute doesn't seem to take into account liner notes and program notes. Program notes are closely related to criticism, but give the writer more space and the opportunity to write about music rather than a particular performance, which is, after all, just one performance
  • Over at Renewable Music, Daniel Wolf makes some brilliant and important points about accidental critics and the problems with overcredentialing criticism.
  • Kalimac also discusses the Rubin Institute.

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