I think the Critic is simultaneously an obsolete, ridiculous role, and an extremely potent one that holds one of the keys to future ways of doing things. Every musician is a critic, and as much as no one should be allowed to bestow absolute judgements on other people’s works from above, a reshuffling of the idea does wonders: anyone should be allowed (encouraged, even) to speak their mind – as long as we all do so elaborately. The goal should be to maintain and preserve individual and widespread engagement with all kinds of music.
Here are a few points that come to my mind:
1. So long as you want to speak in complete sentences, whoever you are, speak
No one needs to justify liking something. A reaction such as: “I hate it,” or “I love it” cannot be debated. Les goûts et les couleurs ne se discutent pas (tastes and colors cannot be discussed). But were someone inclined on elaborating, then they should absolutely share their ideas with others, whatever they position happens to be in musical communities – meaning even if they are not in a position of influence. Power and privilege cannot carry on being translated into domination and over-influence in the musical world, whether through money and media-control in some circles, or through degrees, pedigrees and pedantry in others.
2. In defense of grey areas, in attack of machismo
For centuries (and ours is not exempt), very influential and brilliant people have given in to ridiculous, binary ways of thinking. While many are moving beyond that, just as many are holding on. Let us stop seeing things in two colors (most often in the form of one’s way and any other way). Music (just like philosophy, theory, politics,) draws its wealth and its beauty precisely from the simultaneous coexistence of a wide and often-incompatible multitude.
One could make the case that aggressive behavior, machismo, will to power, to self-advancement, scheming, networking-for-the-sake-of-networking; have produced a wide multitude of arrogant and condescending people who take themselves much too seriously, and who, in my opinion, push many fellow musicians, composers, but also lay-people, away from the discourses on music, on performance… They create disengagement with music as much as they contribute to repertoires, to philosophical and aesthetic discussions, and so on. Some people look for success, and in doing so, they look to establish centripetal systems where they occupy central positions of power; they look for privilege, influence, for exclusivity. If I say “stop taking yourself too seriously”, I stress the yourself in the sentence.
Is it not possible for “greatness” in today’s musical world to be the result of a rich cultural activity spread over many parts of all societies, rather than to have it found consolidated in the hands of a privileged few? Could it not strictly exist in this global state, itself the sum of many, many smaller parts, none of which are that great in and of themselves?
I’m pushing you to the left of a spectrum I just decried when I say this, but what if we stopped looking at individuals, at ensembles, even at whole schools, as examples of this “greatness” we track so avidly in Music History, and instead, attribute it (or not) to multi-national societies, multi-national communities, as a whole? What if ego stopped guiding effort, what if coronations in all guises stopped being the consequence of quality? What if music stopped being so frequently used as an excuse for self-advancement, and the creation of social ladders?
You’re a musician? That’s great. Perform, compose, record, write, talk, argue, do what you do. But stop expecting to be tapped on the shoulder for it. Stop playing the game of the financial and political circles. Do what you do, and leave it at that. Let others talk about what you did.
3. By debating, you’re not speaking to change minds, but to clarify and to understand
Every debate and argument should not be about convincing the other person of something. It should be about understanding each others’ points of views. It should be about being able to put oneself in the other person’s shoes. Only once this – very difficult – task is achieved can one “judge”. And it’s a bit like the usually-overlooked wisdom of religious behavioral prescriptions. They go a little something like this: “Only once you do X and Y can you do Z; and you won’t.” The reason being that if you were to do X and Y properly, Z would become irrelevant. Either that, or that it’s humanly impossible to do X and Y. Were you to fully put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you wouldn’t need to judge them anymore. You would understand. The most you can then hope for is that they would do the same with you, at which point the better argument will either convince, or both can coexist paradoxically, as history books abundantly show.
Music is not an exact science. People see the same thing from so many different angles, all of which, in a way, are valid. Who are we to say no? Some would say that such an approach could lead to absolute nihilism and the death of all debates. But I would say it’s quite the contrary. People need to take themselves a lot less seriously, and be willing to venture down their own paths, even if they suspect that someone “smarter”, or “more experienced”, or “brilliant”, has already gone down that road before, or has even written a book about it. It’s not because someone has lived really well that living becomes pointless. You don’t not use a good idea because someone has already used it. You don’t write because you want to outdo others. You don’t debate so you can silence.
I may be accused of being idealistic; I would call it optimism. The reason I advocate this approach is because it would result in a much richer engagement on the part of people who are not that involved to begin with (and they are by far the most numerous), and who are turned off the whole thing because of pretentiousness. Soaring levels of aggression and hostility, when we’re talking about textures, forms, orchestration… Composers who hold their aesthetic values as absolute (or even superior) and who want to go to war defending them, the way Boulez did in the 40s and the 50s, have no place in today’s world. Just do your thing, and then shut up about it. Let other people write their own reviews about it. Don’t ask your friends to write raving reviews about your work; stop using your pieces as career-propellers; stop pretending to be super-inspired and driven, when the basic gut feeling that drives you is the desire to obliterate anyone who has ever attempted to do what you’re about to do before you. Stop transposing right-wing, corporate business strategies into the music world. Encourage anyone-and-everyone to talk about why they love or hate what they love or hate, let anyone-and-everyone be an integral part of the equation, as long as they’re willing to do so in full sentences; and if this fact discourages you to want to work, if it makes performing/composing/writing/teaching less meaningful, then quit, because you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and you’re doing more harm than good in the long run.
The death of the Critic-as-a-pseudo-God (or as-a-real-estate-agent), and the birth of the Critic-as-anybody-and-everybody willing to use full sentences.