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The rockcritics.com Classical Critics Survey

By Steven Ward and Scott Woods

One of the prevalent themes that has emerged through dozens of interviews on this site is the supposed decline in actual rock criticism, particularly since the explosion of the web. You're probably familiar with the usual suspects: declining word counts in both the dailies and the glossies; the apparently unquenchable thirst of publishers for gossip and artist profiles over critiques or "think pieces"; the editorial shunning of individual voices...Yeah, yeah, yeah, heard it all before, right?

Well, compared to those who earn their living writing about classical music, it must be said that rock critics have it pretty damn easy. Outside of New York, L.A., and Boston, how many alt-weeklies can you think of that devote regular space every week to classical reviews? How many daily papers in your area never cover classical performances or the opera? And quick, can you name the classical critics at Time, Newsweek, or Entertainment Weekly? Pardon our own ignorance, but do such people even exist?

"Ignorance" is a key concept here. We ourselves confess to being very much in the dark on these and other issues related to classical criticism. So we decided to approach a few well-known classical writers with a set of very general survey questions related to classical music and classical criticism. Thus, our first venture into a topic that has little or absolutely nothing to do with rock 'n' roll or pop music. Or does it? Indeed, this was one of the topics we were most curious about. (For instance, it's rather obvious that most pop commentators aren't well-versed in classical music--and by extension, classical criticism. But what do they make of us and the music we cover?)

Kyle Gann, Anne Midgette, Greg Sandow, Lloyd Schwartz, and Anthony Tommasini (see their bios below) are not the only prominent classical critics in North America, but they are all fiercely passionate both about writing and about the music they cover. We're grateful to them all for their time and generosity in responding to this survey.

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Contributor Bios

  • Kyle Gann, born 1955 in Dallas, Texas, is a composer and has been new music critic for the Village Voice since 1986. Since 1997 he has taught Music History and Theory at Bard College. He is the author of The Music of Conlon Nancarrow (Cambridge University Press, 1995) and American Music in the 20th Century (Schirmer Books, 1997). He studied composition with Ben Johnston, Morton Feldman, and Peter Gena. His music is often microtonal, using up to 37 pitches per octave. His rhythmic language, based on differing successive and simultaneous tempos, was developed from his study of Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo Indian musics. His music has been performed on the New Music America, Bang on a Can, and Spoleto festivals, and across Europe. He received a 1994 commission from Music in Motion for his Astrological Studies, and in 1996-97 a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artists' Fellowship. In addition to Bard, he has taught at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Bucknell University. His writings include more than 1700 articles for over 30 publications, including scholarly articles on La Monte Young (in Perspectives of New Music), Henry Cowell, Mikel Rouse, and other American composers. He writes frequently for Chamber Music magazine, Pulse magazine, and the New York Times, and in 1999 he was awarded the Stagebill Award for music criticism. Also in 1999, his compact disc Custer's Ghost was released on the Monroe Street label.
    [This bio is taken from Kyle Gann's Home Page.]

  • Anne Midgette is a freelance critic and arts writer. A regular classical music critic for the New York Times, she has also written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Opera News, OpernWelt, and many other publications. Now a resident of New York City, she lived for 11 years in Munich, Germany, where she reviewed European opera and music and wrote several travel guidebooks.

  • Greg Sandow's classical music criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, and in the NewMusicBox webzine. He's been a critic for more than 20 years, beginning in 1980 with a column in the Village Voice. Late in the '80s, he defected to pop, and became chief pop critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, and later went to Entertainment Weekly, where he was music critic, Music Editor, and critic at large. He's a member of the graduate studies faculty at Juilliard, where he teaches a course on music criticism, and another called "Classical Music in an Age of Pop," about the future of the field. Lately he's started working with orchestras, including the St. Louis Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Pittsburgh Symphony, helping them develop new ways to talk about music. He's also resuming a composing career he abandoned in the early '80s. One of his operas will be performed this coming spring in a workshop of new works presented by the New York City Opera.
    [Greg Sandow on the Web, including his article, Why Classical Music Needs Rock & Roll.]

  • Lloyd Schwartz is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts/Boston, Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix (for which he was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism), and a regular commentator on NPR's "Fresh Air" and for the web site TomPaine.com. His books of poetry include These People (Wesleyan University Press, 1981), Goodnight, Gracie (University of Chicago Press, 1992), and Cairo Traffic (U of Chicago, 2000). He has a book of critical scholarship on Elizabeth Bishop (That Sense of Constant Re-adjustment, Garland 1987), is the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and Her Art (University of Michigan Press, 1983), and co-editor, with Robert Giroux, of the forthcoming Collected Poetry and Prose of Elizabeth Bishop for the Library of America.

    His reviews, articles, and poems have appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Poetry, the New Republic, the Paris Review, Parnassus, and Raritan, among others. His poems have been selected twice for The Best American Poetry. He has been an Artist in Residence at Trinity College in Hartford and for the Northeastern University Music Department, a member of the Executive Board of PEN New England from 1983 to 1998, and the Associates of the Boston Public Library have chosen him as one of Boston's "Literary Lights." He has received grants and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts for poetry, the United States Information Agency, ASCAP (he's a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award), the Amphion Foundation, and has won the Radio and Television Award from the Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.

    A former actor, he has appeared with such notable performers (at the beginning of their careers) as Stockard Channing, Tommy Lee Jones, and James Woods. He was a regular on WGBH's prize-winning series "The Spider's Web," on which he played, among many other roles, Scrooge in the annual broadcast of Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

  • Anthony Tommasini is the chief classical music critic of the New York Times, a pianist, and the author of a biography, Virgil Thomson: Composer on the Aisle (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), which won a 1998 ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Yale University and a doctorate in music from Boston University. He lives in New York City.

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