Classical Critics Survey

4. How do you, as writers and critics, try to reach readers who might not be considered the target audience for classical music criticism? How would you describe the target audience? Do you try to reach the rock fan or casual music fan, and if so, how do you do that?

Reaching out to a wider audience is one of the most important things for a critic in any field; but particularly important in the field of classical music, toward which non-aficionados tend to be more antipathetic. I think every publication has its own target audience, and I know I have different images of my audience depending on which publication I'm writing for. A defining experience of my early days in journalism was watching business travelers flip through the pages of the Wall Street Journal Europe and breeze right by my articles on the Leisure & Arts page; for that publication, I developed a kind of aggressive, huckster style intended to shill them into my tent, as it were, assuming that they knew little about opera, but were smart enough to be interested. At the Times, I've found it harder to define exactly who I'm writing for: I feel I waver between writing for aficionados, all those Juilliard students who read the paper, and writing for my college roommates, none of whom know much about classical music.

On the other hand, there are a few constant tricks for reaching any reader: good colourful writing, honesty, directness of statement, and a vocabulary that communicates without recourse to jargon. The target audience, in the ideal world: anyone interested in art, thought, reading. Trying too hard to reach any specific audience is dangerous, not to say quixotic, since one thing that quickly becomes evident when you're writing for a large paper is how reliably your words are misinterpreted. And since you never know what's actually going to reach a non-aficionado, deliberate attempts to do so are likely to sound patronizing. I had a friend call today and thank me for discussing production values in an opera review, since she felt that this opened up the review and made it interesting to the (non-musical) likes of her. Go figure.

Journalists are usually forced by their editors to consider the general reader--and that's not a bad thing. It's possible to make the most technical issues comprehensible by avoiding all but the most basic technical vocabulary. If I can explain to myself something that is happening in, say, Elliott Carter, without resorting to academic shorthand, that helps me clarify what I've been hearing. This doesn't mean every reader is going to be interested in Elliott Carter--but there's a much bigger chance of finding what is most important in the music if I think about how I would explain what I've heard, without condescension, to someone who doesn't know very much about classical music. Then there might be the fringe benefit of actually getting someone who isn't interested in classical music at all caught up in my narrative. My endeavour, in short, is to talk to the reader, not lecture.

I would never try to describe the "target audience." The moment you try to characterize them you exclude the very people it would be most interesting to reach. I do try to relate music to other things going on in the world, to make it clear that art never exists in a vacuum.

I try to reach as many readers as possible. The size of my target audience depends on the event. If it's a contemporary music concert, my target will be more focused on insiders. If it's a new production of a popular opera, of course, my audience will be much larger and less specialized.

This is a really good question. Obviously, hardcore classical fans are the people most likely to read a classical review, but on the other hand, classical critics should want to reach out to others, since classical music could use a new audience. It's not always easy to write both for insiders and the uninitiated, and even harder, I might say, to write for musicians and for people (even classical music fans) who don't have musical training. Sometimes I'll use technical musical terms to make sure musicians know what I'm talking about, but I try to use them in a context that makes their meaning clear. I have no idea whether I succeed (or how clumsy I might seem, trying to do two things at once).

The target audience outside the classical world is probably the same audience classical music performing groups would like to attract--smart, culturally aware people who, for whatever reason, don't pay attention to classical music. But how do you get them to read your reviews? In many ways, this is a writing problem. Classical critics who write for newspapers appear on the same page as movie reviews. People see what they write, and will read them, at least sometimes, if they write well enough.

But classical critics also have to speak the same language as other people. This gets back to what I said about pop references in classical reviews. Classical critics have to show in their writing that they live in the same world as everybody else. They'll never get non-fans to read them if they seem, as they too often do, to live in a world defined only by classical music.