Monday, June 30, 2014

Glass Half Full (Bad Reviews and Mortality)

My first really bad review appeared in my hometown newspaper, The New York Times. The piece that garnered this unique honor was my string sextet Soul Garden, which I had composed for the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I had written it specifically for a virtuoso violist, Paul Neubauer, to perform with the cellist Fred Sherry and the Miami Quartet. At the time I considered it my finest composition to date.

Apart from one short notice when, as a 15-year-old, I performed the Copland Clarinet Concerto (“A truly exceptional talent!”) it was my second review from the Grey Lady. The first was a brief mention of my clarinet concerto Voices, which I had performed with the American Composers Orchestra three years earlier at Carnegie Hall. The review had been lukewarm at best, but I managed to excavate a favorable clause. “If you can eke out one good quote, that’s all you need,” my Dad cheerfully reassured me.

The premiere performances of Soul Garden went well, better than I had expected, considering the difficulty of the piece. During the previous decade I'd been developing a personal system of musical notation, using quarter-tones and glissandi to evoke the expressive microtonality of gospel music. It took a good deal of work for the performers to fully integrate these stylistic techniques into their playing. With Soul Garden I felt that I had begun to create my own language, manifest in the harmony, melody, and counterpoint; it was an important aesthetic and conceptual jump forward for me.

So late that Monday evening, I was hanging out with my buddy Dave at a bar on the Lower East Side. Before biking home to Brooklyn over the Williamsburg Bridge, I decided to stop at a bodega to check the early edition Times. I lingered on the street corner, paging impatiently through the newspaper: Water wars in Bolivia… environmental catastrophe at Superfund sites… political corruption in Queens politics… horse racing… where was the classical music? Finally I located the arts section, a slim sheaf of pages near the back. My review! Well, actually, it was Paul Neubauer’s review. And it looked quite favorable… until I reached the section about Soul Garden, where the tone took a sour turn.

Each victim recalls this traumatic moment differently. Some remember every reprehensible word, taking a masochistic pleasure in reading aloud the cruelest phrases, perhaps hoping that the brutal edges will gradually soften. Others, optimists, scour the few lines of text for all they’re worth, seeking to dredge from the muck a vaguely positive – or even neutral – spin. With what other experience can it be compared? Perhaps a sudden, bitter breakup…a few stark words etched instantly into the jilted lover’s brain. In this particular instance, I retained most vividly the summing-up: “Bluesy notions hardly worth a sideways glance.”

I felt a keen pang in my stomach and my mouth dropped open. There it was: the public record of my piece, the final word, all that would remain for eternity. Naturally it would never be played again; this bad review would hang around Soul Garden’s proverbial neck like a weighty albatross. I couldn’t fathom it. How could the reviewer write this, believe this? Bluesy notions, hell no! It was a finely wrought piece, and a creative one.

Or was it? Maybe it wasn’t… I pondered furiously. It needed minor revisions, it’s true; that middle section especially needed a few bars added. Or subtracted. But no, it was basically ready for prime time. The critic just didn’t comprehend it, that was the bottom line. Or perhaps it wasn’t so much the piece he had disliked, but the performance. Or the notes I had written in the program book. That might have been the deciding factor… I suppose I hadn’t fully explained that I was trying to do something as yet untried, that I wasn’t using quarter-tones in a “stereotypical” way, that I had found a novel method of embedding jazz embellishments into notated music, a brand new approach to melodic contour. His ignorance was at fault. I fumed that this so-called aficionado was incapable of grasping the significance and future ramifications of my experimental techniques and ideas.

I flashed back to the pre-concert discussion on the stage: had I spoken too casually about my innovations? Perhaps the critic thought I wasn’t serious enough. Maybe I hadn’t articulated clearly what the piece was about. Had the moderator neglected to ask pertinent questions? (I tried to remember — what were those questions again?) Somewhere out there in the audience this critic, armed with a pen, had lurked, plotted. He misunderstood my musical language, and now he was punishing me, taking revenge, determined to ruin my reputation. He was my enemy, vengeful and cackling! Why did he detest me and my music?

Overwrought, I watched yellow taxis filing onto the bridge. On a sudden impulse, I reread the review – twice. Slowly, and with grim intensity, I recognized that he hadn’t hated it. Hah! If only he had hated it… In fact he had dismissed it, trivialized it. He had chosen a noun, a plural noun that evoked banality, a label that reduced my music to an insignificant distraction, that brushed away my precious, hard-earned notes as if they were fluff, detritus, random dots on a scrap of manuscript paper. I conjured the main theme in my head. I carefully considered the cadenza. Maybe he was right, maybe the piece only added up to a few worthless, bluesy notions. I racked my brain: why “notions”? Why had he chosen that particular word?

I don’t remember the ride home over the Williamsburg Bridge, nor do I recall locking my bike on South 2nd Street and lumbering up the stairs to my second floor apartment in the silent, wee hours of the morning. I vaguely remember phoning my girlfriend; she listened to me babble for a while, and finally sighed exhaustedly, “Jesus, just get over it!” (I had woken her up and she had work at 6am the next morning.) Most of the night I lay suspended in bed-ridden time, trapped in an endless spiral of thoughts: the review, the performance, the pre-concert talk, the composition, the misunderstanding, my career, the shame of it all.

The public shame! Everyone would know, and if they didn’t already, they would eventually find out. They would read the article in The New York Times, of course. They would flip past tales of world wars, economic crises, sports victories, endearing human interest stories, cutting-edge scientific advances, and like homing pigeons they would inevitably race to section C to seek out those few sentences in a review of a viola recital. A review with no photo, even, just a few terse paragraphs comprised of phrases, one of them deadly and dismissive, and belonging solely to me. Bluesy notions. Not even worth a glance….hardly! Hardly worth a sideways glance….

I was referred by sympathetic friends to the Lexicon of Musical Invective, Nicholas Slonimsky’s witty compilation that recaps centuries of harsh reviews of masterpieces, beginning with Beethoven’s 2nd Symphony. I glumly checked out a copy from the public library the following week and devoured the generations of vitriol, chortling vociferously to myself as I devoured pistachios. Unfortunately the panacea ultimately proved less effective than envisioned. Though I too had received a lousy review in a prestigious journal, I remained unconvinced that this misfortune automatically placed me alongside the likes of Debussy, Mahler, and Copland.


As my Dad had suggested, artists probably put too much stake in reviews. The composer John Corigliano once told me that he hadn’t read them for years. John must be one of the few who doesn’t at least sneak a peek. I don’t have his strength; like most artists I possess a morbid fascination with critical opinion, especially when intelligently articulated.

Almost 20 years ago, writing in The Paris New Music Review, a sardonic journal that I co-founded with several friends, I attempted to review a recently-released CD recording of electronic music. It took an agonizing month to complete the article, which ran no more than a few paragraphs. In the end I reluctantly recognized that I was a lousy critic; I couldn’t bring myself to write anything negative, being overly empathetic with the composers and unconvinced that my opinion – informed as it may have been – carried any real validity or importance.

It would be ten years before I was exposed to the viewpoint of the “other half,” at a lecture by Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times on the role of the music critic. Tony made several assertions that surprised me; first of all, he mentioned that all other attributes being equal, it was more important that a critic be an engaging writer than a musical scholar. His audience was the general public, Tony insisted, not necessarily other musicians (Tony is also an accomplished pianist). Of course, any journalist would have found these statements to be self-evident, but to me, who read reviews as personal vendettas, they were a revelation.

And what about a seasoned composer’s perspective, one who actually reads reviews? Philip Glass once came in to speak with the young composers in my Making Score seminar at the New York Youth Symphony. During the talk one student, not particularly known for tact, raised his hand. “Mr. Glass,” he began earnestly, “I googled you and realized that you’ve had a LOT of bad reviews.”

I cringed. Philip, however, smiled gently and replied, “Yes, that’s true; if you do something interesting and individual, you’re bound to get plenty of bad reviews.”

“How does it make you feel when a writer doesn’t like your music and just keeps hating and hating on you in their reviews?”

Philip considered this question for a few seconds. “Well… of course, it doesn’t feel good, not at the time, I suppose. But you know, the thing about critics is…” and here he paused. “Eventually they die.”

The kids laughed, and I did too. But Philip’s face bore a faraway look.


About five years before Philip’s visit, I had traveled to Los Angeles for a very cool gig. John Adams conducted my concerto, Voices, with the L.A. Philharmonic, with me as the soloist. From my vantage point, the audience seemed to dig it; they brought John and me back for several bows. The next morning both local papers were delivered to my hotel room door. Complimentary newspapers, featuring bad reviews…. really bad! Both were deathly dismal. The meaner of the two was from Alan Rich in the L.A. Weekly. “Silly symphony of squeaks and squawks!” he railed. I can’t deny that I felt embarrassed, but for some reason, this time I couldn’t manage to summon the bitterness sparked by “bluesy notions.” In fact, I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy must have worked pretty hard to come up with that alliterative phrase.” I was impressed. And suddenly, I burst out laughing.

Had I reached a new level of maturity, acceptance, or maybe cynicism? Perhaps some combination of the above. Whatever the case, this first unsavory notice from Alan Rich was – unbeknownst to me – merely the opening salvo in what was to be a battery of harshness flowing from his typewriter for the next few seasons. Each time I returned to L.A. I was further lambasted: “A gooey conceit!” he wrote the following year. “A time-wasting piece!” he thundered. Now I was faced with a new challenge: a serial critic, out to murder my career! Alan Rich had it in for me; I felt sure that he arrived at every concert itching to launch poisonous barbs in my direction.

And Alan Rich wasn’t just any critic. He was an important writer who had been reviewing concerts for decades and had championed such revolutionary composers as Feldman, Nancarrow, Reich, and indeed Bolcom and Adams, all musical heroes of mine. So I couldn’t easily dismiss his dismissal, or at least I didn’t feel that I had the right to do so. Betty Freeman, the photographer and philanthropist who commissioned my orchestral work Elixir, took a more belligerent attitude. “I am so angry at Alan Rich with all the nasty stuff he writes about you, I’ve stopped talking to him!” she snapped. “Oh, it doesn’t matter, you know,” I shrugged. But of course, secretly I loved hearing Betty rant on my behalf.

Despite the Rich diatribes, L.A. did not give up on me. I was appointed composer-in-residence for three years with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and shortly thereafter I received an invitation from the L.A. Philharmonic to write a work for their 2009-10 season. I was excited for these back-to-back performances, though somewhere in the back of my brain I envisioned Alan Rich gleefully preparing to eviscerate me. But at the opening of the L.A. Phil concert at Disney Hall, a P.A. announcement took me by surprise. “We are dedicating this concert to the memory of Alan Rich, devoted music critic for the L.A. Weekly, who died last week.” I half-gasped in my seat. Strangely, there was no feeling of victory, no schadenfreude, just a raw emptiness as the eulogy continued. “Alan supported contemporary music faithfully, and we have no doubt he would have been delighted that we’re featuring a world premiere tonight, by composer Derek Bermel.” Oh, irony of ironies. Need I mention that this process was repeated a month later, when the L.A. Chamber Orchestra presented my work, similarly dedicating the evening to Alan Rich?

What a strange, ghostly rendez-vous at these concerts, Alan Rich and me. I felt no compulsion to dance on his grave; instead, I found myself moved by the tribute and applauded his mettle along with the rest of the audience. We then communally feasted our ears on that Bermel composition he surely would have detested. I had almost come to relish facing my nemesis, and perhaps I even harbored a perverse longing for the challenge; After all, I couldn’t be the bad boy in the room without an adversary present.

“Eventually they die.” A witty retort; it sounded almost capricious! But no wonder Philip had stated it mirthlessly. In the end, critics are the only folks who convey to a wider public what we artists do. The absence of the music journalist, more and more common, cannot possibly be a positive development for us. By the nature of their profession, critics are marginalized — even ostracized — and yet they stay focused, independent from the allure and echo chamber of the “music biz,” mapping out the truth as they understand it. As the music critics disappear, so too does the public’s awareness of what we make, why we make it, and who we are. So as the bad reviews roll in, I try to seek a modicum of Zen, grateful that — at least for the time being — when my tree falls in the forest, it doesn’t fall on deaf ears.


Chanterelle said...

Perhaps you will find solace, or at least community, here:

Jacque said...

Thanks for writing this thoughtful and thought-provoking blog post. I have often hoped that a critic would actually review one of my group's performances. I think that I subscribe to the philosophy that any publicity is good publicity. I hadn't given much thought to what I would feel, say or do if someone were to pan us!! Your post has made me a little better-prepared for it.

Unknown said...

Oh, so much with which to empathize! When the AGO magazine described my organ music as "uninspired in its aimless meandering," it was like a punch in the gut. But it is one fallible opinion, and so many composers told me not to heed reviews, good or bad. Still, ouch, ouch, ouch...

Unknown said...

Hi Derek, this reminds me of what my grandmother said when her husband, with whom she had a bitter marriage and fought often, died. She said "I miss him. Now I have no one to bicker with.". Don't we define ourselves by the camps we to?

Mazda said...

Or maybe your music just isn't very good. I've spent decades trying to enjoy and understand so-called modern music. Then I put on a recording of a symphony by Schumann or Mahler, a Tchaikovsky ballet, an opera by Puccini and instantly realize how weak, inept, silly, and ugly so many contemporary composers are. Their music is empty. Somehow, they think that because their scribbling is so complex, difficult, and innovative, that it's great. It's not. It's garbage and will be consigned to the dust bins of history, deservedly so.

JMFlorida said...

So happy to have read this ! I can only say I don't expect reviewers or critics to get much american music no matter how communicative or indigenous it cares to be. I see U.K. and European,Asian performers and composers soaking up all the attention while Americans get less publicity . Most of all remember no matter how well educated a critic may be they can parse syllables in new poetry follow congruence in a novel but rarely can they tell you what is really happening in a piece of music ! I'm lucky to have now heard this music -your work will live on while few of your reviewers will be anthologized or collected.