In search of the lost journalism

Alex Ross' collection of New Yorker writing Listen to This, recently published in paperback, is a salutary reminder of the depths to which music journalism has sunk elsewhere in the mainstream media. But where to find an alternative to the standard diet of reheated press releases other than in The New Yorker? Well, Amazon customer reviews may seem an unlikely source, but most professional music journalists could learn a thing or two from this contribution from Paul Magnussen:
This album forms one of a pair on the Nimbus label (the other being Cante Flamenco). Among Nimbus's laudable qualities at this time were first-class recordings, first-class (though not necessarily famous) artists, and careful attention to acoustics.

Especially notable, however, was an almost obsessive preoccupation with performances that were whole and 'live' -- not sewn together, Frankenstein fashion, from the usable parts of corpses. In accordance with this objective, the present album presents Gypsy artists, not in the recording studio, but in a small private club in Morón de la Frontera -- with no chance of retakes! Here Nimbus were really taking to the air without a parachute, because the difficulties of producing a first-class performance to order are legendary. Artists unused to being recorded may get self-conscious and seize up; others may be jealous of each other, or too tired, or too drunk, or not drunk enough...
Classical music is desperate to reach new and young audiences, yet the vital role of the music journalist as animateur is completely overlooked. The current generation of "another day another press release" music journalists would do well to reflect on Hesketh Pearson's tribute to a great music writer of the past, George Bernard Shaw.
The qualities in him that specially appealed to youth were his irreverence for tradition and office, his indifference to vested interests and inflated reputations, his contempt for current morality, his championship of unpopular causes and persecuted people, his vitality and humour, and above all his inability to take solemn people seriously.
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Andrew Morris said…
There does seem to be a lot of marketing masquerading as music journalism about. I’d like to think that the job of a music critic/writer (or at least the sort I’d like to be) is to be an intrepid explorer of lost musical continents, filing reports on their discoveries and experiences and inviting others to look more broadly at the cultural world around them. Or they could all just go on a jolly to the RFH every time Abbado or whoever rolls into town (nothing against him, btw; rather against the wall to wall coverage from all quarters), which is no doubt less time consuming.
Pliable said…
Andrew, with the vision of "inviting others to look more broadly at the cultural world around them" and turns of phrase like "an intrepid explorer of lost musical continents" I think you should be considering a seond career.
Anonymous said…
Totally agree with you about the quality of some Amazon reviews. You need to sift, but not that hard. One can more or less dispense with professional critics nowadays.

I also love some YouTube comments. I love it when someone hears Mahler's adagietto or Mars from The Planets and less obvious things as well, who has obviously never listened to any classical music in his or her life, and is clearly transfixed by this "amazing song".
Philip Amos said…
I rather think that Pearson was there giving his view of Shaw in general, rather than as a music critic. I acknowledge him as one of the great music critics, but I have a considerable problem with some of Pearson's words, and I really can't let it pass.

There is a big dollop of irony in Pearson's reference to Shaw's "...championship of unpopular causes and persecuted people...". He certainly was the first, but the second? His support of Stalin after he met him in the early 1930s was absolute and unbending. In the play On the Rocks, one of his characters speaks of the need for the Cheka and for OGPU, their purpose being to question people about whether they are, to put it simply, pulling their weight in Soviet society. Those who cannot justify their existence, should be liquidated. This is not a satire or such: Shaw was deadly serious. I suspect he thought Stalin to be one of the 'supermen' he had much earlier written would emerge through a natural eugenic process. He did write a condemnation of pogroms on the grounds that they are anarchic: the killing of the undesirable, he said, should be humane.

I think the most appalling correspondence I have read is that between Shaw and Freda Utley. Utley, distinguished academically and a notable journalist (though not always reliable in her later life when, like many other former supporters of the Soviet system in the US, to which she had emigrated, she travelled very far to the Right) who moved to the USSR in 1928 after marrying a Russian functionary, Arcadi Berdichevsky. The turn came when her husband was arrested as a suspected Trotskyist in 1936, and Utley returned to the UK.

Once home, she tried to enlist her friends, and she had many in high places, and others in a campaign to get Berdichevsky released. She wrote to Shaw, and his replies, in their wording, are nigh on psychopathic in their lack of sympathy. He offers none, and says that if her husband has been imprisoned, obviously he must have done something to deserve it. Utley showed the Shaw correspondence to Bertrand and Peter Russell, who had been campaigning for Berdichevsky's release (Russell had turned against Bolshevism as early as 1920), both thought it disgusting, but very tellingly, Russell pronounced it typical Shaw and advised Utley to consider him a lost cause and not bother to write to him further letters.

Russell sometimes wrote rather silly things, especially as his dotage approached, but I have never found cause to doubt his sincerity. After reading those letters, and thinking also of Shaw's notions re eugenics, his support for Eamon de Valera when he wrote a letter of condolence upon the death of Hitler, and rather a lot of other skeletons in Shavian closets, I came to the conclusion that, music apart, in Shaw's writing, especially much of that on politics and society, his inconsistency is so vast that you can hardly trust a word he wrote.
Pliable said…
DavidD, I totally agree with you, but would go further. Rather than "One can more or less dispense with professional critics nowadays" I would say "Professional critics have nowadays more or less dispensed with themselves".

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