Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The art of criticism

Alex Ross has a wonderfully good essay on Mozart in this week's New Yorker:

In 1991, the Philips label issued a deluxe, complete Mozart edition--a hundred and eighty CDs--employing such distinguished interpreters as Mitsuko Uchida, Alfred Brendel, and Colin Davis. The set has now been reissued in a handsome and surprisingly manageable array of seventeen boxes. During a slow week last winter, I transferred it to an iPod and discovered that Mozart requires 9.77 gigabytes.

On a computer, you can use search functions to create cross-sections of Mozart--a dreamworld of Adagios; a neo-Baroque swirl of fantasias and fugues; a nonet of Quintets (all major works). To listen to his twenty-seven settings of the 'Kyrie' is to appreciate his inexhaustible invention: they range from the entrancingly sweet to the forbiddingly severe, each a convincing simulacrum of the power of the Lord. But the obvious challenge was to go through the whole megillah--to begin with the Andante in C Major (K. 1a), which Mozart wrote when he was five, and proceed to the bitter end, the Requiem (K. 626), which he left unfinished at his death, at thirty-five. It took me three months. I can't claim to have given every bar close attention; a patch of recitative in the early opera 'La Finta Semplice,' for example, was disrupted by a protracted public-address announcement at Detroit Metro Airport, and most of the Contredanse No. 4 in F (K. 101) was drowned out by the crack drum corps Drumedies performing in the Times Square subway station. All recordings are fake events, and MP3 files heard on headphones are faker than most. But I got a rough aerial view of Mozart's achievement, and was more in awe than ever.

Whenever I read Ross's criticism I'm just staggered by how perfect it is, perfectly to my tastes at any rate: intellectual, imaginative, perceptive, immensely knowledgeable, funny and of course extremely well-written too. I feel it shows up a lot of other arts criticism as undistinguished (I'm not knocking the other New Yorker stuff, it's usually very good--Hilton Als is probably my other favorite there); I can only think of a handful of for-a-general-audience literary critics in their 30s and 40s who have this kind of authority for me, Daniel Mendelsohn probably first among them. Interesting to think, in any case, about what makes really good criticism work....

(Oh, and a personal New Yorker literary bonus: in the very good story by William Trevor--also in this week's issue, nice when things are available on-line...--the protagonist in the opening scene is reading one of my favorite minor Hardy novels--yep, you guessed it, The Hand of Ethelberta! I love all of Hardy; because I'm always rooting for the underdog I am particularly partial--though I can't say that they're really of the caliber of the famous ones--to the crazier and lesser-known ones like A Pair of Blue Eyes and A Laodicean. . . .)


  1. Did you ever read the Pavement essay? Though I liked them very much at the time, I think that the article is objectively overwrought.

  2. But the putative objectivity of the ordinary book or music review is what turns me off so much criticism--I guess I can see that sometimes a piece may become stylistically overwrought, this is perhaps a question of editing (often it's just a sentence or two that creates that effect, or the diction in a particular paragraph), but I will confess that I like a slightly hysterical tone! Obviously this blog shows the extent to which I tend to work myself up into a frenzy about books--it seems to me that in the presence of high-quality art we SHOULD become overwrought or we're missing something about it. That very calm objective appreciation of art makes me want to punch somebody!

    (NB I am making a note to myself to stop using so many exclamation points, it is an awful habit--I must ban them from my usage....)

  3. Unsurprisingly, I agree with wild enthusiasm, since it is the patrician facade of judgments handed down from on high that puts me off of so much criticism.

    A true story: sitting in a grad student colloquium, a zealous, slightly batty professor encouraged all the students to pursue what they were passionate about, and a frail, insecure student stood up and asked, "How can we be enthusiastic while maintaining critical distance and objectivity? How can we be passionate in a postmodern paradigm?" So I think these things are taught...I didn't want to punch her, but I did feel bad for her.

  4. Oh dear.... it is funny, I have never found the least conflict between professordom & insane literary enthusiasm, other than not having quite enough time to write everything I would like. I am often privately rolling my eyes when people agonize about it, I just don't see the problem (I mean, of course it will take each of us a while to find the exact right mode of being a reader & writer, it doesn't always sort itself out that easily, but it's not a structural problem so much as a challenge of personal development)....