Originally published April 2007.
Composers are good interviews. They tend to be smart and they seem to enjoy talking, especially about their own music. They spend a lot of time alone working at their craft, so maybe they welcome the opportunity for human contact more than others. That time alone also seems to turn them into philosophers of a sort — they can speak deeply about music, better than most.
I phoned a composer the other day. We talked about his new piece (which was to be performed soon) and had a good, friendly, stimulating chat. He was a nice guy, I liked him, and I think he felt the same about me. Of course, he probably knew that I would also be reviewing his new work, so he had a motivation for being friendly. Not that I took that cynical view.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be interviewing anyone that I was about to review. At least that’s the way I used to think. A critic should be dispassionate and objective when reviewing, I think, neither rooting nor seeking to tear down, and if you know the person you are reviewing, even a little, that can be difficult. My talk with this composer made me more sympathetic to him than was perhaps ideal.
On the other hand, with that sympathy came an understanding of his music that I might not otherwise have. I understood better where his music was coming from, what it was trying to accomplish. The person behind the music was real to me. Talking to this composer was, in its way, as valuable as looking at his score.
At the Register, and at most other newspapers these days, music critics end up doing double and triple duty, as reporters and interviewers and as critics. The hats aren’t easily switched. A purity of purpose is compromised. But there isn’t a soul [at the newspaper] who could step in to interview anyone on my beat, so the task falls to me. I have loathed it at times, welcomed it at others. I’m still on the fence about it.
The concert arrived in which the composer’s piece would have its premiere. It was a good piece, in a modest, eloquent way. It did not set the world on fire, but then that didn’t appear to be the composer’s intention. His music aimed to please and it did. I liked it.
At intermission, I found myself a few feet away from the composer (who didn’t recognize me, of course). By that time I had heard his piece, knew pretty much what I thought and would write about it, and decided it would do no harm — indeed, would be the polite thing to do — to say hello and shake his hand. I did so. Rather than shake my hand, however, he grabbed me in a big bear hug. He was delighted to meet me and thanked me for the interview. He introduced me to his wife and to another woman, who I think was his agent, but who at any rate told me that she really enjoyed my writing. Call it buttering up if you want, certainly call it flattery.
I still wrote what I had to write about his piece. I also, no doubt, will be granted another interview when his next piece is to be premiered, and the composer and I will have a good talk about it. It will be a bigger piece, written for important people, so the interview will be no small thing. Then, once again, I’ll review his new piece with as much objectivity as I can muster.
Note 2012: The composer referred to in this piece is Daniel Catán (1949-2011). The “next piece” mentioned was his opera “Il Postino” and we did indeed have another chat about it.
Tim: Good article about life as a music critic/interviewer/reporter in today’s world. Like you, I try to make it a point not to review people with whom I have a personal relationship (even one as tenuous as the one you described) but it’s just not always possible. If a reader chooses to ignore what I write on the (mistaken) belief that I cannot review a performance objectively, so be it. On other observation: nearly all listeners who heard the premiere didn’t have your background of the composer and his piece, so I think it would have been helpful for you to explain in the review that you had intervied Catán ahead of time and what, effect, if any that had on your review. You may have written that or space limitations may have made that impossible but I, for one, would have liked the knowedge.
“they can speak deeply about music, better than most”
Composers don’t really understand how music works any better than we do. Of course they understand form and technique, but like the rest of us, have only intuition to differentiate between a dry and formal piece and something with real strength of feeling.
The best music is not composed through some guy developing his own “grand scheme” of communication.. rather, it happens when the composer allows himself (or herself) to be guided by the universal communication of music… (i.e. be inspired, compose what feels right, without having to ask why)
Whether or not composers understand music any better than the rest of us is beside the point. They speak about it better than most. This is based on my experiences interviewing musicians over many, many years.
Actually, to suggest that people who have devoted their lives to creating a certain thing (with any degree of success) DO NOT speak about it better than those who have never done it is just plain nonsensical. Of course it depends on each person’s eloquence, but ON AVERAGE composers would certainly be able to talk about music more interestingly than others.