Music Feature Print



New Music and Arts Criticism in the Age of Electronic Media: Why it Matters and Why You Should Care

December 17, 2008 - Durham, NC:


Rudolph Kreutzer refused to play a sonata for piano and violin by Ludwig van Beethoven. It happened to be No. 9 in A, Op. 47, and it ultimately bore his name; when the feisty composer rededicated it to him. Only later did Kreutzer realize what a mistake he had made, for George Bridgetower will forever be credited as the first performer of this singular work. This bit of 19th century gossip speaks to the importance of music history and criticism; and it serves as a cautionary tale. Violin students remember Kreutzer as the composer of dreaded wall-paper etudes and as the guy who was too "chicken" to tackle a great piece of music.

Who will tell the juicy stories of the 21st century, and where will they be recorded?

With the transition from print to electronic media, we are witness to the demise of locally owned newspapers, and arts journalists everywhere now fear for their jobs. Recently, The New York Times published a story penned by Jenna Wortham, "For Laid-Off Journalists, Free Blog Accounts." Wortham reports that, by the time the article hit the paper, nearly 300 email applications had been submitted. As an anonymous source told me, "this is not a downturn, but a sea change."

So there might be good news, after all, for arts journalism is flourishing in cyberspace in blogs and online magazines. But how will writers be paid? This is the question publishers, editors, and arts advocates are grappling with, across the country. Will an online publication generate enough capital through pop-up and other forms of advertising to pay for itself? And how will revenues be shared? A free-lance arts journalist friend of mine asserts that many publishers and editors are not terribly concerned about paying the writers, but I am naive enough to believe that great minds will agree upon viable economic plans, for journalists and critics must feed themselves.

Classical Voice of North Carolina (CVNC) is one of a handful of dedicated online cultural arts magazines in the country. Inspired by San Francisco Classical Voice and launched in 2001 by four critics who had previously written for arts & entertainment papers that abandoned classical music, the website serves communities across the state of North Carolina with listings, features, concert, dance, theatre, and CD reviews. Now in its seventh year, the organization continues to run on a shoestring, but the site now racks up approximately 42,000 visits monthly

Meanwhile, as print newspapers consolidate and dwindle in both content and, some would say, quality, their online editions, which essentially "give away" their product, are growing in popularity and readership. I see this apparent crisis as an opportunity. Sites like CVNC and dedicated bloggers, too, offer interaction with literate and knowledgeable readers. This new method of engaging readers stands to elevate the bar for arts journalism in several ways, not least of which is by offering immediate feedback that can, among other things, nail any inherent biases that may surface.

But during the transition, the 501(c)(3) non-profit Classical Voice platforms (which include a new venture in New England) require financial support from generous donors and grants, too, to stay afloat. Plans are underway to retool CVNC's site to provide for greater interactivity while maintaining quality reviews, features, news articles, and its straightforward, user friendly platform — the availability of funding will govern the speed with which these upgrades are made. In any event, our critics — writers who are passionate about music — will continue making literary contributions. This leads to my companion topic, New Music.


Just as Kreutzer missed an opportunity, the concert-going community loses out when they choose to skip over local contemporary music offerings. I’m not talking about Guns ‘n Roses and Techno, although my children would chastise me for not recognizing their talent. Rather, in the midst of a host of universities and colleges, the public has access to numerous performances of music by living composers. Beyond major cities like New York City and San Francisco, there are few communities with the Triangle's abundance of musical offerings. Among these are programs of "new" music, music composed in both the 21st and the 20th centuries — some of which music is, by default, already acknowledged to include many fervently admired contemporary classics that post-date or precede WWII.

By programming works of dead composers over the new and exciting work being produced in our own time, classical music has perhaps gained a bad reputation as a stuffy old museum — or, if you prefer, mausoleum. Joseph Horowitz, the music historian and author of Classical Music in America, refers to more recent music as "post-classical." Regardless of what we call it, however, music composed in our time should be luring concertgoers.

Do we blame the Sputnik generation for investing more money on science and technology than on music education? Do we blame the presenters for poor advertising? Or is it that we just don’t see what is in front of our very eyes? Perhaps classical music's bad reputation — its preference for programming works of dead composers over the new and exciting work being produced in our time — is deserved. Just like our current economic woes, there is plenty of blame to spread around — extending to radio stations that shall remain nameless....

Not all new music is accessible, appealing, or likeable upon first listening. It can be thorny, loud, dissonant and, sometimes, baffling. Composers sometimes write cryptic program notes that do little to help, and critics often lack sufficient vocabulary to describe it. But we keep trying, and if you will keep reading us, we will continue to grease the skids in our effort to get you involved. There are many reasons to resist, but we all have the power to change our listening habits. And if the past election has anything to contribute to the conversation, then "Yes We Can" support the arts, promote new music, and live more richly, in the process!

*Violinist and teacher Karen E. Moorman, a free-lance writer for Classical Voice of North Carolina and Fellow of the 2008 NEA Institute for Music and Opera at Columbia University in New York, is based in Durham, NC.