Sunday, October 10, 2010

constructive criticism

So on Wednesday night, I attended a performance of Jens Joneleit´s new opera Metanoia at the Berlin Staatsoper. I wrote a fairly negative critique of the piece, which I posted on Friday. Saturday morning, I received an email from none other than Jens Joneleit. After corresponding with the composer, I asked his permission to post his email (unedited) as well as my response on my blog. Here are the results.
Dear William,

with interest I noticed your blog on my opera metanoia - thanks for your candor! Yours and the many more opinions written in most of the reviews in most German papers display to me, that there is a real necessity for this work! It amazes me, how much this piece stirs up the crowd - that one I did not expect! My intent of this opera was to create ubiquity - meaning a dissolution of a current understanding. The opera, in terms of the symbiosis of text, music and space, asks the audience to re-think their own categories of judgement and appreciation! The opera does not strive to make sense via a discursive language but a language that is still to be found. A language, or better put: a form of appreciation that lies beyond rational understanding, but allowing to appreciate things that are strange and contradictory at first! It is not mandatory to continue one's search to probe deeper! One is free to just put all of it off, saying, oh well, not a "great score", heck! The opera implies to dig deeper. Those that just pick out certain details of this work, juggling them around and comparing them with their pre-existing knowledge of things, will of course end up in a dead end! The question, for example, whether this is a "great score" is beside the point. As you probably are aware, the lack of something, or something else, is a deliberate choice. For example, that we have the kind if Berg-ian sonic field but not the "expressionism" of Berg, so the lack of, is deliberate omitting, not incapacity! The Opera is not about HOW the music sounds. It is about what the music DOES when it sounds this or that way. Or in other words: the contradictions that are present are deliberate, to provoke current thought, current categories of appreciation, nothing else new and contemporary opera can opera be! In looking back, that is what most operas achieved, when the were played for the first time - for example Salome by Richard Strauss, or your own favorite: Wozzeck by Alban Berg created the same vehement negative stir, which is now created by my opera! But that is what opera has to be about: at least here in Europe: stirring up current belief-systems, generating an appreciation going beyond what we know, probing deeper into what we do not know! And guess what, even Mozart's Operas had that very notion way back when these pieces first came out - we, after more than 200 years are just so familiar with that kind of music, that we are incapable of seeing and understanding how for example Don Giovanni pissed people off! But heck, because it did, it had the strength to survive all the way into our time.

I am not saying, that within 200 years, Metanoia will be as popular as Don Giovanni - that is the least of my ambitions. But I know, that my opera will have an impact on contributing to a different ear to listening to things. This opera is about the absurdity of current life: the more we know: scientifically, socially, politically; and the more mediums we have to exchange knowledge - should move us in a forward motion, but in actuality, life, or let us say: growth, today as never been ever before is at a complete standstill! The absurdity of contemporary life, on the lowest common denominator: 2 plus 2 no longer equals 4; that is what this opera is about in terms of tha narrative. Following the vehement reactions towards my opera, shows me, that this work hits the nerve dead center! My ambition though is, that exactly were people are set-off or perhaps put-off, where the people probe deeper. That is what opera should do, and in opera and theatre, we at least have a medium, in which we as the people, still have a refuge to allow ourselves to truly dig deeper. Going beyond what we know, allowing to see ourselves in a different perspective! That is what a great artist like Daniel Barenboim expected from me, not just to write "nice and complex" sounding music, but a music that goes beyond just sounding, striving to stir our minds. And that is what "true" contemporary music is all about: it is not about just sounding "new", it is about functioning "new" and "different". Composing is not just adding one new spectra to another. And it is especially today and tomorrow not just about creating a "great score" - that wheel has been re-invented to death. That is not the issue anymore. The issue in contemporary music is about form. It is about more, what to leave out, than about what to put in.

Maestro Barenboim really likes this opera, because it resonates beyond its sonic and musical reverberations! And that is what opera is all about. He wishes, that people would see the WHOLE, like in a game of chess: seeing the whole board! And then probe deeper, seeing things in totality!

Thanks for having plunged into my opera and written your blog!
Enjoy Berlin,
My response:
Dear Jens,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful email. It must not be the easiest thing for a composer to respond to a fairly scathing review, and I definitely admire your courage in that regard. I should say first that I am relatively new to the critical business, having only been blogging for about 10 months now, and not any kind of critical authority. Luckily, as a blogger, I am my own editor, so my critical narrative is entirely my own. That said, I do believe that critics have a right to judge a work in its own time, on its own merits, even only on a single hearing.

I don´t believe that opera has to be anything. Opera can be many things, and in its 400 years of existence it has---petty entertainment for the wealthy, spellbinding religious ritual, light comedy, provocative theater. Certainly the reception of Don Giovanni, Wozzeck, and Salome point to the idea that opera should be about provocation, inciting the audience in order to get them to re-evaluate their culture and belief systems. But it can be just as successful in any of its other iterations. Opera can be Nixon in China, which sits nicely between provocation and tradition, and it can also be Zimmermann´s Die Soldaten, which at times sickens the mind in order to make its points.

I am a musicologist, which certainly changes my role as a critic. I take the long view on a contantly changing form like opera---I understand why a composer would think that opera must be provocative, but also acknowledge that there is more than one way to do things.

For me personally, opera has to give a fully engaging evening of entertainment. When I say entertainment I do not mean to imply that it should be light, or merry, or not thought provoking or abrasive. But it needs to engage all of the senses, to provide an evening rapt with emotion--whether that emotion is happiness, religious ectasy, anger, or sheer disgust. I wasn´t particularly disgusted or upset by the content of Metanoia--I was just not completely engaged.

There is an argument which you make, one which is popular in the art world as well---that because Salome and Wozzek provoked the ire of critics in their times, it must be a good sign that modern music does the same. This can be true, but is not necessarily a law to go by. Nicolas Slominsky published a fantastic book, Lexicon of Musical Invective, which scrupulously details all of the bad reviews famous composers and famous pieces have received. When confronted with such a text, it´s easy to justify the idea that great music cannot be properly evaluated in its own time. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it´s not. But I´m not sure if we should cling to the idea that music must travel to the future before receiving its proper due.

When I say that I wished for a better score, I don´t mean that the music should be separated from the complete dramatic work. I didn´t intend to imply that it should only have to provide accompaniment to the action on stage. Opera is a medium primarily based on music, and the music provides the scaffolding for the theater. I believe you were trying to create a complete work of theater (or deconstruct a complete work of theater), and a great score is vital to this. And for me, how the music sounds is equal to what the music does. It wasn´t that I was off-put by how it sounded, but that it didn´t heighten the narrative.

And I think it´s important that you know that my role as a blogger is to create a critical narrative. If I were writing for a newspaper and not just for fun, I would have prepared more---gotten to know your music, read up on the background of the opera, etc. In a work of this ambition, it is probably a good idea to come prepared. But I also believe that every audience member has the right to an educated, open-minded opinion, and that in writing my review I was reflecting upon the work standing on its own, in a single performance. As a blogger, I usually see my place as supplementing professional critics at the New York Times or Chicago Tribune, providing a second opinion. Perhaps now that I am in Berlin I need to re-evaluate my critical role; if mine is the only English-language review of your opera, then I owe it to any readers to provide more background and objective information, rather than just commentary.

I admire greatly that you, Daniel Barenboim, and the artistic team had the guts to bring something so clearly experimental to a large opera company--and as the opening night work, no less. Something like this would never happen in America, and I am glad that you and your peers are granted opportunities like this.

Again, thank you for responding. As a relatively inexperienced critic, I don´t mean to attack you personally, but only wish to provide my opinions on what little of your work I´ve heard. I hope to attend the Staatskapelle performance of your music to get a better sense of it. Would you mind if I posted this correspondence (your words unedited, of coure) on my blog? A composer has the right to respond to critics, and I think it would be interesting for people to read.


Hopefully that will be to interest to some of you. As I said, I believe that a composer has the right to respond to his critics, and in today´s world it´s possible for that response to be very direct. I hope to attend a performance of one of Joneleit´s pieces with the Staatskapelle on October 25, and get a better idea of what his music sounds like (and does).

And you should all buy the
Lexicon of Musical Invective.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful exchange! I've printed it for my VIP-folder :)

    Thank you very much,