That’s Rich

Jonathan Bellman

Commenter Wrongshore asks my opinion of Alan Rich’s opinion of Jay Greenberg, which I had not read.  So I found Rich’s Greenberg piece from the L.A. Weekly of August 23, 2006.

I don’t read Rich regularly or know anything about him.  A quick scan around the net tells me that he’s a dyspeptic 82-year-old critic—former music director of Pacifica station KPFA, music editor at New York Magazine, etc.—who writes in the tone of Pergolesi’s Uberto, in a snit because the maid’s kept him waiting for his hot chocolate.  In this piece, Rich holds Greenberg responsible for the critical hype about him, both the predictable morning-show, personality-cult fawning and the awed statements from composition teachers who might better have refrained.

Here is an example of what I mean:

“For [Greenberg] it is 1904,” marvels one interviewer, “and anything is possible.”

Yes, 1904. Let’s see: The young Rachmaninoff pokes around in the trash bins for discarded melodic gambits. His countryman Rimsky-Korsakov collects bits of tinsel for his hootchy-kootch Oriental numbers. Jolly old Sir Edward Elgar and his dour colleague Jean Sibelius busily stir in the musical equivalent of cornstarch to darken and thicken the orchestration of their sonic landscapes; on the Continent, Max Reger’s fugues and canons accomplish the same. Little do any of these believe that, a century later, an earnest young New York schoolboy will still be constructing overtures and symphonies with the same melodic turgidity, building the same tottering musical structures out of counterpoints that ultimately self-strangle on their own complexity and collapse under the weight of their own fragility.  [End of quote]

The aesthete is displeased!  Fetch the masseur and pastry-chef!

Rich also quotes writer Matthew Gurewitsch’s comment (in a piece for the Times) that Greenberg’s allegros “have the swashbuckling appeal of movie music,” adding, “The best movie music these days has moved far ahead of the swashbuckling glop that fills out most of this symphony.”  Zing!  Swashbuckling glop!  Quelle riposte!  He then tells us two films whose soundtracks he likes, though his short comments on each impart no information whatever.  I remember reading someone’s review of Gorecki’s famous Third Symphony that called it “a load of gloomy piffle”; “swashbuckling glop” seems to be the same kind of comment.  People might remember the comment, but not the narcissistic critic.  This kind of writing is like a Kick Me sign, or poison post-it: cheap, trivial, and for all that still potentially damaging, if readers get a label they can hang on.

So this is Rich on Greenberg.  He has no interest, here, beyond his own cleverness, and at 82 years of age he ought to be a hell of a lot more clever than he is.  For all his glibness about Greenberg’s putative lack of originality, Rich’s statements about Rachmaninov, Rimsky, Elgar et al. are no more than the snide and superficial repetitions of the critical commonplaces of fifty years ago.  The remark about Rimsky seems borrowed, at least in tone, from Joseph Kerman (whose 1956 Opera as Drama is one of the loci classici of critical self-indulgence, whatever else it offers), and the rest sounds like the jealous ranting of a neglected fourth-string academic serialist.

Ultimately we learn nothing about the music under discussion beyond that the author considers it beneath him—and he seems happy to project an image of himself as the worst pop-culture satire of The Critic: a preening, malignant scribbler who has never produced anything other than bilious insults.  Whether this is truly Rich or not I don’t know, but I do know that I don’t intend to read anything else of his.  It is unworthy, and makes no contribution.

Best to avoid both Heipmeister  and hit men and listen to Greenberg’s music yourself.  For Alan Rich, some Metamucil and a one-way trip out to pasture.  Or the knacker’s.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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10 Responses to That’s Rich

  1. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Pretty funny, and Rich is not invariable dyspeptic.

  2. Huh? says:

    Alan Rich is really wonderful, one of the only critics worth reading today, and an invaluable contributor to musical life in LA. Often cranky, but usually right, and an invaluable antidote to hype. “So this is Rich on Greenberg,” you write, but of course you know perfectly well that it’s not, it’s Rich on the media discourse surrounding Greenberg, and he nails it. And wait – you call him a “malignant scribbler,” and yet somehow *he’s* the one guilty of “bilious insults” and not you? Who makes no contribution?

  3. Amy Bauer says:

    Alan Rich is the best critic writing now about contemporary music. I agree with Lisa; his comments are a breath of fresh air in current media writing about new music, which seems to desperately tout every new pop affectation or dumbed-down approach to programming. Time and again his reviews have perfectly captured the essence of a concert I’ve attended.
    I am quite disappointed in your “review” of him based on but one piece. I find Rich one of the very few writers on music worth reading, and the very opposite of a “malignant scribbler.” Viva la crank!

  4. squashed says:

    hah, I know..
    if Jay were a kid out of west coast school, laweekly would sing different tune. (my speculation. It’s all industry hype)
    Anybody listen to the actual CD yet? Is this worth bothering at all?

  5. Jonathan says:

    Really lit up the blogosphere with this one, didn’t I?
    I repeat: I was not asked about Rich as a critic, I was asked about Rich on Greenberg, which is what I found and commented on. I stick to my first opinion: his writing and his treatment of Greenberg are shameful. This is the worst oversimplification of the death-of-the-author business: Critic as Superior–by default, whether Master is Pleased or Master is Displeased–to the hapless subject of his writing. It is a criminal abdication of responsibility to produce that much in the way of insults with no real information to go with it. And no, I there’s no shortage of insult in my response but you’ll note that in my own review of the Greenberg CD I did actually discuss the music, in hopes of explaining why I thought the way I did about it.
    As far as the band Battles or the suggestion that Rich’s feelings about Greenberg are a coastal matter, I think those are different conversations–and pretty far afield. A critic like Rich has a responsibility for civility out of respect to the art that he has made a living off. (I’m not aware of any composing or performing or researching on his CV, on whatever level. This is not a crime, but it does heighten the appearance of parasitism, and of his having rather less to say on the subject than other critics who have labored in the vineyards they’re writing about.) If he replicates another listener’s feelings after a concert, that’s all fine and good–but someone of his stature writes, I would think, for more than just the people who there. If that’s all the L.A. Weekly wants, I’m really surprised, because I would imagine they’d want their readership to be a bit broader.

  6. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Amy, that was Huh? you were agreeing with. Mine is the first, very short comment that just says Rich is not invariably dyspeptic.

  7. Wrongshore says:

    All right then. Thanks for addressing my question; I would agree with the commenters and suggest that you not write off Rich on the basis of one review you objected to.
    But I find the critic-as-parasite view troubling. Critics who don’t have experience composing are parasites; critics who do are frustrated artists having their revenge on successful people. A critic is a knowledge worker of a different sort than a composer. Downstream, perhaps, but parasitic doesn’t seem useful.

  8. squashed says:

    This is the internet. Everybody is a critic. In fact some of bigger amateur blogs have higher viewership than a medium size national newspaper.

  9. Henry Holland says:

    Hi, found your blog via My Favorite Intermissions.
    I’d read Alan Rich’s bile in the Weekly since the early 80’s (for my sanity, I stopped about 3 years ago) and I’ll say this: if Alan Rich said the sun was going to rise tomorrow morning, the first thing I’d do when I got out of bed was peek out the window to make sure, that’s how little I trust his “opinion”. From what I remember, he studied as a musicologist (!!!). Sorry. 🙂
    The Greenberg piece is typical (yes, I know, it’s about the media hype, but if it were a recently discovered new piece by Lou Harrison, there’s no way he’d write anything close to that) . If it’s not one of his hobby horses –say, Partch or Harrison or Cowell or minimalism– or if it’s anything from the European Romantic/post-Romantic period that has the slightest hint of lushness to it, he’s absolutely vicious.
    As for his advocacy of “new music”, what that means is “music hewing to the NY Downtown aesthetic”; it’s a *very* American-centric viewpoint, based on a style that’s a niche within a niche. And I thought if read one more time about the glories of the Schubert “Unfinished” symphony or the C# in the sixth bar of the Beethoven 3rd symphony, I’d scream.
    For years, he whined and whined about Martin Bernheimer, to the point where it wouldn’t have surprised me to read “Critic Rich arrested for stalking Critic Bernheimer”. The seething resentment that Bernheimer had the bully pulpit of the Los Angeles Times while he was stuck writing for a free rag that most of the people who picked it up did so to see when tickets went on sale for Depeche Mode at the Forum or to set up sex dates was palpable.
    “Time and again his reviews have perfectly captured the essence of a concert I’ve attended”.
    That’s sure not the experience of me and my friends. It became a joke amongst us: how much of this review of a concert we attended did Alan Rich write before he attended, based just on the programming?

  10. Jeffrey Quick says:

    Greenberg is the Real Deal. I hear beginnings of a real voice there (just like you hear it in Mozart’s music written at the same age). But Rich isn’t dissing Jay for not being the Mozart of 1791, he’s dissing him for not being the Schoenberg of 1951. .. and in the process dissing some of the best-loved music of the past century.
    I’m just glad he’s not Jay’s teacher.

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