I am thinking a lot about the nature of criticism. On a recent trip I sat on the airplane reading a fascinating book that’s called Conversations with Tom Service. How fascinating could such a book be?
Ah but it’s a book BY Thomas Adès, the composer of The Tempest and Powder her Face as well as lots of other compositions . As with so much about this book, it feels totally backwards.
Adès is now famous, but didn’t do the obvious –referencing himself in the title—so we have a kind of ass-backwards suggestion, as if the composer is saying ‘oh I am not important’.
This is a remarkably clever exercise in some respects, a wonderfully suggestive book that makes me feel alive and alert, even as I want to rail against much of what I read . There’s a great deal in the book to stimulate you, even if it’s sometimes a stimulus comparable to a buzzing mosquito in your tent. Sure, I hear the little bugger, buzz buzz buzz and it means I can’t sleep even if I want to smack it so hard that it’s off to meet its maker. I am simultaneously irritated by this book and fascinated by the questions raised. Often I want to say ‘yes good question to raise’ even as I completely reject the direction taken in the conversation by Adès, and while we’re at it, profoundly irritated by the aptly named Tom Service, whose questions never seem very challenging, but always sycophantic, supportive and at his, yes, service. S-s-s…
The book is full of brilliant quotes even as I disagree with much of what I read. As a rhetorical exercise this is a very good book.
I already had heard that Adès dissed Wagner, so I tried to come in with an open mind. Several of the things said about Wagner sound right. But I am pretty sure that while Adès says he plays Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod –and there are lots of us who do so—that Adès does not know Wagner from having listened to him, or not knowing him as a devoted fan. The comments he makes suggest someone who has skimmed rather than really experienced Wagner. So I can’t really be bothered with the arguments because they are superficial. Sorry Mr A.
Adès is wonderfully ambitious at times in what he’s addressing. And then when he speaks, it’s as though he’s understood that we need to climb to the top of the tower, and he’s blind, totally blind. But thank you TA for asking us to climb to the top even if you forgot to put on your glasses.
It’s curious that the biggest target in Adès’s sights –Richard Wagner—arguably pursued the very same pathway. As a young composer Wagner wrote pamphlets attacking the status quo, proposing reform even before there was any evidence he knew how to achieve such reforms. So Wagner became an issue, a cause celebre, even though in some respects he was at odds with the status quo, and a total pain in the butt. So I am simultaneously impressed with Adès’ approach even if I disagree with what he actually says. At this point, is Adès perhaps at the same point as Wagner in the 1830s, having made a splash but with operas that haven’t stood the test of time…?
Adès disses Mahler and while dissing Wagner throws Parsifal onto the same scrap-heap where he already threw Tristan und Isolde. Some really important issues come up, even as I loathe the conclusions he draws. The word ‘enactment’ comes up, one I think that’s fundamental in the realm of opera. How—having mentioned enactment—could he miss the point with Parsifal? I don’t want to be inconsistent, because of course TA loves Les Troyens, an opera I adore, even as he disses Wagner & Verdi.
I am reminded of that old adage ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’. Attacking Wagner as though you are his peer is a no-lose proposition, and as a self-promotional strategy pretty good actually. If you hate what he said about Wagner, suddenly one becomes energized about Adès in opposition. And of course, if you hate Wagner, you’re going to eat it up.
I’m a weirdo of course. I had encountered Hoiby’s music for The Tempest and so i innocently wondered ‘who is this Adès dude and why isn’t it Hoiby’s Tempest being presented at the Met?’ I would have liked to see a discussion of the relative merits of the two adaptations, although from what i have seen, Adès’ version is remarkable, and the better of the two. If Hoiby’s adaptation is shown to be poorer of the two, surely he benefits from being part of a conversation that is otherwise a monologue, Adès up in the stratosphere with Wagner & Mahler, rather than down in the trenches with Hoiby.
And so I speak out of two sides of my mouth. I am consuming the book, reading it at a fast pace even as I rail, at much of what they discuss. What IS criticism anyway? Is this a conversation at all?
I will keep wondering. And so i won’t deny that i like Adès book, even as i find myself arguing with it, railing against it.