Music in the Afternoon

What Hemingway can teach us about performing-arts criticism.

By Ben Finane

Critics should be writing for Brett, the smart observer new to the art but hungry to learn more. Brett knows the Romeros when she sees them, but she would be delighted to know why they are so great. She also recognizes fakers, and is eager to find out how they can be exposed (“the tricks other bull-fighters used . . .”). You can show Brett what to watch for, “what [it’s] all about,” explain the arc of a work to reveal “more something . . . with a definite end, and less of a spectacle with unexplained horrors,” the latter potentially being a new listener’s reaction to a Schoenberg masterwork.

To take ephemeral greatness in a performing art and quantify it in written or spoken expression is both a difficult task and a noble aspiration, and those who do it well ought
to be admired and valued more than they currently are. My critical heroes include New
York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, whose recent look back for that newspaper at (the now late) actor Dennis Hopper, “Madman Perhaps; Survivor, Definitely,” captured Hopper’s unnerving brilliance: “If the pleasure of his performance is tinged with discomfort, it’s because Mr. Hopper has apparently never been afraid of looking ridiculous — an important quality for performers.”

Music critic Paul Griffiths in 2002 miraculously quantified the audience’s unease at the premiere of John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls for the now defunct online magazine Andante: “One can understand why the New York Philharmonic should have sought, while the World Trade Center site was still being cleared, an opportunity to speak to the moment with music of the moment. But it was inevitable that any new composition would come both too late and too early. A year later, the moment has passed: shock and outrage, though not forgotten, have become the prelude to more considered anxieties.”

My favorite critic is boxing manager and color commentator Teddy Atlas, who susses out fighters’ weaknesses seconds after the opening bell and predicts knockouts rounds before they happen. His anatomy of a fight consistently reminds us that The Sweet Science, too, (like bullfighting) is a performing art. During the heavyweight main event of an ESPN Friday Night Fights broadcast in April, Atlas observed to play-by-play man Joe Tessitore: “Right now the man in control of everything as far as the rhythm goes — and the rhythm is everything — it’s Thompson. You know, Thompson is the ocean, Joe, and Beck is just a log: he’s being pulled in and out by the tide of Thompson.” After a pause, Atlas added: “I think the log, being Beck, is about to become driftwood.” Beck’s corner threw in the towel two rounds later.

Atlas, like Hemingway, locates a humble elegance in his keen imagery. And like all great critics, he makes us better students by teaching us how to think more critically. “She saw why she liked Romero’s cape-work and why she did not like the others.”