Calling all recognizers

The music world has seen many well-deserved tributes over the last several weeks for the author, musicologist, composer and critic Malcolm MacDonald, who passed away recently after a long battle with cancer.

Critic and author, Malcolm MacDonald

I never had the good fortune to meet Malcolm (although we did exchange a small number of friendly social media greetings) but I rated him incredibly highly as a person of the greatest musical discernment. His epic book on Brahms is a rare success in the fraught world of musical biography. It’s rarer than rare to find in a single author someone who combines the patience and attention to detail to needed do the research and fact-finding needed to produce an accurate and vivid biographical portrait of a historical person, with the depth of perception and musicianship to say anything really informative and insightful about their music. My studio shelves are littered with books on Schumann, Mahler, Shostakovich, Brahms and Beethoven that are full of the most appallingly shallow and wrong-headed judgements on selected works of the composers these authors have spent so many years studying. How can a supposed Shostakovich expert not “get” the Seventh or Eighth  Symphonies? How does a Mahlerian misunderstand a work like his Seventh? Why do so few Beethovenians fully appreciate the staggering genius of his early works, which are every bit as great as the music of his  Middle and Late periods, only different in style.  How can a Schumann scholar not recognize the power and originality of the Violin Concerto or the Second Symphony? Mr MacDonald seems to not only understand the greatness of pretty much every work of Brahms he discusses, his succinct summaries of major works throughout the book are full of genuine insights of value to both casual listeners and professional musicians.

Malcolm MacDonald was also a highly respected critic, whose reviews shared the same qualities of insight one finds in his books. I’ve thought for a long time that the word “critic” is one the profession could largely do without, as our modern-day usage of the word has become almost completely entangled with the practice of fault-finding.

I would suggest that the most useful critics would be better thought of as “recognizers-” people who are expert in recognizing what they’re hearing and being able to articulate what is important about it.  Finding obvious fault takes no great skill and does no great good. Anyone who is paying attention can tell when a pianist has played a wrong chord or a horn player has split a note, just as any restaurant goer can tell when their toast is burnt. On the other hand, as anyone who has ever watched Masterchef  or Hell’s Kitchen can testify, there are precious few aspiring cooks who can tell a carrot from a parsnip with a blindfold on. Some struggle to know chicken from fish, or grapes from cherries. A really great foodie, a truly enlightened restaurant critic or a real master chef is one who cannot only tell you what’s wrong with a dish, but what’s right. They can recognize the ingredients. They can recognize the cooking processes.  Given them a raw ingredient they’ve never worked with before, they can taste it and recognize the potential it has- how it would best be cooked, served and presented.

The music industry seems to be in the midst of a recognizer shortage.  Not so much within the critical establishment (they actually seem to be doing remarkably well these days at speaking out in support of new voices, especially as the blogging revolution has brought a new generation of writers into the field), but especially within the industry itself- among our decision-makers, funders and marketers. A critic is in the position to tell us “I think this music has something of real value to say, and I think it’s great we can hear it.” They can only tell us that if someone in the performing world has the guts to say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”

We all need recognizers, and I find I, for one, benefit from listening to them. I do not yet completely “get” the music of Havergral Brian, but I continue to engage with it largely because people like Maclom MadDonald recognize something special in it. I figure anyone who understands Brahms so well is unlikely to wrong about Brian, so I stick with it, I keep listening, I keep investing time and energy in trying to “get” the music.

The music of Hans Gál has been very good to me artistically and professionally. Since we started recording it about five years ago, it’s found a very sympathetic reception with listeners and critics (including Mr MacDonald, who wrote favourably, and extremely perceptively, about our first couple of efforts in the Bobby and Hans series here and here).  Why did nobody before us recognize the potential of this music? It was probably an unfortunate combination of small number of recognizers with the ability to look at the score of a Gál symphony and recognize what makes it a compelling work rather than to simply identify the ways in which differs from a work by Mahler or Berg, and, more tellingly, an even smaller number of that group in a position to make a performance of a Gál symphony possible with the courage to put their hand in the air and say “I think this music has something of real value to say and I think we should play it.”

My own skills (or luck) and nerve as a recognizer, however limited, have proven to be one of my greatest professional assets. There are a lot of good conductors and cellists out there- if one can find new repertoire of real substance that has the potential of finding a sympathetic audience, it can only help your professional cause as a performer.

You would think that the offices of the world’s great orchestras and festivals would be chock-a-block with visionary recognizers. Talk for a while to anyone in artistic planning, and you’ll be astounded at how knowledgeable they are about a huge range of repertoire. But, in my experience, the industry seems to have been built to prevent critical recognition of important music from having any role in determining in what music gets played. We all know the plight of the poor composer who sends scores and CDs of work after work to orchestra after orchestra. Why does this never seem to work? Because the chances of your CD and score ending up in front of a recognizer with the guts to put his hand in the air and say “I think we should play it” are statistically impossible to differentiate from zero. The person you sent that CD isn’t hired to listen to it with a view to recognizing musical greatness, he/she’s trained to look at the name on the cover to see if he/she recognizes the brand he/she’s dealing with.

People in the classical world have built huge systems of committees, agents, artistic administration (isn’t that an oxymoron? :)) and oversight to make sure that nobody in a major arts organization is really in a position to do anoint themselves as real “recognizers,” even if they had the courage to try to. Let’s face it- it’s not really about protecting our audiences from lousy music. We would far rather present a terrible work by an awful composer who is known and established, than take a chance on a masterpiece by a composer whose name is unknown to the public.  Many folks would rather have one of the world’s greatest orchestras “conducted” by a washed-up famous soloist who knows nothing about conducting and almost nothing about score study and rehearsal management than take a chance on an unknown conductor who has learned their craft outside the spotlight. Why- because we recognize the name rather than any particular ability to conduct.

Think again of Hans Gál- the first professional recording of any of his symphonies only took place 120 years after his birth. 120 years. And the thing about Gál was this- he was no outsider, no crank, no recluse, no socially impaired nutjob. His music was promoted by major publishers, he helped found the Edinburgh Festival, he grew up in the centre of Viennese musical life, he taught at  a great university, he was a respected scholar and writer. He was a fairly well-known, well-connected musical figure. And for most of his professional life, orchestras, opera  houses and record companies and their affiliated conductors, artistic planners and producers completely and utterly failed to recognize the significance of his music.

What to do? How is a composer supposed to make their music heard? Well, if I were you, I’d start hunting recognizers. Lets face it, looking for people empowered to stick their necks out in support of the unknown at major arts organizations is like looking for tobacco company lawyers  in Heaven.

But there may be some among your friends, your schoolmates, your local music makers. If you start small, in an arena where you can build personal connections with performers and decision makers, you can start to make things happen.

Promoting your music, however, is probably a dead end, because you need to become a brand that is recognized. If you are not blessed with a name people will greet with curiosity and interest, try a new name. If I were trying to build a composition career, I’d change my name to Shostakovich, Bartók or Stravinsky and concoct a fictitious blood-relationship with my namesake if I were you. Conductors: the time is ripe for another Karajan- you could be his illegitimate 3rd cousin twice removed, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you are subsequently busted- the scandal will only enhance your fame, your name recognition.  Is there anything else you can do to become famous? Can you join a rock band or become a talking head  (or do both and join the Talking Heads?)? Maybe you can build an international reputation for running a festival (don’t try to pull any of those “recognizing” tricks on your day job, though- keep your opinions to yourself and learn what everyone else thinks is important in the industry), then reveal your compositional genius to the world once your name is known?

And for goodness sake, get your ass on Masterchef. It doesn’t matter how little you know about food, because one day, the programme manager of the Philharmonia Metropolitana will get your CD and score and say “Ah yes, Cameron Stravinsky! He was the guy on Masterchef who mistook passatta for grapefruit juice. My god- 2 million people must have seen that show. Get him on the phone! Let’s commission a symphony from him. And while you’re at it, see if he can transcribe us a Miley Cyrus song for orchestra!”



It’s great to see the positive response to this post! Thanks for reading, everyone

With hindsight I want to make one distinction hinted at above extra clear- being a “recognizer” is not the same thing as being super opinionated. To go back to the cooking show metaphor- liking this or that kind of food or hating some other dish or ingredient doesn’t mean you can actually distinguish one from the other in a blind taste test. This post is not a call for more people to be more stubborn and forceful about what they like- almost the opposite.

I think the best recognizers are those who can set aside their taste and engage with music on its own terms, rather than looking to music for a validation of their own superiority of taste and intellect. We hear best and wisest when we’re ready to be surprised and challenged by music. We grow the most as artists and listeners when we learn to recognize an idiom we’ve never been able to fully understand. Too many of us listen like too many children eat- we’re too sure of what we’re going to like before we try it.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “Calling all recognizers”

  1. David McDuff

    I think it’s possible that Gál’s music languished in neglect for so many years because its creator lived and worked in the rather narrow context of Edinburgh musical life. If Gál had settled in London or New York it is probable that his music would have become known in the English-speaking world much sooner. It’s perhaps a mistake to think of Edinburgh in terms of its international festival, which lasts for only three weeks of the year.

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