On his blog at the New York Times, William Ferguson has posted a reply to New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who was apparently angry that Elliott Carter was not included in some year-end, postmortem Web mix called "The Music They Made." My advice to Ross would be to forget it. Neither he nor Elliott Carter requires the approval of the New York Times. And neither do I. I had not heard of Ferguson, but reading his post, titled "Why Elliott Carter Wasn’t in ‘The Music They Made,'" I have to say that he strikes me as something of a patronizing twit.
Ferguson says he admires Ross (though more for what he has had to say about Radio Head than anything he's written about classical music), and yet, he says, Ross and other classical critics "have missed the point." And the point, apparently, is that a musician who has died in the past year does not merit Ferguson's attention unless he or she has somehow influenced the popular culture. I get the impression that even the great Ravi Shankar would not have made the list if he had not been adopted by George Harrison like some sort of pound puppy.
We have come a long way from the days when the New York Times ignored pop culture. Now it ignores serious culture, because, the argument goes, serious culture is no longer mainstream. Imagine — Elliott Carter, one of the great composers of the century, is not "mainstream, “despite the appearance of his music on programs the world over. Neither, I imagine, is Charles Rosen, who died not long after Carter did and who performed the most mainstream classical music imaginable. In Ferguson's epistemological universe, intrinsic achievement counts for nothing. What counts is public relations — how well something penetrated the media consciousness.
I was reminded of Pauline Kael's reply to listeners of KPFA who asked her why she did not like or review more so-called "name" pictures:
"How completely has mass culture subverted even the role of the critic," she wrote, "when listeners suggest that because the movies a critic reviews favorably are unpopular ad hard to find, that the critic must be playing some snobbish game with himself and the public? ... You consider it rather 'suspect' that I don't praise more 'name' movies. Well, what makes a name movie is simply a saturation advertising campaign, the same kind of campaign that puts samples of liquid detergents at your door. The 'name pictures of Hollywood are made the same way they are sold: by pretesting the various ingredients, removing all possible elements that might affront the mass audience, adding all possible elements that will titillate the largest number of people."
Not to worry: Ferguson assures us that in the future, he will be open to our suggestions for including dead classical musicians in his year end mix. My response to that is essentially to words. In the first pqalce, as I said, I don't need his approval, and in the second, the offer is too little, too late. Mr. Carter and Mr. Rosen are already dead. That hole cannot be filled by paying attention to less important figures in the years to come.