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The Cult of Amazon

Who would write, almost daily, 1,000-word overviews of composers and music that most of the general population has never heard of and probably don't care to know about? Inside the weird world of Amazon's most hardcore reviewers and their quest for the best.
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Publishers and writers can lament books becoming an irrelevant part of American culture, but compared to the hermetically sealed world of classical music they have nothing to complain about. Even the most inconsistent of readers will occasionally trek into a Barnes & Noble and be exposed, if only unwittingly, to something current. But how many living composers can you name? And what if you weren't allowed to say Hans Zimmer?

Classical music has reached the point where albums of Thomas Tallis songs now bear the label: "Features Spem in Alium, as mentioned in Fifty Shades of Grey."

Movies are classical music's primary mode of transmission these days. The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has become synonymous with Dignified Emotional Distress. IMDb counts no fewer than 10 uses each of his Für Alina, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, and Fratres variations in movies dating back to the ’60s. The Italian romance I am Love (fueled by a fluent Tilda Swinton) is driven by a soundtrack of the American composer John Adams' greatest hits. And the first of Steve Reich's Three Movement for Orchestra pops up in The Hunger Games. This isn't even taking into account the voluminous output of Philip Glass, who seems to have given every third movie of the last 20 years its own matching set of arpeggios.

If none of these names mean anything to you, don't worry; The classical music world has always preferred its dead giants to its living ones and has long resented anyone born after 1850. In Boston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston you may have a decent chance of hearing the work of one of these composers or their contemporaries performed in a concert, sandwiched between some Beethoven and some Brahms, but if you don't live in a cultural hotspot (or Houston), you're out of luck.

I still find myself on Amazon, reading reviews, because somewhere in those shoestring years I discovered that there was no better place on the Internet, not even Wikipedia, to learn about Valentin Silvestrov or Pierre Boulez or Morton Feldman.

Where the physical world falters, the Internet will pick up the slack. YouTube has become a repository of recorded recitals and ripped albums. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera both offer plans to stream their concerts live. And, of course, Google can help you find anything you want to know about a composer, provided you've heard of them before.

The 20th century had a profound impact on classical music. It's understandable that composers would cease feeling obligated to write pleasant music after witnessing Hiroshima and Auschwitz, but it's also understandable that ticket buyers wouldn't feel obligated to sit through some of the results—or at least not as many ticket buyers as in the 19th century. Television and movies added alternative options to evening entertainment, and radios meant that those who might have previously dressed up and gone out could now stay at home and do the crossword in their bathrobes. None of these arguments even takes into consideration the influence of Elvis.

Dodecacophony, serialism, minimalism, neo-romanticism, post-minimalism, neo-classicism, high mannerist: schools of all varieties sprang up and argued with one another. Inspired by the atonal works of Arnold Schönberg, composers like Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen began assembling music interested with structure and the limits of form that are, in their way, awe-inspiring but not necessarily ... approachable. A generation later an American sound emerged, influenced as much by jazz and rock ‘n’ roll and primal concepts of rhythm as by abstract expressionism, and a movement generally known as minimalism slowly worked its way into the establishment. In the ’80s and ’90s traditional tonality began to make a comeback, and the 2000s have brought us an ever-deepening dependence on electronics and—

We're getting off course. You can already see the impossibility of discussing the 20th century in any concise, linear way. There was just so much happening: tonality was never completely abandoned, and rigorous atonality is alive and well.

ONE LAZY AFTERNOON IN One lazy afternoon in my grandparents' living room, I was listening to the classical music station in the upper reaches of their premium cable bundle when The Blue Danube ended and the final section of Philip Glass' opera, Einstein on the Beach, began. I thought the sustained hum of an electric organ was being piped directly into my cerebellum.

I was frozen and slack jawed. Frozen until my mother came into the room and said that she had a headache and we were going home. I pleaded to stay for a few more minutes, just so I could hear the end of the piece, but she said, "Now." As I forced myself to turn off the TV I heard a violin setting in.

In my room back home I didn't even set down my backpack before searching Amazon for "philip glass einstein." That was all I could remember about the song.

I spotted, on the first page of results, the album art that had been on the screen. The name of the album was Songs From the Trilogy. According to J. Anderson, in a review dated January 19, 2006, "Glass' best work may be found in his opera scores, and this disc represents the cream of the cream.... It's a great introduction disc for those seeking to learn more about [his] operas without having to invest in the full length recordings." The $12 (after shipping) CD emptied my bank account.

More, more. A few months later I spent my Christmas money on Steve Reich's Different Trains and Music for 18 Musicians (both on the Nonesuch label) and Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa (the ECM recording). These purchases were the product of literal hours of agony. I had 40 dollars (it was a lean year) and didn't want to waste any of it on a "bad" piece. Knowing nothing about any of these composers except what I'd gleaned in a single semester of music appreciation at the community college, I wallowed in their backlist on Amazon. I read review after review, trying to quantify and catalog this music that so perplexed all of the people to whom I played it. So perplexed me, too. I, who am just this side of tone deaf.

Matters grew even thornier as I tried to locate not just a composer's "best" piece but the "best" recording of that piece. I settled on two compositions by the same composer (Steve Reich) because my other option was the Nonesuch recording of John Adams' opera Nixon in China and it cost $25 for a used copy. Reviewer "new music guy" said that the Nonesuch recording of Different Trains was "perhaps both Reich's best work and the Kronos Quartet's finest performance." But reviewer "Dan" said that the "greatness" of Music for 18 was "hard to describe" and that "if you are seeking an introduction to experimental music, there is no better place to start." I chose the Arvo Pärt because I was trying very hard to be a Christian and thought that God might be displeased if I spent all of the money He'd granted me on secular music. (I'm conscious, now, of the anti-Semitism inherent in this line of thought: Reich has composed some rather sacred Jewish music, but to my mind this didn't count.)

From 2006 to 2008 I collected albums all in the same way: brutal deliberation followed by a heady, impulsive plunge (PROCEED TO CHECKOUT > CONFIRM ORDER) and then a week of buyer's remorse until the disk arrived. Eventually I started downloading .mp3s, but this brought with it a new wrinkle: sometimes it was cheaper to still order the used disk; often, after shipping, I could save a dollar. I was crippled with guilt whenever I bought a digital album; I saw that extra dollar I'd spent for convenience as frivolous.

These days, I have Spotify. I pay $10 a month and have access to almost everything I want to listen to. I also have another $10 every now and then for albums not in Spotify's catalog. And yet I still find myself on Amazon, reading reviews, because somewhere in those shoestring years I discovered that there was no better place on the Internet, not even Wikipedia, to learn about Valentin Silvestrov or Pierre Boulez or Morton Feldman.

HARLAN ELLISON SAYS THAT he doesn't "take a piss without getting paid for it." I am not quite so indispensable, but I still don't like to write for free. I don't maintain a blog and and I produce, maybe, three tweets a week. I have not posted a review on Amazon since I was 14 years old and determined that Agatha Christie'sThe ABC Murderswas "not her best, but still good." I found the experience of writing this and my five other reviews to be unsatisfying because they brought me neither money nor notoriety. And yet thousands of people post reviews on Amazon every day, often highly sophisticated reviews and ones written at great length, for nothing.

"I am a frustrated intellectual and writer," says Robin Friedman, recently retired from the U.S. Attorney General's Office. Scott Morrison, retired doctor, played piano as an amateur his entire life. He has recently retired from the piano, as well, due to arthritis in his hands. "But I remain an enthusiast," he says. "I love music as I've always loved it ... and write three or so reviews every week. I have all this free time now!"

Grady Harp has reviewed on Amazon for 15 years and, as of July 5, 2013, has 9,415 reviews to his name. (Robin Friedman and Scott Morrison have 1,617 and 2,554, respectively.) Harp can't remember the first item he reviewed for the site.

"It could have been a book, a CD of classical music, a film—I would try to find out from Amazon but it has become such a huge megamonster that they simply do not respond to any questions about anything." He says that, where he also posts reviews, "is the most pure site I know."

But it's difficult to tell how Harp defines "pure." Of the first 12 reviews on (all of them effusive praise for either self-published or small-press books), 11 are written by Harp and one by "Joe Madia," who ends his glowing review of Ronald Brown's Memoirs of a Modern Day Drifter with the disclaimer, "Ronald Brown has studied creative writing with me for 3 years. I served as editor on this book from concept to final draft." While Harp offers no similar disclaimers, Garth Hallberg wrote a profile of him for Slate in 2008. About the five-star review Harp gave Hallberg's debut novel: "My publicist confirmed that she'd solicited Mr. Harp's review."

In the world of self-publication, solicited reviews seem to have become, if not standard practice, then at least not unexpected. Even I, if only unwittingly, paid for glowing, if lumpy, reviews of my self-published erotic paranormal thriller. But it's hard to imagine there's enough money in the modern classical music industry for practitioners to afford light bulbs or toilet paper for their offices, let alone whatever the going rate is for Amazon's top reviewers. It seems more likely, then (call me naïve), that Harp's five stars for the recordings of Pierre Boulez conducting his own work, or his four stars for Simon Rattle conducting Schönberg, are rooted in genuine enthusiasm.

He does likely receive his CDs for free. Scott Morrison tells me that he got his start in reviewing after some musical friends encouraged him to send a few "audition" pieces to the Naxos record label in 2000 and, 13 years later, he still receives "box after box" of disks. Morrison, however, insists that he "calls 'em as he hears 'em." He recently called pianist Ignay Lisieki's recording of Schumann's Fantasie, "possibly the worst I've ever heard."

Not only do top reviewers frequently receive free product from distributors hoping for their blessing; Amazon does, in a way, compensate their top reviewers with its Vine Voice program. Those who are invited to participate in the program are sent free product, but they are not otherwise paid for their participation. Amazon collects money from the participating vendors (which they choose not to disclose) while reviewers receive another form of compensation.

The classical fields can be blood sport. Robin Friedman says that "passions on Amazon run high." Grady Harp puts it another way. In his first email to me he said that he has to "put up with the occasional diatribes from the Dark Group of Negative People... (you probably know who they are as everyone seems to be burned by the same gang on their periodic KKK type rides)."

It was this passion that first seduced me, when I was a kid with 20 dollars to my name, into believing there was a "best" version of anything. I longed for the security of the Hammacher Schlemmer catalogs my grandparents left on their breakfast table; they featured "The Best Inflatable Mattress" and "The Best Nose Hair Trimmers." This Toaster Oven earned the highest rating from the Hammacher Schlemmer Institute because it quickly cooked pizza and cookies and maintained a constant cooking temperature.

But I could find no such peace of mind on Amazon. Thomas Plotkin of West Hartford, Connecticut, calls the Sony recording of Berg's Wozzeck, "The Best Recording of the First True 20th Century Opera." But reviewer E. Lyons of Anne Arbor, Michigan, says that Karl Böhm on DG "...even makes Wozzeck, a violently atonal anguish-fest, sound mellow to my ears (at least as much as is possible with this opera) and really, really beautiful ... I can't stop listening to this recording." And yet, Alexander Z. Damyanovich of Flesherton, Ontario, Canada, says, "While there are a few things I could like Böhm for in terms of individual instruments' expression ... there's no question that" the Claudio Abbado recording (also on DG) "beats it hands down."

And God help you if you want to buy something even more mainstream. There are arguments in the comments sections of reviews for Georg Solti's Ring Cycle on Decca that literally span years.

"The concept of the 'best' recording is fraught, even specious," says Morrison. "I'm sure I've rated some recordings as being the 'best' but I try to steer away from that unless I'm being lazy in my thinking." Friedman tries hard to avoid describing a CD as the "best" as well. "I am seldom familiar with 'all' the recordings of a work,” he says, “and, even if I were, it seems to me presumptuous and unhelpful to describe one as the best."

David Bryson (1,110 reviews) says that a "best" recording is "always best according to whatever criteria I think appropriate in the given instance, and I state what those are. It's not usually some 'absolute' although there is sometimes a runaway winner."

One man not afraid to throw around "best's" is Richard Hutchinson ("Autonomeus"), author of 1,042 reviews. He begins his Listmania List "The Best Contemporary Composers" with, "This is not a list of the most popular or influential contemporary composers, but rather the BEST, according to my personal aesthetic judgment. It includes music that appeals to me either emotionally or intellectually, in varying ratios." He even goes on to rank this best-of list, naming Iannis Xenakis, Elliott Carter, and Gyorgy Ligeti as the top three composers in the world since World War II.

It's difficult to tell if Autonomeus is being presumptuous or just honest. Either way, after that musical appreciation course, his lists and reviews of modern music formed the basis of my knowledge and admiration of the genre. And it was Hutchinson's reviews that inspired this article in the first place. Who on Earth would write, almost daily, these 1,000-word overviews of composers and music that most of the general population has never heard of and probably don't care to know about? He writes with an assurance that is simultaneously off-putting and seductive. "Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei (1993-96) is Elliot Carter's greatest symphonic work since his 1969 Concerto for Orchestra." And on the 1969 recording of Pierre Boulez's Pli Selon Pli: "I decisively prefer this 1969 recording, which I find to be bolder, sharper, more dramatic, and more powerful [than] the later recording of Christine Schafer and the Ensemble Intercontemporain, [which] is nearly ten minutes longer. [The later recording] is also smoother, less dramatic, and less powerful, dragging especially in the longer fourth section."

I still don't know why he writes them. While Hutchinson politely responded to a piece of fan mail I wrote him a few months ago, he ignored my later emails asking him to answer my questions for this article. I also wrote to Christopher Culver, another titan of the modern music review scene (2,626 reviews). (Culver's reviews often rest beside Hutchinson's as the only two on a strange or obscure recording.) While he was polite, Culver told me "I spent some time drafting a reply [to your email] but in the end I felt that my complicated motivations for and approaches to reviewing are best kept to myself."

David Bryson, who describes himself on his Amazon profile as "boring beyond belief," told me that he won't expand further about himself because "social media are not my thing." He does mention, however, that reviewing is "a hobby I enjoy in retirement."

That brings the total number of retirees among the reviewers I contacted to four out of six, if we are to trust Hallberg's Slate article on Grady Harp (perhaps Hallberg is included in Harp's "Dark Group of Negative People"), which describes the man as a retired surgeon. Culver, as far as I can tell from the pictures I've seen of him, doesn't seem old enough to be a traditional retiree, and while Hutchinson reviews voluminously, he might still work and just possess strong time management skills.

I don't know what to make of the fact that five of my interview subjects were white (Hutchinson is the only one of whom I haven't seen a picture) and all of them men. Indeed, in all the reviews of modern music that I read I could not find a single female byline.

Classical music today is trying so hard to appeal to a broader audience than it is stereotypically known for, and yet: white men retired from comfortable professions. The knowledge settled over me as I began this article that my subjects were exactly who you would expect them to be, right down to the redirected enthusiasm.

"I listen to music a lot ... enough to close my study door in deference to my long-suffering wife," says Morrison. "Growing up in rural Oklahoma is even worse than [living in] Waco (yes, I Googled you).... I thought I was going to be a big-time pianist until I heard Arthur Rubinstein play in a recital and I realized I could never be that good. So I changed my plans and went to medical school instead."