Dave’s Coffee Shop on Broadway in Oakland was always the destination for me to meet a deadline. I started going there soon after becoming the classical music critic for the East Bay Express, an alternative weekly, in 1985. After a concert, I would take the bus to Dave’s, open all night, and sit at the counter and order fried eggs and corned beef hash – the kind that comes in a perfect oval patty, and looks and tastes like dog food – and endless refills of coffee. I would sit there and write out the whole review by hand, and then take it home and type it up on my ancient Royal typewriter. It could be five pages or eight pages – however long was necessary to go into great detail and depth.
Then, after a few hours of sleep, I would wake up and drink more coffee, scribble corrections on the typewritten pages, and then type up the whole thing again and bring it to the East Bay Express office. Rob Hurwitt was my editor and mentor, and we’d talk through corrections, after which he’d hand it over for copyediting and typesetting. The whole process seems hopelessly archaic now, like Gutenberg’s printing press or illuminated manuscripts. But having the freedom to write a review of any length was heavenly.
Those were the golden days of the East Bay Express, when one of my music reviews would fill an entire page of the paper, or even a page and a half. I had lots and lots to say, and felt powerful in our little community. I remember a party in the Berkeley hills in 1990 where I was introduced to a young man named Alex Ross, who had just graduated from Harvard. “You write music reviews for the East Bay Express?” he exclaimed. “That’s exactly what I want to do!” Oh, sure, I thought to myself, there’s only room for one of us in this town.
But by the late ’90s my review space had been whittled down to half a page, and then whittled still further, until it was no fun any more, and it felt like classical music was being marginalized in the Express as it was everywhere else. There were other reasons for stopping: I was focusing on being a pianist; and writing reviews had come to resemble a game of Mad Libs, where you endlessly combine adjectives like “luminous,” “metronomic,” and “vibrant” with nouns like “vibrato,” “pyrotechnics,” and “adagio movement.”
And now, looking back on it, I wonder: What did I learn from all those years as a music critic?
First of all, I learned to be curious about other musicians and composers. I spent time researching them and their repertoire and recordings, trying to understand their musical motivations. That curiosity serves me well hosting weekly radio shows, with frequent interviews, on my program Revolutions Per Minute on KALW in San Francisco (where, by the way, about three quarters of the guests I interview have absolutely no curiosity about me). I also got into the habit of finding and studying scores before a performance, whether it was Elliott Carter’s new Quintet with Ursula Oppens and the Arditti Quartet, or The Rite of Spring, or a Handel oratorio.