The Problem and Music Criticism

The Problem and Music Criticism

Rather than contribute my customary encapsulation of the Minnesota Orchestra Future Classics concert—Taylor Brizendine, whose piece was the highlight of the show for me, has covered that beat pretty comprehensively for the past week—I’d like to address a topic that came up in a post-performance conversation with the Box’s very own Molly Sheridan about the difference between music criticism and musicology. (One of the best things about the Future Classics concert is that I get to see my AMC overlords in person.)

As Molly pointed out to me, music criticism is essentially a form of consumer protection. A corollary of this role is that any insight a music critic offers about a performance beyond whether or not you should go see the second night is a bonus. They’re certainly not obliged to identify the problem of a piece of music, which is precisely the job of musicologists and theorists. Note that I don’t mean the problem with a piece of music, as in “this piece is too long” or “I can’t hear the violas”: To identify the problem of a piece of music, even (especially?) if this problem isn’t solved before the piece ends, is a constructive act; far from rendering a thumbs-up-thumbs-down verdict, it illuminates why the piece is so intriguing.

One problem often to be found concerning a piece of tonal music, for instance, is how to reconcile material in differing keys. Maybe the problem of The Unanswered Question is how to make sense of the coexisting “melody” and “accompaniment.” The problem of Six Pianos is how to conceptualize the six changing parts and the changing whole that they produce, a then-new kind of musical relationship. For me, the problem of Brizendine’s piece had to do with register: He scooped out the middle of the orchestra, leaving mostly high and low instruments; I’d love to know if there were important horizontal ramifications of this vertical decision and, if so, how Brizendine dealt with them. These are some of the things that make listening to music a rewarding experience, and critics aren’t expected to deal with any of them (although many do, of course).

I don’t mean this solely as a challenge to music critics, however, but also as a challenge to musicologists and theorists, one I’ve iterated here many times before: The perspectives that the latter folks bring to music writing might be very valuable to general audiences, provided that they can be communicated in a non-jargonistic way. I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about Future Classics, but if I may make one very small suggestion to the Composer Institute’s organizers, the integration of a writing component for analysts and scholars working in conjunction with the composers whose work they’re addressing might enrich the concertgoing experience and hopefully open up a longer-term dialogue on aesthetics and the orchestra.

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6 thoughts on “The Problem and Music Criticism

  1. pgblu

    the integration of a writing component for analysts and scholars working in conjunction with the composers whose work they’re addressing might enrich the concertgoing experience and hopefully open up a longer-term dialogue on aesthetics and the orchestra.

    Funnily enough, this is one of the ‘values added’ to the Darmstadt Summer Courses for this past session. I think it’s a great idea, but it requires some patience on the part of the presenters so as to get the ‘format’ just right. The writer/scholar contingent must somehow complement/ stimulate discussion about what is happening without making the whole institute “about” themselves and their own agendas. One would need to stick with it even if it’s a bust the first time around.

  2. Daniel Wolf

    The challenge has a real practical dimension: talking or writing seriously about these issues in a public forum requires time or space that is ever more rare. The half-hour-long radio review/critique/analysis of a new work that featured in postwar German radio, for example, scarcely exists anymore (and when, it’s neither compensated like it once was nor recieves the audience it once had.) The obligatory panel discussion at conferences or festivals has never been a format for depth and the master class typically has such a crowded schedule that anything more than a quip about under- or over-used cowbells is due to go overtime. Published critical writings, even with the potential for unlimited content length offered by online publication, tend instead towards facile summaries are condensation. (Bloggery, at the least, offers an informal platform without built-in space restrictions, but I don’t know of any blogger who’s actually managed something of the sort.)

    In part, we composers exacerbate the situation with our tendencies towards invention and proliferation, but that, after all, is the whole point of doing our work. I suspect that the optimal solution, for the composer, at least, is finding a trusted partner, a second set of ears, for informal and more private than public musicking, dialogue, fisticuffs and general-shooting-the-breeze, preferably at regular intervals and accompanied by sufficient feed and fuel to tolerate the hardest critique.

  3. mclaren

    Colin Holter remarks: As Molly pointed out to me, music criticism is essentially a form of consumer protection.

    This represents a distinctively late-capitalist consumer-oriented view of the function of music criticism. If it was ever accurate (and that’s doubtful), it only proved accurate during the short period when serious contemporary music thrived as a money-making consumerist phenomenon. Namely, from about 1945 to the advent of the internet in 1994.

    With the appearance of digital downloading and streaming internet radio (how hard is it to capture audio from streaming internet radio? Fire up audacity, press RECORD, and presto, there you are), music of all kinds has ceased to be a money-making proposition. This makes consumerist paradigms meaningless. Since no one pays for music today, no one is a consumer (in the same sense that essentially no species are currently alive compared to the total number extinct), and therefore there exist no significant body of classical music consumers to require protection.

    So Molly’s assertion is clearly a time-machine relic from one of H. G. Wells’ novels. Neither music consumers (who don’t exist as economic actors anymore) nor consumer protection (which is unnecessary in a world of “sync parties” where kids bring their terabyte hard drives and swap terabyte-sized music collections) has any meaning today. In fact, today’s music lover wants less protection, not more — gimme a copy of your entire terabyte music collection. If 90% of it is junk I don’t like, I’ll just erase it. It’s all free anyway, so who cares?

    But both Molly’s and Colin’s confusions about the function of music criticism stem from a deep schism in the culture of classical music itself. Because music criticism has changed its function radically over the decades.

    Consider the X-man-like mutations through which classical music criticism has morphed: in the mid 19th century, music criticism meant fierce advocacy for a particular aesthetic. War raged twixt the Brahms Line and the Wagner Front, with occasional strafing runs on Satie’s advance party. From 1890 to roughly 1920, music criticism shifted to a function of explaining what was going on. When you got wacko-a-mundo pieces of music like Luigi Russolo’s Risveglio della Città, per intonarumori or Arseny Avraamov’s 1923 Symphony For Factory Sirens or Carol-Berard’s 1908 Symphonie des Forces Mécaniques, it became more important for music critics to explain just what the hell was going on. Recall that Ballet Mechanique features two airplane propellors onstage.

    From 1930 to the 1950s, music criticism shifted to justifying the arts in the face of economic depression, global war, and then eventually the spectre of global thermonuclear annihilation. After the first H bomb exploded over Bikini Atoll in 1953, a lot of people questioned whether music had any purpose at all in face of the likely extinction of the human race.

    From the 1950s to the 1970s, music criticism shifted back to advocacy, this time with a savagery seldom seen outside the Stalinist purges of the Soviet Union. People who adhered to the ‘wrong’ aesthetic during this period were declared not merely bad composers, but non-musicians and unpersons.

    From the 1970s to the 1990s, music criticism shifted back to explanation, as the “Shock of the Old” increasingly required an explanation of why tonality was not actually dead, why triads and tonal arpeggios actually rerpresented a progressive direction for new music, and in particular how the immense length of new tonal pieces like Einstein on the Beach (5 hours) and LaMonte Young’s dream house pieces (6 or 7 or 8 or 10 hours or more) fit in with previous music history. The shock of moving from hyper-precious 90-second-long pieces like Webern’s Concerto for 9 Instruments to a 5 hour long “opera” featuring scenes like Abraham Lincoln standing on a rotating platform next to a spaceship needed to be assimilated culturally, and critics like Tom Johnson served that function (see his classic Village Voice pieces on minimalism).

    Then, from the 1990s to the 2000s, music criticism became querolous again and returned to a frantic search for meaning in the act of making music itself. But this time, rather than global thermonuclear holocaust being the alleged culprit in the ‘death of music,’ Napster and the internet became the main villain.

    By the 2010s, the death of classical music had once again failed to materialize (quelle suprise!) and new modes of delivery like YouTube and new forms like live coding laptop composition and remote interactive participation (in which synths or mechanical noisemakers on one continent were controlled by musicians on another continent courtesy of the net) made their debut. Collaboration became important in schemes like William Duckworth’s Cathedral project or John Luther Adam’s Alaskan weather sonification installation. It’s too early to tell what new function music criticism will morph into in the 2010s, but safe to say it won’t be the same as the past.

    The other weird assumptions in Colin’s discussion involve the notion that going to live concerts represents some sort of normative activity. In fact, almost all classical music (all music of any kind in fact) gets consumed today via recording, either streamed over the net or from CD or mp3 download.

    But the most bizarre notion of all involves the claim that a piece of music somehow embodies a `problem’ that the composer ‘solves.’ What this extreme left-brain analytical-verbal -mathematical miconception of music lacks in credibility or coherency, it surely makes up for in amusement value.

    Most musical compositions no more solve a putative `problem’ than a sunset does. Indeed, if a compositions sets out to ‘communicate’ something to the audience or to solve any kind of discernible ‘problem,’ that’s a dead giveaway that the composition is crap. If a composer wants to communicate something to the audience, she should send ’em an email. And if a composer wants to solve some sort of problem, she should fire up MATLAB instead of writing down musical notes. Sounds remains a sensual experience, not a method for problem-solving. If you want to solve problems, use calculus, not gorgeously sensual sounds.

    Composers typically do not set out to solve any kind of `musical problem’ any more than your girlfriend sets out to solve a penumatic-hydraulic `problem’ when she makes love to you. The inexpressibly flaky notion that a wholly non-verbal antilogical emotion-and-drama-based activity like composing or listening to music can somehow be boiled down to a set of modus ponens-style logical `problems’ certainly qualifies as one of the great misrepresentations of the musical experience in all history.

    Such assertions are not even wrong, they’re so misconceived. They miss the point of music so completely that they’re tantamount to asking “If the earth is really round, how come people don’t fall off the bottom?” or “If global warming is true, why did we have such a cold winter?”

  4. Tom Myron

    By deploying a scintillating sequence of “textual blocks” across a quasi-narrative space (which space itself is somewhat ambiguously situated within what might be considered a semantic analog to Ligetian “micro-polyphony”) mclaren “problematizes” the possibility of a coherent musical discourse within (and across) a virtualized landscape universally acknowledged to be a wireless, post modern, digitally colonized free-fire zone. From this teaming, seemingly impregnable mass of HIS-torical Dada meta-data, the writer (through a process as fraught and unknowable as why ‘your’ girlfriend has sex with ‘you’) teases forth a secondary web of heavily scored counter subjects which, in due course, dominate the discourse.

    With an escalating, Hymnen-anic grandeur, we move from “Molly’s claim is probably false” to “Molly’s assertion is clearly a time-machine relic from one of H. G. Wells’ novels” to the nigh on Wagnerian “…certainly qualifies as one of the great misrepresentations of the musical experience in all history.”

    Let me state for the record that I believe Molly’s singular achievement, as disambiguated here by mclaren, will be widely and heatedly debated well beyond the hallowed confines of this august intellectual venue once she wins that Baltimore Blogger contest that I just voted in 1,100 times.

  5. pgblu

    I enjoyed mclaren’s post immensely, but at the same time I would very much like to step up and defend Colin’s position.

    Most musical compositions no more solve a putative `problem’ than a sunset does. Indeed, if a compositions sets out to ‘communicate’ something to the audience or to solve any kind of discernible ‘problem,’ that’s a dead giveaway that the composition is crap.

    I wouldn’t presume to second-guess Colin, but I don’t think his emphasis is on the solving of problems, but on the problems themselves. These are not problems like crossword puzzles are problems. The ‘problems’ of listening are not solved by music, but created by music. That is to say, the only way to solve these problems is to not make music in the first place.

    Sound remains a sensual experience, not a method for problem-solving.

    This is a false dichotomy. I don’t even agree with the sentence itself, in fact. Sound is first a sensory experience. In order to become a ‘sensual’ experience, it runs up against the mechanisms of the mind, the ‘faculties’ … some intellectual; but most of them involuntary, some defying analysis, others even defying the most basic of verbal descriptions — further down in the spectrum of ill- to well-formed consciousness. Many of these nether ‘faculties’ do not react to language, only to music.

    The ‘problems’, then, are engendered by what Kant called a ‘conflict of the faculties’, and when we have an aesthetic experience that conflict, which is ‘always already’ present, merely encroaches upon our consciousness.

    The difference between a composer and an ‘average listener’ is training, but not merely training in how to compose, but in how to force more of those other faculties into the conscious, intellectual portion of the mind, and see whether they’re at all responsive to authorial intent, to living, breathing, emotionally invested reason. This latter ‘training’ cannot be learned from others but only from oneself, though perhaps others (not only one’s formal ‘teachers’) can provide encouragement or point, speculatively, the way.

    Some might even argue, though this is getting off topic, that the “training in how to compose” part (counterpoint, theory, analysis) is really only a way of preparing the mind for the other kinds of insights, and not an end in itself. This is why I, as a staunch advocate of experimentation and the pursuit of the far-out and the far-far-out, also believe in giving students a very strong foundation in traditional conservatory-type disciplines.

    One final note: I have never heard a piece of music that’s more beautiful than the ugliest sunset. Let’s not get our expectations up too high, shall we?

  6. cbustard

    It may be useful here to trot out an old description of journalism – of which criticism is a part, however many critics like to pretend otherwise – as “the first draft of history.” A critic’s assessment of a piece of new music is almost always a first impression from a single hearing; even when the new work is performed twice on a single program (rare), or the critic waits to write until having heard the piece in more than one performance (also rare), the review still addresses the work as interpreted by one musician or group. Prior study of the score, interaction with the composer and/or performer(s), sitting in on rehearsals, etc., may affect the review, but only marginally, because the critic usually will have heard the piece only once in uninterrupted performance, and always in a single interpretation.


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