Thursday, February 16, 2012

Kinds of Music Writing

Browsing around among the music writings on the web this morning it occurs to me that there seem to be three or four kinds of writing about music. In order of frequency they are:

1. Booster writing: things written to encourage purchase of albums, concert tickets and so on. These kinds of things are usually called "puff pieces". The artist and repertoire are praised without reservation and the prose tends to the purple. Here is an example from Deceptive Cadence, the NPR website:
Handel's eight keyboard suites, which he published himself in 1720, don't get a lot of attention these days. Pianist Lisa Smirnova studied these colorful pieces for five years before launching into this recording. The combination of her rhythmically bouyant playing and Handel's endlessly satisfying melodies — be they in slow laments or sprightly gigues — makes for a very welcome new album.
2. Journalistic writing: pieces that report music news whether or not it is favorable to a particular artist or institution. Foremost in this category is Norman Lebrecht's website, Slipped Disc. Here is a recent example:
David Finckel has decided to leave the Emersons, their first dropout in 34 years. He is to be replaced by Paul Watkins, 42, winner of the 2002 Leeds Conducting Competition, music director of the English Chamber Orchestra and principal guest of the Ulster Orch. How Paul will find time to play full-time cello in the quartet is a bit of a mystery...
Beware, some pieces that you might think are about music, such as the Wall Street Journal's recent piece on scientific research into the expressiveness of Adele, that I critiqued here, are a particularly noxious form of journalistic writing that are actually boosterism for scientism (which I will define as "the belief that the only true knowledge is scientific knowledge, even in areas where science is notably inappropriate") and are usually a comedy of errors if you know anything about music. So these kind of pieces actually reduce your understanding of music.

3. Writing about the music business. In this category are blogs like Greg Sandow's and Jon Silpayamanant's. Very useful they may be, but not actual writing about music.

4. Writing about music: Now you would think that a good place for actual music writing would be Alex Ross' blog, but no. Nearly all the posts there tend to be a blend of categories 1 and 2. Randomly chosen from the first post this morning:
"Mem" from Crecquillon's Lamentationes Jeremiae, from New York Polyphony's album endBeginning (BIS-SACD-1949, available 2/28; eClassical download already available).
Two fun facts about New York Polyphony baritoneChristopher Dylan Herbert: in his capacity as an observer of Middle Eastern affairs, he has worked for the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency's Integrated Crisis Early Warning System; and he is Martha Stewart's nephew.
Not a single bit of information about Crecquillon. But extremely useful biographical info about one of the singers... Now what would actual writing about music look like? Here is one site, where the focus is on Medieval music. The blog Seated Ovation occasionally has some interesting posts about music, like this one.

Go have a look for yourself. Randomly pick out some writing on music and see what category it falls into.

This post is, of course, an apologia for why I write this blog. It's all about music. Except when it is about writing about music...

Hey, let's have some music!

Thomas Crecquillon (c. 1505 - 1557) was a Franco-Flemish composer who spent his life working in what is now the Netherlands. His style is like that of Josquin, but striving for smoothness and consistency rather than dramatic effect. Charming music. I'm sorry, I have no information on whom the singers might be related to. Or even their names...


Nathan Shirley said...

This is precisely why I'm so glad to have found your blog. It's by far the best I've seen, most consistent for sure.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Nathan!