Sunday, April 29, 2012

Music Journalism

Reading music journalism and watching television is like living on hot dogs and potato chips--you don't realize how bad they are until you switch to real food. I canceled my cable ten years ago and I'm glad I did. But I do occasionally stumble into music journalism if I'm not paying attention. I was sent to this article, on contemporary music, by a link from this blog.

I think music journalism must have fallen precipitously from where it was fifty to a hundred years ago. Back then people like George Bernard Shaw and Donald Francis Tovey were, respectively, writing criticism and program notes. Tovey's program notes were later collected and published as Essays in Musical Analysis. But now?

Here's how that article starts:
The music of our time is the music of all time. I've just come up with that, but it's a pretty good motto for a new strand of what you'll be seeing on this blog for the next year. Next week, we launch a new series on contemporary classical music. Each week, I'll be giving a brief overview of the life, music, and online presence of the composers who matter the most to today's musical life, who have made the greatest difference to the last century's musical history - and, to be honest, the ones that mean the most to me, and, I hope, to you too!
Once you wean yourself off this kind of writing, you start to see how annoying it is. For example, what could the first sentence possibly mean? It is like the long scene with the Architect in the second of the Matrix films that put a stake in the heart of the franchise: it sounds vaguely cool, but that is only because it is meaningless. This is the kind of pseudo-prose that would be right at home in a blue jeans commercial. Baby! The second sentence is nearly as annoying for two reasons: it tries to justify the first sentence, which is impossible, plus, misuse of the word "strand". One characteristic of journalists is that they have only a foggy acquaintance with the meaning of the words they attempt to use. The rest of the paragraph is just the usual hand-waving. Well, that was so much fun that it makes me want to 'fisk' the second paragraph as well:
Of course, a mere 52 weeks and 52 composers isn't enough time to reflect a cross-section of everything that's happening in contemporary music, but it is enough time to curate a new-music gallery that should open ears and minds to the music of today.
How does one "reflect" a cross-section, anyway? Special goggles? The very vapidity of the prose makes me want to have nothing to do with anything "curated" by this person.

What sent me to the article was the very clever phrase mongered by Alex Ross:
"Contemporary" is broadly defined as "born in the past hundred years," plus Elliott Carter....
Heh! Elliot Carter is, of course, that astonishingly long-lived and productive composer born December 11, 1908 which means he is coming up on his 104th birthday. And still getting commissions, by the way. The only person you could set beside Carter would be Jacques Barzun, born November 30, 1907, which means he is possibly the only person in the world of arts and letters that can call Elliot Carter "sonny".

The problem with music journalism is that it accepts all the current ideologies without question and mixes them with irrelevancies, personal biases and enthusiastic attacks on straw men. You come away from reading music journalism stupider and less informed than when you started. Hey, it's just like television! Do you insist on examples? Very well. Here is the head and sub-head for one of the articles in the series:

The five myths about contemporary classical music

Contemporary classical music is devoid of melody and appeal, all noise and no fun. At least, that's the cliche. But this is music that is very much at the heart of our modern world
A myth? So this tends to imply that contemporary classical music does have melody and appeal. I wonder if we could find a counter-example...



Catchy tunes! And so immediately appealing! I'll pass on fisking the article itself because I would just start citing those logical errors in medieval Latin and we don't want that. Ignoratio elenchi! Petitio principii!

 But of course, there are certainly pieces of contemporary music that are melodic and appealing:

It's music journalism that needs to be avoided, not music.

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