Monday, April 13, 2015

Our Finest Music Critic

I simply cannot wait until Friday to share this gem with you: Alex Ross has a recent piece in the New Yorker titled "Listen to the Future" in which he makes this comment on a new piece by John Adams:
In his latest phase, Adams leans on unison lines that go crawling through various sections of the orchestra, defining harmony horizontally rather than vertically. 
Let's just savor that for a moment, shall we?


We actually have a different word for "unison lines that go crawling through various sections of the orchestra". That word is "melody". Melody is defined rather well as "linear succession of musical tones." Wikipedia contrasts this with harmony as follows:
Harmony is often said to refer to the "vertical" aspect of music, as distinguished from melodic line, or the "horizontal" aspect.
Often said, because it is true. Harmony is the musical texture considered vertically, while melody is the horizontal line of the music. In his ongoing effort to explain music without actually talking about it in any satisfactory manner, Alex Ross finally trips over himself.

And this lackwit is the most prominent music critic in North America, if not the world.

For an envoi, here is John Adams' Violin Concerto from 1993-94:

Of course, what Ross should have said is that Adams tries to avoid harmony a lot of the time in favor of unison lines and simple counterpoint. But that would have seemed rather too ordinary. Ross prefers to say things like:
The form is restless, unpredictable, yet ultimately confident in its progress. Adams attached a feminist program, highlighting the misogyny of the Scheherazade legend; the protagonist holds her own against dogmatic thrashings of the orchestra, and steals away in a mood of melancholy rapture.
Whatever the hell that means... I mean, I sort of understand what "thrashings" in the orchestra might be, but how to make them "dogmatic" is, I believe, entirely beyond the powers of music.


Marc Puckett said...

I will admit to having 'read' that Alex Ross just seeing music critic jargon (i.e. a long blur) except that focus returned where he is directly and in English writing about Adès, Adams, Kosinn, their premieres/ activities/opinions; I know I didn't translate that mess of words into 'melody' and 'harmony'! Thanks!

For a long time the only critic I read regularly was Jay Nordlinger at National Review and New Criterion: he writes melody when he means melody and harmony when he means harmony-- and there was someone at the Times whose name I can't recall at the moment, gone now, I think.

Am going to listen to RD's games music selections in your other post.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. Possibly because he or his editors believe that the technical terms used in music are incomprehensible to the average reader (along, of course, with actual music notation), Alex Ross avoids their use. Instead he invents what you might well call "music critic jargon". The excessively purple prose, such as we find in the piece linked, is even more incomprehensible than technical terms because they at least have definitions that can be looked up. But there is nowhere you can look and find out what "dogmatic thrashings" might mean. Of course Alex Ross isn't the only offender, he is just one of the most prominent. But are there no editors who can look at it and say, Alex, what do you mean by this? Yes, Jay Nordlinger is pretty good. I should do a little survey of current music criticism one day.

Marc Puckett said...

I had to laugh, earlier, reading at National Review, Jay Nordlinger on the deplorable affectation of 'adventures in moral equivalence'-- he used John Adams's ("disgusting") remarks before the performance of Scheherazade.2 as an example, adding, parenthetically, at the end, "I'm not talking about the music, which was pretty good": whatever that may mean, ha, it's about as non-Rossian as can be imagined. It wasn't a review of course etc etc but the contrast struck me as amusing.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think that, for Alex Ross, it is always crucially important that he be seen to hold all the correct opinions on things.

Bryan Townsend said...

I wonder who the best music critic currently writing might be? Tomassini at the NYTimes?

Marc Puckett said...

The only three I read regularly are Nordlinger and Ross, and then Damian Thompson (formerly at the Telegraph UK and now at the Spectator UK) who writes lots about music although I think he may be called 'editor' and not 'music critic'. I have to fit Tommasini into my 'ten free articles a month' at the Times and unfortunately I neglect to do that some months. Am looking forward to your post on the ten best critics. :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Sadly, I only got to two critics! I will check out Damian Thompson. Arthur Kaptainis at the Montreal Gazette is also pretty good--about the only one in Canada writing in English.

Marc Puckett said...

Saw you have a new post but am on my way out, five minutes ago. A Facebook friend of a Facebook friend, "that" being my question about critics grounded in... sound philosophy:

"Hmm... I'll have to think about that; the first contemporary writers who come to mind as offering thoughtful and well-grounded commentary on music are practitioners rather than critics (e.g. Harnoncourt, Herreweghe, Koopman)...".

I don't know that they address the public outside of lecture halls or program notes-- but I could well be wrong. The Fb friend of a friend suggested Andrew Shenton, who seems to do lots of work on Pärt and Messiaen, but he isn't a critic in this sense.