Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Problem with Talking About Music

There is this old story that Eskimos have fifty words for "snow". There is even a Wikipedia article on it. In point of fact, this may not be literally true, but it is true that the languages of people who live in northerly regions where they have to deal a lot with snow, do have lots of ways of describing it. Snow can be slushy, powdery, granular, feathery and so on. If you have to live and work in it, these distinctions are important.

Similarly, those people who live and work around music, often called "musicians", have a lot of vocabulary specially developed to talk about it. These "technical terms" have, in concordance with the trend in our times toward complete know-nothingness, been banned from all public discussion of music. Music notation is also banned, but we have talked about that before. But just take a moment and think about it: any discussion of music in the public sphere, radio, television, newspapers, non-specialist magazines and so on, is forbidden to use exactly that vocabulary that would be most useful.

But if you want to talk about music, then you need words to describe it. So what happens is that people talking about music, like reviewers and critics, resort to incomprehensible "purple" prose in an attempt to describe music without using any of those banned terms.

The kinds of terms that are banned are those that describe the various parts and functions of music. Ones that may be used are generally understood ones like "harmony", "melody" and "rhythm" (terms originally from ancient Greek, so in use for two thousand years at least). Ones that are banned are more specific ones like "triad", "counterpoint", "cadence", "sequence" and so on. If you aren't allowed to use any of these kinds of terms, but are still trying to talk about music in some detail, what do you do? Well, apparently, what you do is flop around throwing out wild bits of prose that frankly, are indecipherable and communicate nothing other than how cool the writer thinks he is and, through osmosis, how clever the reader must be to be participating.

Yesterday I was making fun of a piece of recent music writing by the very well known Alex Ross in the very highly-regarded magazine the New Yorker. Let's return to it for some more examples of the problem:
  • the music on offer ranged from euphonious effusions in a post-minimalist vein to dissonant fulminations of the avant-garde
  • a controlled pandemonium that includes a wild, lashing part for electric guitar and a spatially distinct brass ensemble 
  •  episodes of dissonant density abutting lush, Sibelius-inflected textures
I am leaving out my example from yesterday in which Alex Ross becomes so confused he tries to redefine melody as harmony. But these three examples should give us a sense of the problem. I have left out all those parts of the article that are ordinary prose, talking about non-musical things like venues and which conductor is going to do what and general discussion of new versus old music. These quotes and the one from yesterday comprise the totality of what Ross says regarding specific aspects of specific pieces. In other words, this is all of the article that directly talks about music.

Now, if you ask me (or anyone) what "counterpoint" or "Neapolitan in first inversion" is I can tell you. Or you can look it up. These are technical terms that have clear definitions. This being the case, we can use them to communicate about music. In fact, they have been developed over several hundred years for precisely this purpose. Now, tell me what "euphonious effusions" are? No idea? What about "dissonant fulminations"? Also no idea? How about "controlled pandemonium" which is simply a contradiction? What would a "wild, lashing part for electric guitar" sound like? I have a vague idea, but there could be a lot of things that might mean. "Spatially distinct brass ensemble" I understand, but it says nothing about what they are playing, just that they are set apart, physically. "Dissonant density" is fairly clear, I suppose. But referring to "Sibelius-inflected" textures would only mean something if you knew Sibelius.

So, I think you see the problem? In a concerted effort to avoid implying to the reader that they need to inform themselves regarding technical terms in music, Alex Ross turns talk about music into incomprehensible nattering, ultimately nearly meaningless.

Let's end with some of the music that he might have been talking about. This is Totentanz by Thomas Adès. The music starts at the 4:15 mark if you want to skip the discussion:

1 comment:

Marc Puckett said...

Listened to the Adès twice and am sufficiently taken with it to want to see the libretto and hear it again, but not today.

Tried the YouTube route for Scheherazade.2 but alas there's only a very brief clip; Leila Josefowicz, even in that bare minute, is fantastic. Adams himself, on the other hand, well, bless his heart, it is good he has his music to speak for him.