The language of likes and dislikes is an important and useful language, but it is not the language of critical judgment. "Is it good?" cannot be reduced to "Do you like it?" (it is more like "What is your reflective judgement of it?") or even to "Will I like it?" (it is more like "Considering that it cost me money and effort to see it, or considering that I have already seen it and it would cost me time to study it further, will it worth my while to try and understand it?").This seems so common-sense that it is puzzling how we have gotten so far away from it. But the heavy emphasis today on psychological approaches is a partial explanation, as are some political trends. We live in a deeply polarized society in which what everyone says is mistrusted because we nearly always suspect their motives for saying it. Objective truth is like one of those endangered species, clinging to existence by a fingernail!
Another odd thing is how people in the business, actual art and music critics, seem to have given up on the whole concept of objective aesthetic value. There are still a couple around, but most writers on art and music are either performing a promotional role or avoid aesthetic judgments entirely. I have run into one review recently that I would classify as untrammeled music criticism. It is by Arthur Kaptainis in the Montreal Gazette and is the second part of this article that begins by talking about Valentina Lisitsa. Here is a sample:
Become Ocean, the great bucket of bilge water that has won John Luther Adams a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition and a Pulitzer Prize for Music, was otherwise chugging redoubtably forward, getting louder, getting softer, sometimes hazarding a mild dissonance over the gurgling major triads, and doing, on the whole, Sweet Minim All.It is my sad duty to report that this monumental exercise in nothingness for full orchestra goes on for 42 minutes in this fashion.
The acclaim that has greeted this silly exercise (as performed by the Seattle Symphony under Ludovic Morlot, not that this really matters) is a sad comment on the state of both American music and American music criticism.Now there is someone that is not afraid to speak his mind! And yes, it is a sad comment because it seems as if what really won over the judges was the environmental program notes about rising sea levels. Is there anything that the "climate change" fanatics haven't corrupted?
The last time I talked about Become Ocean there were no clips up on YouTube so I couldn't share it with you. There still aren't. But there are several promotional "trailers". I will spare you and instead put up as an envoi today a piece whose aesthetic value was very important to the composer. At the time he wrote his Symphony No. 5, Dmitri Shostakovich was being condemned as a "formalist" in Pravda. The next step for artists who failed to toe the socialist realist line was often a trip to a work camp in Siberia (from which few returned) or perhaps a quick firing squad in Lubyanka prison as was the fate of one of Shostakovich's in-laws. So, the premiere of his next piece, the Symphony No. 5, was critical to his very life, not to mention his career. He had to, somehow, both fulfill the strictures of socialist realism (or appear to) and at the same time appeal to the taste of the Russian public. He did so so successfully that there was a half-hour standing ovation at the premiere. And he was not arrested and even outlived Stalin. Here is a performance by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic: