Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Practical Exercise in Criticism

Way back in 2013, frustrated with the inadequate record reviews that seem to be the norm these days, I put up the kind of review I thought should be done: A Sample Record Review. That is just the first of four posts in which I compare three different recordings of the finale to the Op. 131, C# minor quartet by Beethoven. In 2015 I did another review in which I compared three different recordings on harpsichord of the Bach Goldberg Variations, none by Glenn Gould. Much as I think these were both valid exercises and generally superior to the reviews that typically appear in the mass media, I was largely going on instinct, meaning I didn't think much about my methodology. I think my instincts, honed by fifty years as a musician, are pretty good, but one of the things I have learned from Beardsley is that it is worth thinking about your methodology.

So to that end, I want to do what I am calling a "practical exercise in criticism" in which I will do some criticism and talk about what I am doing and why. Like most artists just the word "criticism" tends to leave a bad taste in my mouth. I think that is because most artists have suffered unfair and biased criticism in their lives and tend to prefer that they just be praised for what they do! But while that is probably better than nasty, unfair criticism, it is still far short of what good criticism can do. What is good criticism? I think that my recent posts on aesthetics give us a hint and especially the last one: Aesthetics: Categories and Criticism. I am going to continue those posts, based on Beardsley's book on aesthetics, but alongside them, I want to launch another series in which I will undertake some practical criticism. The idea is to resurrect the idea of good criticism which seems to have nearly died.

One example of just how poorly criticism is practiced these days is this one from NewMusicBox:
I spent this summer immersed in the music of Roomful of Teeth, a “vocal band” consisting of eight singers with a commitment to exploring the expressive potential of the human voice. I was doing research in order to better understand how and why composers were using what—at that point—I was describing as “polystylism.” I spent my time labeling non-Western classical elements in the group’s pieces, gathering information on the composers’ backgrounds and “non-classical” experience (like Wally Gunn’s time spent in a punk band), interviewing the composers about their opinions relating to this topic, and eventually observing the group’s rehearsals at MASS MoCA during their intensive annual summer residency. Some time into my research, I grew uncertain about the basis of my research question; as I continued to wonder what the varied stylistic elements in each composer’s pieces meant, I also began to question whether they really had to mean anything at all. What if the composers just wanted to write this way, without any interest in “polystylism” or what their use of different styles means? Maybe this music, and the music these composers are writing outside of Roomful of Teeth, has nothing to do with stylistic elements at all.
The writer Hannah Schiller, a young scholar, is "a senior in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. Her research interests center around the current musical moment; she is particularly drawn to post-genre concepts and music emerging from classically trained musicians that is difficult to categorize." I have linked to this essay before. I think that her approach illustrates the huge gaps in the curriculum left by the excising of traditional aesthetics, as well as their replacement with psychological concepts and a kind of inchoate post-modern cultural theory.

Notice how musical specifics are carefully avoided, but instead we are always looking at the performers' commitment, the composers' background and experience, the meaning of stylistic elements and so on. Later on this is made more explicit:
Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer. The individual is quite important to post-genre thinking. This framework focuses on viewing individual pieces separately from what other composers are creating as well as from preexisting expectations, allowing composers to write whatever it is they want to write.
The writer seems unaware of both the tools and limits of criticism so gets lost in a welter of psychological flotsam and jetsam. Beardsley showed in a very famous paper on "The Intentional Fallacy" the problem with that approach:
Beardsley is probably best known for his very first article in aesthetics. In “The Intentional Fallacy,” a paper co-written with William K. Wimsatt and published in 1946 (and widely re-printed, e.g., in Joseph Margolis, ed., Philosophy Looks at the Arts, 3rd edition, 1987), he argued against the neo-Romantic view that a work of art means what the artist says it means, or what he intends it to mean.
An artist's intentions are utterly irrelevant to the descriptive, interpretive, and evaluative properties of his work.
Which, if you think for a moment, makes perfect sense. Every time I sit down to write a piece, my intention is to write One of the Great Works of Western Music. Sadly, it never turns out to be the case. Only in an environment saturated with psychological explanations and bereft of aesthetics would we think otherwise.

Of course we view individual pieces separately and we avoid preexisting expectations and allow composers to write whatever they want. The assumption that the contrary is advocated by someone is just a Straw Man.

I hope this gives an idea of the kind of failed approach that seems to be common these days. What I want to do is outline an alternative by creating a criticism of a piece of music that follows what I consider to be a valid and reasonable approach. Now I have to figure out what would be a good piece to pick as an example! I think something contemporary would be the best. Any suggestions?


Marc Puckett said...

Pfitzner is about as contemporary as I've gotten lately, although I listened to two minutes of someone named Ashley Fure this morning because her 'indirectly audible opera' was noticed (happily, not without reservations, from my point of view anyway) in the Times a couple of days ago. Oh, oh, I listened to Peter Eötvös's Chinese Opera the other day-- is he sufficiently widely listened to to warrant a review? I had seen the name but never listened. There are CD releases of Elliott Carter and Daniil Trifonov (Chopin) just recently.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was thinking something contemporary because then I could contrast my approach with that of the writer over at NewMusicBox, but it has to be a piece that I either have or can get the score for. Mind you, that includes Steve Reich because his scores are available online and I have a couple in my library as well.