Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Music and Prose

I'm going to quote the beginning of a story about the financial crisis in Greece and comment on it. Here it is:
Originally published in October 2003, this policy review document was signed off  by [that should be either "signed off on" or "signed by"] a then relatively unknown IMF official called Tim Geithner, now the US Treasury Secretary no less. ["no less" is completely redundant]

Strangely enough, he seems entirely to have forgotten about this eight-year-old tome, ["tome" is just the wrong word--pseudo-pretentious with no point] whose candid and illuminating account of Argentina's descent into economic and fiscal chaos, and the not inconsiderable role the IMF played in the process, provides an object lesson in how not to proceed.[the "candid and illuminating account" is an object lesson in how not to proceed, or is it the "descent into economic and fiscal chaos"?]
There's no application of its [again, does "its" refer to the Argentine crisis or the report on it?] lessons to Greece and the rest of the troubled eurozone periphery; worse, in blind disregard for [that should be disregard of, not for] its own analysis, the IMF is making exactly the same mistakes all over again.
On [this should be "following"] Karl Marx's famous dictum that history always repeats itself, once as tragedy, second [these should be parallel: it's first, second or once, twice] as farce, Argentina provides a case study in where Greece is heading [wasn't it the IMF who provided the case study?], which is out of the single currency, into default and a brutally imposed re-engagement with harsh economic realities. [The causality is missing here: who is brutally imposing the re-engagement? Is it the IMF, the harsh economic realities themselves? Who?]
 What I just did is known as a "fisking", named after Robert Fisk, an English journalist who wrote on the Middle East and attracted a lot of negative commentary. I want to point out that a lot of writing is very weak. As we see here, the writer has a poor grasp of how English is written--unfortunate, as he is a professional journalist! He has difficulty preserving the right tone, as his vocabulary wanders into unsuitable words like "tome". The references of his pronouns are unclear and the causality is muddled.

I'm doing this to make a point: a lot of music writing is similarly weak: harmonies are muddled, melodies aimless, textures obscure. You can hear it, just as you can see the weaknesses in prose style. Sure, you have to be an alert listener, just as you have to be an alert reader. Sometimes we want to just lie back and let the music lap over us. Well, no, I don't really do that--for real mindless relaxation I go to TV shows. I usually can't help but listen to music, which is why I hate background music. Listening alertly to music that is not really meant to be listened to at all is an odd experience.

We are fairly adept at evaluating someone speaking to us in terms of plausibility. When you listen to a salesperson touting the virtues of a new product or a used car, you are alert to absurd claims and weak inferences. The same can be true of listening to music. The basic material may be confused or weak, the follow-up poorly connected and the conclusion arbitrary. The more you listen, the more your ability to sort out the musically strong from the musically weak. You don't have to study music theory (yay!), though it wouldn't hurt, you just have to listen closely. Especially to music that is particularly strongly put together. You know who did that! Some guy from Leipzig named, what was it? It's on the tip of my tongue... oh, right, Bach!
(This is actually the 1st Cello Suite, not the 6th.)

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