Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Practice that Dare Not Speak Its Name

No, not that one! I mean music criticism. For some time now this has been regarded as a disreputable activity, something no decent person would engage in. It's so negative! Can't we all just be appreciative of one another's efforts? Besides, everyone's opinion is equally valid so there is no objective basis for criticism whatsoever.

Well, horsepucky.

A friend recently sent me a link to Greg Sandow's blog where he has been posting a lot of things about quality in orchestras. Here is a sample. In this and other posts he comes to grip with the problem of criticism as applied to orchestral performance and discusses reasons why the topic is avoided.

Let's think for a minute about what music criticism is. As a sign of how incredibly neglected it is these days, look at the Wikipedia article. Three sentences, one of them a quote from the Oxford Companion to Music. Is there any other article on music in Wikipedia this half-hearted? Music criticism to my mind is the aesthetic evaluation of music. Some of the finest examples I know of are books by Charles Rosen and Joseph Kerman. Music criticism needs to start with the music itself. Sometimes I think we have everything backwards. We look at the final presentation and either like it or not. Perhaps this is because of the characteristic musical event of the present moment: the music video. Everything is pre-recorded, pre-choreographed--take it or leave it. But the way I think of it is from the inside out. I start with the piece: what is its quality, context, purpose? Then perhaps I learn to play it and I evaluate my own performance. Maybe that note should be louder or softer, more joined to the other notes. Maybe the tempo should be faster or slower. Then I think about who would enjoy this piece. There are many stages and levels of criticism.

Greg Sandow is doing the excellent work of drawing our attention to the need for criticism of orchestras. It is an inevitable, necessary benefit of having a mind. Thinking always involves evaluation. Good thinking involves well-formed evaluations. One tests one's evaluations by going back and having another listen. Evaluations develop over time. Some music exhausts itself while other music grows in depth the more you hear it. Music criticism is emphatically not a negative activity--where did we get that idea? Music criticism is evaluative, meaning that we can say, cool, there is a lot going on there or, meh, not so much going on. Two things are crucially important: that reasons are given and that they be good, musical reasons. I might read a piece of criticism with which I entirely disagree, yet find the reasons to be fascinating. Or vice versa. The reasons are sometimes more interesting than the conclusion. Criticism draws our attention to things we might have missed. It increases our enjoyment of good music. Sometimes it saves us having to live through some music that might best be avoided. Though you should always listen for yourself if only to test the evaluations of the critic.

I think one of the fundamental reasons why criticism has been suppressed is the trend to commercialism. Trend? Giant tsunami might be more accurate. Music is so driven by financial considerations these days that anything that might hinder a sale is anathema. You could get sued!

Pretty much every post on this blog engages in some form or other of music criticism: deal with it!

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