Sunday, August 28, 2011

Problems of Music Criticism

An anonymous reader left some excellent comments on my post "Negative Criticism". As they led to an interesting discussion, let me quote them here:
I don't "get" U2 at all. I've never heard any catchy melody, any interesting arrangement, any ear-catching rhythm from those guys. Nothing. Just droning, achingly dull banality. In fact the laws of statistics suggest that out of so many tunes at least a couple of them should be interesting. But not even that. My sense is that no one in U2 actually knows the first thing about music. This is not some sort of elitist criticism that will dismiss all of rock as uneducated music. Far from it. Though lacking any formal training, Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix were extremely subtle, creative, sophisticated musicians. My problem with U2 is that I don't see that they ever got past the 3-chord stage of an 8th-grader who gets a guitar for Xmas. And yet their enormous popularity tells me I must be missing something. Or are people so conditioned by bad music any mediocre band stands a chance to make it if they play their cards right?
I replied:
I couldn't be more in agreement. I first started thinking about U2 after reading a book by Roger Scruton. Here is the post:

It must be time to look at how U2 got to be so popular... I feel a post coming on!
Then anonymous said:
Scruton is a good philosopher (despite his ueber-conservative disposition). He once dissed REM's "Losing My Religion" for all sorts of musical reasons, mostly sound and valid. And yet his argument left something to be desired. The reason is this.

I could argue why the St Matthew Passion's opening is the greatest piece of music ever written, and whether right or wrong, I think I could make a persuasive case for it. Just as Scruton can make a persuasive case that REM's music is bad. But there is one problem. I happen to believe that "Kommt, ihr Töchter" is indeed the greatest piece of music I've ever had the good luck to hear, but that's not because of the technical argument I could mount in support of that belief. After all, I could easily imagine a piece of music that is just as technically impressive and yet left me cold. The technical case for "Kommt, ihr Töchter" can only add plausibility to the claim that its greatness is unsurpassed but it cannot establish it. For its greatness is not reducible to any set of merits that can be put in words. The only argument that, in the end, clinches it for me is my subjective judgment that no other piece of music has ever moved me so deeply and lastingly
and so enriched my musical sensibilities.

So now let's go back to REM. I find "Losing My Religion" quite catchy and for me, anyway, as a piece of pop music, it works. And yet Scruton's arguments about its inferiority might well be correct. But how much do they matter? My problem with U2 is that it's never moved me the slightest bit. I try to rationalize it by saying they don't know squat about music. But highly trained pop musicians (say, Joe Satriani) don't really move me either. I feel my approach to music is extremely primitive and physical. At the end of the day, the reason I worship Bach is because he, more than anyone, can bring tears to my eyes. I wish there was a way to argue about the "qualia" of music that didn't inevitably fall back to its objective "manufacturing" nature. So that Scruton's complaint that REM doesn't invert triads wouldn't sound so trite.
And I answered:
Where was Scruton's discussion of "Losing My Religion"?

You put your finger on a crucial problem in aesthetic judgment: a large part of our response to music is deeply subjective. This is beyond the limit of music theory. Theorists have long since given up on aesthetic judgment, of course. They would rather not get involved in that messiness! But theory severed from aesthetic judgment tends to be sterile analysis. Similarly, subjective responses to music tend to be excessively shaped by whatever you were exposed to when you were young. I often puzzle over whether some of my high regard for the Beatles is simply because they were a big part of what I listened to when I was in my later teens.

But let me make some distinctions here: music poses problems for a philosophical discussion because the creation and reception of it is located in a non-verbal part of the self (brain, mind). You don't (verbally) think your way through a performance either playing or listening. But that does not imply that it is entirely subjective. Let me give an example. When we watch/hear a string quartet perform, they are engaged in a very subtle non-verbal communication (conversation). The first violin plays a theme and the second takes it up. The viola threads in a counter-melody and the cello supports it all with long bass notes. Then they all slow down together to meditate on it. All this is quite real and also quite non-verbal. We can talk about it, but only rather indirectly. As I write, I am imagining exact sounds, but I'm not sure what you, the reader are imagining.

So, none of this is subjective, though it is beyond the reach of words. I think that good aesthetic judgments about music can also aspire to the objective, though they will be difficult. I try to do it through direct comparisons. Instead of trying to describe the indescribable, I just put up a clip from YouTube and let you decide.

Going back to the subjective: I think one can overcome the biases that come from what you listened to when you were young. For example, in my first couple of years of listening I probably spent as much time listening to Eric Burdon and the Animals and the Rolling Stones as the Beatles. It was over a long period of time that I began to distinguish the extraordinary music of the Beatles from the other music of the same time. In the same way, we have, over a long time, come to see the music of Bach as being of quite a different order than that of, say, Telemann or Johann Friedrich Fasch.

In order to engage in really telling music criticism, you have to do more than just complain about how triads are inverted. But you can make that complaint. Applied to rock music it is a bit odd, though. Rock harmony doesn't have a lot to do with inversions because on rhythm guitar, you play whatever inversion lies easily on the fingerboard. I think good criticism should have at its disposal the whole repertoire of theoretical learning, but only use what is appropriate to the context. For example, to accuse early Steve Reich of boring repetition is somewhat to misunderstand what he is up to. But to accuse Fasch of boring repetition is to hit the nail on the head!

I find a blog to be a superb locale for music criticism because I can talk about something, then embed a clip as an example. I can put up an excerpt from a musical score to clinch the point. The discussion can wander from the verbal to the musical performance to the written score and thus make up for the limitations of language.

Thank you, anonymous, for an excellent comment!!!
Here are the pieces we were talking about. "Losing My Religion" by REM:
And the opening chorus from the Matthew Passion:


Minicapt said...

I have one piece by U2, "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", and one by Coldplay, "Fix You". Both have been arranged for a girls' choir named 'Canatamus'; having checked the original versions via YouTube, I have had no urge to pursue either group further. It may be that the aesthetics of a piece of music is affected strongly by the performers.

Mind you, my preferred version of "Sweet Home Alabama" is by the 'Leningrad Cowboys'.


Bryan Townsend said...

That's funny, I was just listening to another women's choir, Belgian I think, also doing some pop music. I listened to the Coldplay song in both versions. Here is what I think is going on: the women's choir is a classical medium with an astonishing amount of great music. So why sing pop arrangements? It is probably the performers that make these choices and they have grown up with pop music and know little else. This is what they want to sing. The fact that a choral arrangement of a song like "Fix You" tends to reveal the harmonic and melodic poverty of it, doesn't really matter if you are unacquainted with the real thing...

Allan Bloom's book "The Closing of the American Mind" has a whole chapter on pop music, the powerful effect it has on the minds of young people.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughtful reply full of very interesting observations. (Unfortunately, we had a hurricane where I live and things are a bit of a mess and not too conducive to sober reflections about music :-) But thanks for your blog, which is wonderful!

Skinner said...

Allan Bloom's views on pop music are even more ridiculous than Adorno's on jazz. "Intellectuals" like Bloom, Scruton, Adorno are purveyors of self righteous high brow claptrap. I do find the jeremiads of these critics quite entertaining, such verbosity and stupidity are a rare treat. Roger Scruton giving a lecture on neuroscience is probably the greatest comedy I have ever seen. Oh the humanities, a never ending well of idiocy...

Bryan Townsend said...

So, just a stab in the dark here, but I gather that you are not a fan of the music criticism of Allan Bloom, Theodor Adorno and Roger Scruton?

Anybody you do like?