Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Daring to be Critical

Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post (and married to Greg Sandow) has an article up about music criticism that is worth reading. She is reacting to the uncritical kind of reception classical music often receives from people who have no real expertise in the area. Read the whole thing. Here is one paragraph:
Time and again, artists and thinkers who are sophisticated observers of their own fields step back and goggle when they see classical artists at work. I often cite a Shakespeare concert presided over by Adrian Noble, the acclaimed stage director who was just about to make his Metropolitan Opera debut with Verdi’s setting of “Macbeth;” a few weeks before the show, the Met co-presented a performance that juxtaposed readings of Shakespearean monologues with singing of Shakespeare-based opera arias. Noble spoke between the pieces: he had acute insights about the spoken monologues, but after the opera selections he was reduced to the equivalent of, “Wasn’t that great.” 
These are undoubtedly accurate observations. Midgette seems reluctant to state the underlying assumptions, though. Isn't the fundamental one that if you want to speak intelligently about an art form, you need two kinds of expertise: first in critical thinking generally and second, about the materials and methods used in the particular art form? One of the brakes on good criticism in music is probably the fact that the consumers of criticism are no longer well-educated in music. Time was when most books written on music for the general public were stuffed full of examples from the score that you could play over on the piano. An example: The Wagner Operas by Ernest Newman, first published in 1949 and still in print. But books aimed at the general public are now cleansed of any trace of music notation--even ones that purport to be in-depth discussions of specific repertoire. An example: Shostakovich: Symphonies and Concertos, An Owner's Manual by David Hurwitz, published in 2006. The result is that all discussion, even about detailed events in individual movements as in the Hurwitz book, is reduced to description through metaphor:
Brittle trills on woodwinds and xylophone, topped by suspended cymbal crashes, launch the initial strident march, blasted out by the brass against a stubborn repeated-note accompaniment. The music is deliberately crude and rises quickly to a huge climax with assistance from the bass drum and tam-tam, with high horns and whiplike chords on brass and woodwinds. A contrasting, more lyrical idea follows in the strings, interspersed by bits of march: repeated-note figures, soft snare-drum riffs, and fragments of brass fanfares...
I put up enough of the description to give a real sense of it. Now, what piece by Shostakovich is he talking about? Any idea? Trills in woodwinds, marches, repeated notes and so on are fairly frequently occurring elements in a Shostakovich score. Now how about this:

Click to enlarge

With only a bare minimum of musical literacy you can probably identify this theme by poking it out, with one finger, on the piano. I don't even have the score to copy from so I created this musical example just by listening to a bit of the recording to be sure what note it started on. This is the passacaglia theme from the first movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony. Hurwitz is talking about the first movement of Shostakovich's 4th Symphony on page 63 of his book. I suspect only many, many hours of research and listening would enable you to identify the piece from that description.

The perception is that music notation is very difficult--and there are certainly lots of very difficult to read scores around. But basic literacy in music is really not hard. My students are reading music from the first lesson. Compare to studying French. The best French course I ever had was taught in the same way: everyone was speaking nothing but French from the first class. When we consider the costs of helping a population become literate, it is always useful to consider the considerably greater costs of them remaining illiterate! But literacy in music is not only undervalued, it now seems to be regarded as an extremely esoteric skill like dowsing or reading Ancient Greek. There are reasons for this, of course. One is that a great deal of music has always been non-literate, improvised. Some of this is very fine music indeed. Another is that we seem, since the 60s, to be moving into a post-literate musical culture. When Paul McCartney can become the richest musician in history without learning to read a note, what good is musical literacy? Not much to him!

But when we talk about music, as either musicians, or music lovers or music critics, musical literacy is hugely useful. Go back to my two examples above. In over 80 words, Hurwitz can only give a description so vague that even someone intimately familiar with the symphonies of Shostakovich would be hard-pressed to know which one he was talking about. Each of these words in turn, is composed of several different symbols. On the other hand, the musical notation, clearly and simply, precisely identifies one and only one theme by Shostakovich--and it doesn't need hundreds and hundreds of symbols. There are only ten noteheads on the staff, two beams and four dots. Music notation is astonishingly accurate and efficient. Spoken and written language was never designed to be able to describe music and only does so with extreme vagueness.

Most of what is written on this blog is my own brand of music criticism. Much of it is only possible because I can embed YouTube clips to everything I talk about. But when it would aid understanding I do not hesitate to insert musical examples. Why don't all music critics do the same? If we push back against musical illiteracy we will either get fired or perhaps start to turn the tide...

Here is the first movement of the Shostakovich 7th Symphony. The theme notated above doesn't start until the 5:41 mark.


Anne Midgette said...

Brian: Your basic point about musical literacy is well taken - I think Jeremy Denk, on his blog, does a particularly fine job providing musical illustrations.

But I don't necessarily think this applies to the Adrian Noble example of mine that you cite. There were plenty of things he could have said about the singers -- just on the level of acting, for goodness sakes! -- that would have been far more telling than his vague effusions.

You're quite right that the challenge of writing well about music is to be as specific as possible, and descriptions of what's happening in the music, like the Hurwitz one you cite, often fail to be telling. I identified mere description as one of the pitfalls of music criticism in an earlier blog post:

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Anne,

Thanks for sending me to Jeremy Denk's blog. Looks very interesting.

Yes, point taken about your Adrian Noble example. Do you think that these sort of people hesitate to say anything critical about classical music out of felt ignorance? Or fear we will jump all over them for some trivial error in terminology? That is probably, sadly, true!

Thanks for the link to your other article. You were saying there,

"Unlike critics, artists are not thought to be objective in writing about their art; that’s why newspapers see artists’ writing as a conflict of interest."

I think the problem is that artists are in competition with other artists. I used to get called up occasionally by a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who would ask me what I thought of different pianists or singers. I'm a guitarist, by the way. I asked him why and he said, "well, I certainly wouldn't ask you about other guitarists!" Quite right! Imagine asking one composer about the work of another composer.

I love your Shaw example, by the way. I think this is what he used to call the "Mesopotamian manner."