Friday, June 7, 2013

Composers, Music Criticism and Modernism

A lot of what this blog does is music criticism and the theory of music criticism. The reason is that while music criticism is a very necessary activity, it is currently practiced very poorly. If people must listen to Ke$ha, then we at least need to make them feel somewhat ashamed, do we not? Ok, that was supposed to be funny. Sort of.

I think those who are capable of doing music criticism are scared to because of the growth of relativism. If you critique someone you are just being judgmental! Well, yes, of course. Judgment is one of those fundamental activities that is why we have brains. The trick is simply to apply good judgment rather than bad judgment. One of the reasons I say that music criticism is practiced poorly is that when it is practiced, it is so thoroughly based on subjective whims that it is scarcely worth reading.

There are some other, less noticed, reasons for the fading of music criticism. One of these I would like to touch on in this post. It used to be that some of the very best music critics were composers. In fact, one of the very first well-known music critics was the composer Robert Schumann who alerted the world to the talents of both Chopin and Brahms. Berlioz was another composer who wrote a lot of music criticism. I think composers have a unique contribution to make to music criticism.

But the practice seemed to disappear in the 20th century. As modernism redefined composition as the seeking of entirely new musical "languages" akin in a way to the new fashions unveiled in Paris and Milan every year, composers had less and less to say about other composers. Perhaps the last was, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg. He didn't do music criticism as such, but he wrote a lot of theoretical material on things like harmony. One particularly interesting book is Structural Functions of Harmony written in 1948 when Schoenberg was teaching at UCLA. It is a bit ironic that this discussion of the use of harmony in musical structure should come from the pen of someone who is often regarded as having ended the use of harmony with his theory of "pan-tonal" composition! But Schoenberg was  an all-round musical craftsman. Subsequent generations of composers tended not to be as there seemed to be less and less need of traditional compositional skills.

What can we tell about Schoenberg's musical criticism? Theory texts, of course, try to avoid the question of musical value, but they fundamentally cannot! The reason is that every theorist has a template of what 'good' music is. They choose their examples of harmony from 'good' music, not bad music. So if we just look at the index of musical examples or, in this case, the index of names, we can quickly get a sense of who is regarded as being worthwhile and how much so, from the simple quantity of citation. In Schoenberg's book the composer most cited is Beethoven--not much of a surprise! After him are Brahms, Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Wagner and Schumann.

With the disappearance of composers as critics and theorists, came the growth of the profession of music theorist. Again, critical evaluation was forbidden as such, but again, it is unavoidable as you simply have to pick and choose. Let's dig around in the index to the leading modern text on theory, Harmony and Voice Leading (3rd Edition) by Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter. Here, the one far in the lead is Bach, followed by Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms and Schumann.

What is missing from these lists? Modern composition! With the disappearance of traditional ways of writing music, so disappeared the foundations for music criticism. All that is left is your subjective reaction. But this is really unsatisfactory, isn't it? This is what pop criticism, such as it is, consists of. As an example, let's go to Rolling Stone Magazine and pick a review at random:
Is there a more debonair dirtball in rock than Josh Homme? The Queens of the Stone Age frontman is the high priest of grimy rock tradition, exalting in exquisitely wrought guitar scraping and wry machismo – whether with his main gig or in side bands like the Dave Grohl collaboration Them Crooked Vultures. For the Queens' sixth album, their sole continuous member has the band at full power, with Grohl drumming on five of 10 tracks, former members Nick Oliveri and Mark Lanegan pitching in, and eye-catching, yet unobtrusive, guest spots from Trent Reznor, Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears, Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner and Elton John – who, fabulously, volunteered as "an actual queen."
Make no mistakes, though: . . . Like Clockwork still runs on Homme's grizzled-dude-against-the-world intensity; he'll quaff a "potion to erase you," and he compares people to "crashing ships in the night." The track featuring Sir Elton's vocals and piano, with Grohl on skins? It's a deliciously greasy complaint called "Fairweather Friends." If you're looking for something aspirational, check out "If I Had a Tail," a perv's anthem in which Homme deploys his best movie-villain voice. And let's just say that the bad-vibes ballad "The Vampyre of Time and Memory" earns its gothick spelling. Yet for all his demon-steed drive, Homme's a versatile guy – he coos as persuasively as he howls, and few can rain down metal decay with as much nuance and craft.
How can you tell subjective reactions from actual criticism? I'm going to say that part of it is technical vocabulary. If you are going to talk about the music from an objective point of view, then you have to refer to it directly. You have to use words like "backbeat" or "three-chord rock" or "blues-based guitar solo". Notice I'm not using classical terms like "flat sub-mediant" because they are not appropriate to this music. But there are lots of terms that are appropriate. We just don't see them in the review above. What is referred to, instead of the music, is the character of the musicians. This is the origin of phrases like "debonaire dirtball" or "grizzled-dude". Places where there seems to be direct reference to the music in phrases like "exquisitely wrought guitar scraping" or "perv's anthem" are so lacking in any musical detail as to be empty.

Funnily enough, one of the few examples of actual music criticism of contemporary music was found recently in the Guardian with Tom Service's very useful guide to contemporary music. Here is his round-up of the year-long project. As a sample of how he managed to tread the fine line between too much technical vocabulary and still managing to communicate something about the music itself, here is a paragraph from the first article on Elliot Carter:
It was in the desert of Arizona in 1950-51 that Carter made his breakthrough discoveries in musical time and space. After a year of compositional soul-searching, Carter finished his First String Quartet, a 45-minute musical dreamscape, whose structure was suggested, Carter says, by a Jean Cocteau film, Le sang d'un po├Ęte. In the quartet, you can hear the key to Carter's later music, from the way the piece melts four main movements into one gigantic superstructure, to how the music moves from one speed to another so seamlessly that you don't notice it happening until you realise you're in a new musical dimension (listen to the opening minutes of the quartet's fourth movement to hear his mastery of the technique known as "metric modulation". The sounds this quartet makes are thrillingly varied, from torrentially fast music to lyrical intensity, and yet the whole thing is made coherent by the use of a new harmonic device that Carter had found (a chord dauntingly called the"all-interval tetrachord"; basically, a collection of four notes – say, C, D flat, E flat and G – that contains the potential to generate every musical interval you can think of, the ultimate composer's toolkit).
No musical notation, that is completely forbidden in anything published that is likely to be seen by the general public, but still, a pretty good stab at describing what Carter is up to with phrases like "metric modulation" and "all-interval tetrachord".

Tom avoided being called judgmental by choosing composers worth covering and thereby avoiding the need to say anything negative about anyone. But it is also necessary to point out what music is less good, what music limps along with little inspiration, what music is not worth your time. And that, we seem to be singularly bad at.

Let me end with a little project for the reader. Here are two pieces of contemporary music. Which do you thing is better and which worse and why?


Logan said...

OK, I'll do my best:
The Martin piece is listenable enough, I guess, but just so bland! Whatever doesn't seem to have been ripped from Rhapsody in Blue or from Ravel's Bolero is just generic (and rather wearing) brass-and-percussion stuff for a cheap impression of excitement.
The Dutilleux, for its part, doesn't really inspire me to explore more of the composer's work, but it's not at all dull. I don't have the requisite understanding of theory to discuss the piece in detail, but one thing I like about it is the simple austerity of the first minute or two. There's a spirituality there that's missing from Martin's hectic bombast. I also think that, while the Martin piece is pretty static, the Dutilleux evolves in an organic way towards its end; it takes us somewhere. And there's a certain unpredictability to its harmony that interests me.
I'm really just commenting to see what you have to say about the pieces, though.

Bryan Townsend said...

Logan, good job! I will offer my own thoughts about these two pieces, but it will have to be tomorrow.

I don't have a predisposition--I chose a couple of pieces I don't actually know as a kind of experiment. So when I have a closer look at them, it will be for the first time. Though I do have some general ideas about the two composers.

It's not so interesting if you know what you are going to find!