Saturday, November 30, 2013

Just Tell Us What You Hear

One recurring theme on this blog is music journalism and the record review. I guess that I continue to be sensitive to and critical of them because these are the media through which most people receive their musical information. The people that write music journalism and record reviews shape public opinion on music. Unfortunately, few of them seem to have much knowledge of music and there is always the suspicion that commercial interests lurk just behind the scenes. This is why, of course, even though there are quite a few lackluster and dull musical performances out there, we very rarely read a bad review. So let me continue my small effort to improve this situation.

The Guardian has a recent review up of a new album by Julie Sassoon that is unfortunately typical of the genre--of reviews, that is! It is a continuous stream of praise of the artist as a unique, special snowflake that manages to give us virtually no information about what the music actually sounds like. Nearly everything in the review is about the artist personally and her background. Reading the review you might be inclined to strongly disagree with me because it seems as if there is a lot about the music there:
Some episodes are dreamlike and barely mobile, like the opening Just So, with its repeating four-note figure only momentarily intensified by mild dissonance. What the Church Bells Saw has a repeating treble call as its dominant phrase, before its rhythms begin to push and tug each other other out of line. The trickling Forty Four fitfully waltzes with some of the most engaging melodies of the set, and gleams with Sassoon's ghostly vocal sounds, but there's a compelling Keith Jarrett-like jauntiness to its later stages. The closing New Life is a 20-minute kaleidoscope of fast, systems-like ostinatos, choral vocal sounds and explosively percussive low-register effects.
That tells us a lot about the music, doesn't it? There are certainly words that seem to be telling us something. "Just So" has a repeating four-note figure, for example. Alas, there does not seem to be a clip of that piece on YouTube. But just reflect for a minute: "repeating four-note figure" could describe a Bach fugue subject, the opening motif of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 or the four-note figure that I just pointed out yesterday is shared between Haydn's Symphony No. 13 and Mozart's Symphony No. 41, last movement. Really, there are thousands of pieces of music that feature a repeating four-note figure. The question is, what does this particular one by Julie Sassoon actually sound like? No idea.

Luckily, another piece from the album, "What the Churchbells Saw", is available on YouTube, so we can see what the writer is referring to:

That is described as "a repeating treble call as its dominant phrase, before its rhythms begin to push and tug each other out of line." OK. On the other hand, that language could describe any piece whatsoever that has a melody in the upper register and which gains in rhythmic complexity. To be rhythmically tugged out of line is not language that is sufficient to describe actual musical events. It might refer to syncopation or Reichian phasing or almost anything. As a matter of fact, it seems to refer to a slight quickening of the tempo and a bit of Reichian phasing.

"Forty Four" does not seem to be on YouTube either. The clip with that title seems to be something else mislabeled. But there is a clip of the first part of "New Life":

The reviewer describes this as "fast, systems-like ostinatos" which is true enough, I suppose, but again, the language is so vague and non-specific that it could be describing anything from Bach to early Philip Glass. And I have no idea what a "system-like" ostinato might be as opposed to the garden variety kind.

My view is that reviews like this are basically intended to trick you into buying the album based on deceptive language that disguises the music with smoke and mirrors while it tries to get you to like the artist based on their biography and "unique-special-snowflakiness". Part of the strategy is NOT to give you any excerpts so that you won't be distracted by reality. Wouldn't we all prefer it if reviewers just told us what they hear?

Nothing against Julie Sassoon, but this is how I would describe this music:
A lackluster, new-agey blend of Steve Reich and Philip Glass with Keith Jarrett. Instead of structure and direction we have vague noodling. It is not quite dull enough to qualify as New Age, nor interesting enough to be called contemporary music. Nor does it have enough edge to work as jazz. Just another self-indulgent fusion of whatever musical bits the artist likes. Lots of this kind of stuff in the world so I really don't think you need to waste your time on this album.
I'm sure you can see why I would never be hired as a record reviewer by any mainstream publication!! This is too snooty and too disparaging. Too negative and too elitist. The fact that it actually serves you, the reader, is probably irrelevant. The head of the record company would be on the line with the editor within the hour to get me fired, I suspect.

Just for contrast, let's have some of the real thing. Here is some Philip Glass:

And some Keith Jarrett:


Rickard said...

I wonder if you ever stumbled across this classical music review website:

Bryan Townsend said...

No, never have. But thanks for the tip. It looks like a higher standard of reviewing.

Unknown said...

Speaking of minimalist composers, could you do an article, or articles, solely about "minimalist" composers and a few of their pieces? I am very fond of this musical -ism, and I would like to see your thoughts on some of the composers that are under this umbrella term

Just a suggestion, is all.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sounds like a pretty good suggestion...