Don’t Try This at Home

Composer and loyal correspondent Lawrence Dillon has a formulation for the true relationship of composition and theory that is too admirable to keep to myself: You can drive the car; you can look under the hood; but don't try to do both at the same time. … [Read more...]

The Argument Continues

Music theory blogging - the continuation of a Critics' Conversation by other means! DePauw University music professor Scott Spiegelberg has posted a feisty but thoughtful reply to the views I quoted from Jean Lawton and Adam Baratz. … [Read more...]

Terminology, Round #726

Reader Adam Baratz objects reasonably to my position on terminology: I see where you're coming from on promoting the use of grouping music based on surface similarities, but I think such a course is eventually as dangerous to criticism and history as falling back on abstract, inaudible relationships. Just as it's easy to avoid the emotional meaning of a piece of music through a cerebral system, examining music through arbitrary stylistic groupings can get you into just as many problems.... You can get into all the ideological arguments you … [Read more...]

Why Words Work for Music

Reader and like-minded spirit Jean Lawton has written a response to my blog entry “Leave No Term Unstoned.” I e-print it here because it’s not just an answer but a beautifully written article, despite the fact that it says a couple of flattering things about me, and because she makes so many points I wish I had made, and supports them so compellingly. Thanks, Jean - for this and for the Wittgenstein line I had already quoted. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * "What makes a subject difficult to understand... is not that some special … [Read more...]

The Difficulty of Obviousness

A reader was kind enough to draw my attention to this wonderful quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein: What makes a subject difficult to understand - if it is significant, important - is not that some special instruction about abstruse things is necessary to understand it. Rather it is the contrast between the understanding of the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things that are most obvious can become the most difficult to understand. What has to be overcome is not a difficulty of the intellect, but of the will. … [Read more...]

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The other day I had lunch with a classical musician friend. She started talking about how sick and tired she is of reading stories about how classical music is dying. What is the purpose of these stories?, she wondered. If a department store found its profits declining and was afraid of going under, would its owners run around shouting to the public that it was in danger of going under? Wouldn’t that shake consumer confidence in the store and make things worse? Wouldn’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy? We could see how, in private … [Read more...]

Salient Superficialities

An extremely articulate response to the above post from composer Galen Brown, aptly pointing out that in talking terms we're talking about superficialities, and that superficialities are indeed wherein works resemble each other: Since you are expecting unanimous dissent, I feel I ought to make a point of throwing my lot in with the "pro-termists." You make essentially the same argument I've been making for a while now. Genre naming is useful and relatively harmless if used humanely, by which I mean that people need to recognize the fact that … [Read more...]

Leave No Term Unstoned

Prefatory note: I've always wanted to write an essay on this topic for my blog, so, having the excuse to do so for the Critics' Conversation, I post it here as well. “Artists hate terms” is a truism, but not one of the eternal truths of music. It is too often proved false - artists occasionally find terms very useful. Debussy repudiated “Impressionism,” Glass and Reich disavow “Minimalism,” and in the current climate these examples are triumphantly thrown in our face at every turn as though they embody an unalterable principle. But artist … [Read more...]

Paved with Good Intentions

Fellow blogger Drew McManus adds some apt cautionary points to my musings on granting degrees in music criticism: One of my overriding thoughts while reading the series of posts has been "why is it that a good share of music critics have no serious musical training?" I know that's a topic worthy of a large amount of debate, but I wonder that if too many schools eventually start offering degrees in music criticism then aren't they going to start producing more and more individuals that have no direct experience with the art they are … [Read more...]