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 want about Babbitt et al, but it strikes me as being more productive to engage them on what’s inside their music. It’s all well and good that Babbitt achieved total serialization or successfully integrated live voice with tape, but Three Compositions for Piano is bland, and Philomel is downright cheesy….

Being able to fully articulate your emotional response to a piece of music helps you to fully understand it. Stopping at one word descriptions like “fluffy” and “soft,” or “minimalist” and “impressionist,” don’t do very much to help you understand what the composer set out to do. The emotional choices made by a composer are just as important, if not more so, than any intellectual ones, and deserve to be criticized and questioned much more than they have in the past.

I see the point, and agree with it. I don’t think anyone reading my reviews would accuse me of stopping with one-word descriptions (over-conciseness is hardly my vice). I make these same distinctions between Babbitt’s pieces, and I’ve expended a lot of print talking about how different the various postminimalist composers are from each other. But if I can call a piece “postminimalist,” and you know what I mean, that saves me a paragraph’s worth of dry technical description and a couple of sentences about history, and allows me to spend my column inches talking about that piece’s specific emotional characteristics. Otherwise, critics have to reinvent the wheel over and over, cataloguing superficial characteristics that hundreds of pieces have in common – which is what often happens in criticism of new music. Imagine having to re-explain sonata form for every Mozart piece you write about.

Let’s say there are 1800 pieces of music out there that one could call postminimalist. (Given that I can name 60 postminimalist composers off the top of my head, it’s undoubtedly a low estimate.) Now, I can listen to, say, Cover by Belinda Reynolds and Fade by Dan Becker, and tell you that, while both pieces basically come from a postminimalist orientation, Cover has more of a classical chamber music patina about it, and a well-calculated, surprising way of never using the same kind of modulation twice; while Fade moves more smoothly and intuitively and mysteriously, hiding its modulations and yet following a concealed repeated pattern. (I choose these examples as a joke, because Becker and Reynolds are married to each other, and the pieces are about as similar to each other as two pieces by different good composers can be – which is not very similar.)

But let’s take the music critic for the Bucksnort Daily Picayune, who’s hearing postminimalist music for the first time in his life. He hears Fade, and writes, “Well, I don’t know, the piece is really limited harmonically, and never departs from the same pulse all the way through. It seems awfully constricted and doesn’t really go anywhere.” He’s not really criticizing Fade, he’s criticizing postminimalism as a style, unaware that there are 1799 other pieces about which he could say the same thing, and that Becker is deliberately starting from the same aesthetic principles as 60 other composers, pulling the postminimalist idea in his own original direction. He’s damned the whole group, but he hasn’t said anything about Becker’s imagination.

This is what happens to composers vis-a-vis critics all the time. You’re involved in a whole scene, you’re developing ideas within a context, but so few critics have heard any wide sampling of that music that with every performance you have to refight the battle on behalf of the entire group. Now, OF COURSE (before everyone writes in, and please notice this sentence) a piece has to be successful on its own terms, and Fade has to overwhelm the listener with beauty regardless of whether those 1799 other pieces exist or not. But music is almost always in the position of relying on at least some minor recognition of its basic language. At some point, say in 1835, there must have been a critic who’d never heard a piece that wasn’t in sonata form, and who heard Schumann’s Papillons and complained, “Geez [or ach du lieber], the piece has no overarching structure, the main theme never gets developed, it’s just a bunch of short fragments, who cares?” – unaware that a new, Romantic aesthetic had been growing up around him in which the fragment, the vignette, was becoming a viable new form of expression. Fade can succeed, Fade can fail, but it deserves to be heard in the postminimalist context before it’s reflexively dismissed for its superficial characteristics. (And as Galen Brown pointed out, it’s the superficial attributes that pieces in the same style have in common.)

What almost every non-composing critic misses, with deadening regularity, is that almost no piece of music exists in a vacuum – composers develop musical languages collectively. And if you don’t know the style, the language, the idiom, you’re never going to deeply understand the piece, or understand why the composer made the choices he or she did. It’s as true of Mozart as it is of Belinda Reynolds, and vice versa. Imagine someone who’s never in his life heard a piece of music written before 1950 (not uncommon these days, unfortunately), hearing his first Mozart symphony. How’s he going to decide whether it’s a great Mozart symphony or a mediocre one (since a lot of the early ones aren’t particularly stellar)? He can’t – but if he listens to five more Mozart symphonies, and a couple by Haydn, he’ll start to make distinctions. He’s in the same position the Bucksnort critic is in listening to Fade, and the same position I’m listening to a performance of South Indian classical music – sounds good to me, but I surely couldn’t pinpoint what sparks of genius there are, and I may be overlooking mistakes that would send Ravi Shankar falling off his pillow laughing his head off.

One function of terminology is to make people aware that a style exists. If I’m unaware that a genre called South Indian classical music exists, I may think what I’m hearing is some bizarre anomaly that one person made up to sound weird. With our nominalist shying away from terms and movements, we have a tendency to atomize musical culture these days, consider every piece a bizarre anomaly, which is one reason our musical culture is literally falling apart – because no one will connect the dots.

(I realize I’m beating this terminology shtick to death, and probably even exaggerating its importance – since there are plenty of new pieces that even an up-to-date expert couldn’t assign to any known style. But I’m so sick and tired of this self-defeating, anti-intellectual bias in the new music world that it’s difficult to shut up about it.)