Criticism, Musical Expression, and Values

The votes are in: in my criticism class, I mean. I have two kinds of student writers. One kind is very good at style and atmosphere. They can talk about music in relation to their lives, tell how certain songs make them feel, relate their likes and dislikes. The other type knows musical terminology, and can describe music in intelligent detail. The first type of writer is entertaining to read, but ultimately merely subjective; the second is more persuasive, but a little dry and lacking in color and emotive effect. Almost none can yet combine the best of both worlds. The first type are almost all pop music aficionados; the second type tend to be classical and jazz musicians.

The big question for me is, is this an inevitable correlation? Are pop-music preferences necessarily subjective, or could they, given the criteria of a certain genre, be grounded in objective distinctions? Can one prove, if only on paper, song by song, that the Beatles were better than the Stones, or vice versa? What I sometimes love about the subjective pop style is its sense of how important music is to listeners. They really love the stuff, it’s crucial to their sense of self-identification. The classical/jazz people are better at proving they know what they’re talking about, but less good at making the music sound important to them. There is a rather obvious correlation here to the music business in general. Pop music accounts for something like 94 percent of all CD sales, classical and jazz for about 3 percent each – or at least, that was the case a few years ago. If classical and jazz writers worked harder at identifying with the music, making it sound life-consuming and identity-defining (as, God knows, it generally is), could those percentages improve? Do classical music and jazz stay under the radar because they inspire a technical, specialist sensibility? or just because we talk about them that way?

Rose Rosengard Subotnik, a musicologist at Brown University, is the leading inheritor of Theodore Adorno’s musico-sociological methodologies, though she’s a lot less snobbish than he was. She’s written persuasively (and I’ve written a lot about her saying) that what “normal,” i.e. lay, listeners want in music is a reflection of their values, an externalization of the qualities they care about in the world. “What the public hears,” she wrote in her book Developing Variations, “is what is always heard, not autonomous structure, but the sensuous manifestation of particular cultural values.” One girl loves Guns ‘n’ Roses for their rebel attitude. Another loves Pearl Jam because their music helped her release the anger she felt as a teenager. They listen to the music, cling to it, wear T-shirts advertising it, because it crystalizes and thereby ratifies their inner feelings. Likewise, people who fancy themselves serious intellectuals listen to Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, not because they understand the music necessarily, but because it reinforces their self-image.

Classical (and postclassical) music express personal values as well, if perhaps or perhaps not on a different plane, but we don’t talk about that as much. To take a work that’s been crucial to my own self-definition (so much so that I keep an MP3 of it on my computer): Roy Harris’s Third Symphony. When I write about it, I tend to emphasize Harris’s mastery of one-movement symphonic form (and less competent handling of multi-movement form), the way he can crescendo within a texture to the point of exploding into a different texture. That has to do with technical expertise, but not much to do with values. What I more secretly get from that work, which I consider music’s The Grapes of Wrath, is its vision of America as a thrilling tragedy, its epic sweep and nobility in disillusionment. It seems to embody the promise of America’s westward movement in mid-century (Harris’s parents were Okies who sought greener pastures in California), a glorification of activity and hard work, yet at the end a realization that, human nature being what it is, America’s promise of transcendence is fated to remain merely an elusive yearning. I get a sense from the Third Symphony that, even if humankind is not perfectible, one is ennobled by the struggle – and, perhaps even more, the piece’s broad orchestral strokes and suggestions of grand emptiness evoke a landscape that attracts me (more than, say, Copland’s busily detailed urban rhythms).

We don’t talk about classical music this way much, and I’m not doing a very impressive job of it now. To do so sounds like an old-fashioned music appreciation text, in which Beethoven’s Fifth represents Fate knocking at the door. We’re a little too embarrassed these days to write that the “Jupiter” Symphony gives listeners a sense of noble optimism, but that’s probably what’s most important about it for nonmusicians. Ultimately (and this is my nagging pedagogical point), I feel that criticism reaches its greatest strength in linking the objective and subjective, when it can point to specific moves in a piece of music and pinpoint their expressive power in inevitable subjective reactions. This takes some modicum of musical training, and also a quasi-naive recognition of what music expresses in its most visceral qualities. For a critic, or any musical commentator, to merely react to music’s energy on a naive emotional level is not enough – but it’s necessary, and an awful lot of musicians forget how to do it.