Classical and pop reviews (4)

Behind all the discussion we’ve been having about pop and classical reviews lie some big differences — differences in how people think about pop and classical music.It’ll be good, I think, to clarify these, at least as I see them, before I go on to compare more reviews. (See also this post, and this one.)

For classical music people, a piece of music is, so to speak, an object, something that lies behind every performance, and has an existence of its own. Typically we’d identify this as the score of the piece — the written notation specifying what the composer wrote. In passing, I’ll note that this in fact turns out to be a complicated concept, surprisingly elusive when you try to specify exactly what it means. Scholars working in the discipline called philosophy of music have written endless papers arguing about this. See Lydia Goehr’s book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works for a trenchant analysis.

But still, the concept makes intuitive sense, in a classical context. A composer writes a piece; musicians play it. The piece came before the performance, and we think — especially if we’re talking about one of the great classical masterworks — that the piece is more important than the performance is. And so classical critics care more about pieces than performances. In fact, that’s a badge of honor, proof that you’re serious. A performance is judged by how well it brings across the piece being performed, whose qualities — structural, emotional, whatever — are thought to be the source of all the meaning that the piece might have. The meaning, in other words, exists independently, apart from all performances, unaffected (at least in theory) by what anybody thinks it is.

In pop music, things are very different. There isn’t any piece of music on display. Sure, somebody writes a song, and then it’s recorded, getting reshaped in the process, but also taking on its final form, with instruments and voices, a process that might vaguely be compared to the orchestration of a classical piece. Somebody, at least in theory, could prepare a score of what was sung and played. (These scores actually exist for many metal songs, even complete albums, and can be bought. They’re written in guitar tablature, rather than in musical notation, but still they specify every note, just as the score of a Beethoven symphony does.)

But what matters most in pop is the performance — or, even more, the entire musical event, the music that’s sung and played, the lyrics, the tone of the singer’s voice, the clothes the musicians wear, their body language, and, not least, the reaction of the audience. In fact, what classical music people often call the “reception” of a piece of music — the way the world reacts to it — becomes part of a pop song’s meaning, and might even be the most crucial part.

And so of course this leads to vast differences in criticism. Classical critics for the most part keep themselves out of their reviews, which seems appropriate, because the focus is on something bigger and more important than any personal reaction, the piece itself. But pop critics feel free to make themselves a crucial part of what they write. Lester Bangs, writing about Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, starts by telling us what his life was like when he first heard the album. And why not? The meaning of the record, a rock critic would think, is at least in part created by everyone’s reaction to it, and Bangs’s own experience could be both relevant and illuminating.

And we can also see why classical music people read pop criticism, and complain that the critics don’t talk about the music. A classical reader wants to know, in objective terms, how the music sounds and how it’s written. And a pop person wants to know how the music feels, what view of life it gives us, what kind of people like it, or how people change when they hear it. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone from the pop world react to classical reviews, but maybe they’d think that classical critics never talk about anything important. Or, more strongly, that they don’t talk about anything real. That they pick the least important things about music, and make a fetish of them.

The more I explore this gap, the wider it seems. In one of the essays in Strandeda book in which many rock critics decide what album they’d take to a desert island (and which I’ve cited as one of several good places to start, if you want to see how rock criticism works) — Ed Ward writes about Dedicated to You, an album by the “5” Royales (that’s how their name is written). He talks in great evocative detail about the group’s history — and then he tells us that made it up!

From a classical music point of view, that’s completely — grossly, outrageously — irresponsible. but Ward says that simply thinking about the group (in the context, of course, of exhaustive knowledge of rock and R&B history) gives him more than any scholarship or history could ever convey. And besides, he wants to bring the mystery back to rock & roll. So he’d rather communicate in fables, in the kind of truth that may be, in the end, be more truthful than the merely objective facts.

Which isn’t to say that classical music writing doesn’t also tell us crucial things. I’ll repeat what I said in another post — I’m not trying to prove that pop writing is better than classical writing, or that pop music is better than classical music. I just want to show some differences — and show how these differences seem to make pop writing more accessible to a general audience, which is something classical music people ought to think about, as they try to find more listeners for classical music.


(1) It’s perfectly possible to do musical analysis, in classical music style, of pop songs. You then can show, first, that pop songs show coherent musical thought, just as classical music does. And then you can show how the objective structures you’ve unearthed help create everything that rock critics like to notice. See for instance Robert Walser, Running With the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.

(2) The difference I’m describing here helps show why classical music favors a pure and clean vocal and instrumental sound, while pop music lets people shout and scream, and put hair on electric guitar sounds with distorted feedback. Of course, there are many reasons for this, ranging from historical evolution to social class (classical music has tended to be music of the upper classes, while pop, ever since rock began, has evolved from folk music, blues, gospel, country music, and R&B, which all are musical styles that came from black, rural, and working class cultures. But still there’s a connection with the difference I’m exploring. If your job in music is to realize a composer’s piece, then it helps to do so with a pure, clean sound, so everyone can hear what the piece is. (And especially its structures, based on motifs and harmonies that have to be clearly presented.) But if your job — as it is in pop — is to create an event, then anything goes.

(3) There’s also a connection in all of this to the famous Roland Barthes essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” perhaps the only piece of writin

g in which a major cultural theorist examines classical music criticism. He’s not encouraging. “[I]t can readily be seen that a work (or its performance) is only ever translated into the poorest of linguistic categories: the adjective….this music is this, this execution is that.” He notes (I’m paraphrasing him) that critics note emotions they might have, as they write in this way, but don’t seem to be disturbed by them. They remain “constituted,” unruffled, to some degree removed from the music as they make their judgments. Barthes prefers to let his heart and body respond to what he calls the “grain” of a sound, especially a singing voice, the grain being defined as something that one’s body vibrates with (a phrase far too sentimental for Barthes!), something that lies beyond objective measurement. Here’s one way that he describes this:

I shall not judge a performance according to the rules of interpretation, the constraints of style…(I shall not wax lyrical concerning the “rigor,” the “brilliance,” the “warmth,” the “respect for what is written,” etc.) but according to the image of the body given me. I can hear with certainty — the certainty of the body, of thrill — that the harpsichord playing of Wanda Landowska comes from her inner body and not from the petty digital scramble of so m any harpsichordists…As for piano music, I know at once which part of the body is playing — if it is the arm, too often, alas, muscled like a dancer’s calves, the clutch of the fingertips (despite the sweeping flourishes of the wrists), or if on the contrary it is the only erotic part of a pianist’s body, the pad of the fingers whose “grain” is so rarely heard…

Whatever you think of Barthes’s highly personal reactions here, I think it’s safe to say that Classical criticism, for all the reasons I’ve cited, is more or less as Barthes describes it. While pop criticism goes straight for the grain of the voice. Which gives us another vicus of recirculation — the classical critics once more say (and they’re entirely right, from their point of view) that pop critics don’t talk about music…

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  1. Aaron says

    Pop critics’ taste for any song at its performance is manifestly tied to the world around them. Look at how a times critic explains her changing attitude to the Billy Joel song,”We didn’t start the fire.”

    This much-maligned song, with its jumbled litany of historical touchstones, may have finally graduated to relevance as a kind of unwitting comment on Google-age information overload, even if it has faded as a baby-boomer exoneration. Here the song’s reception mutates with changes in the world around it, ie the demise of the baby boomer’s and emergence of google. The criticism makes sense regardless of whether we have heard the song because the references are familiar and current, a key difference that makes almost every pop review more incluse than a classical one. Praise and criticism for the song turns on its relevance to the people listening to it.

    Moreover, pop criticism’s link to the contemporary world reinforces the distinction you make between classical “object” music and pop “event” music. Whereas pop criticism changes over time, even as pieces stay the same, the style of classical criticism is otherworldly. The same performance could happen once and twenty years later with out any difference in the review. It takes a Michael Tilson-Thomas recording of Mahler 6 the week after 9/11 for classical critics to notice how the music has changed. And the root of this difference is as you say, the definition of classical music as an “object.” The only question at a classical performance is unworldly and extra-temporal: how well has the written music been represented? Aside from the question’s irrelevance to current life, this approach is problematic because it presupposes a knowledge of the original written piece for anyone to understand it. This leaves reviewers of even the most penetrating and personally affecting classical performances with only the usual bundle of pretentious adjectives and phrases – “elegantly,” “imaginatively,” “forcefully, “nuanced interpretive style” – to write something that’s about as easy as saying “yes, they played that song.”

  2. Suzanne Derringer says

    Hi, Greg –

    I’ve been out of touch for a while – just wanted to note that, with contemporary pop songs, the written score often comes later: somebody (often not the “composer” – who may be musically illiterate)has attempted to capture them with little black marks on paper, from a recorded performance. Bob Marley’s songs come to mind; the songbooks which are available are more or less unsingable, and certainly don’t give a sense of Marley’s phrasing, etc. And there’s a really interesting Irish dude named Kieran Halpin, singer/songwriter who plays lots of smalll-venue gigs in the UK, Holland, Germany (last I heard of him, he was in Australia for a year). He has one or two songbooks now, but someone else wrote them down. I don’t have these songbooks (I do have the Marley) but I would guess that one can’t reproduce the living songs from the paper in his case, either. Vocal style is so intensely personal in pop music; songs are inevitably etched in one’s mind as sung and played by their creators.

    Even with earlier popular music – one of my passions is American music between the World Wars – though these songs were usually written by professional songwriting teams before they were performed and/or recorded, still, the music sheets furnish only a guide to the living song.

    Obviously, one great difference between popular music of the 20th century and “classical” music from whatever era is that popular music is disseminated via technology: recordings,radio, film and television, then CDs, music videos, MP3s, internet. The experience is aural and direct – and, as you say, speaks of contemporary life to a contemporary audience. No footnotes required.

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