I’ve been forgetting to mention my course at Juilliard this fall, about music criticism.
The link takes you to the week by week assignments, which include classical music criticism by George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, as well as some rock and jazz criticism, and some unusual writing about music, by Nick Hornby, Tom Johnson, Jack Kerouac, and E.M Forster. (That last link takes you to my blog post about how wonderfully Forster wrote about music.)
Each week, one of the students brings a New York Times music review to class each week, and takes the lead in dissecting it. Interesting experience for me, to say the least, during the seven years when my wife wrote for the Times, and the chosen review might have been one of hers. A good test of my objectivity. But then they read me, too, and I encourage them to be critical.
The reason for reading me, by the way, is simple, and has nothing to do with whether I’m any model for what critics should (or shouldn’t) do. It’s that if I’m going to hold forth about criticism, they have a right to see what kind of critic I myself have been. Maybe they’ll decide I have no standing to be sounding off, which would be completely their right to think.
But the main purpose of the course, as it’s evolved over the years, isn’t to teach about criticism, interesting though that can be. (Especially since the students themselves will be reviewed, as their careers progress, and often have been reviewed already.) You can read the course overview, where I say the real point of the course is to learn how to talk about music.
This is no trivial thing. Music professionals have to talk about music all the time. Think of the staff and board of an orchestra, trying to decide who should be the next music director, and comparing how the candidates conduct. Or — as one of the students pointed out this fall — musicians playing chamber music, and needing to critique each other, and also say how each thinks the music should go.
Of course any musician already has some skill at doing this. But it’s impressive to see how reticent people can be, even professionals, and how they often feel they don’t have the words to describe something about a piece or a performance, especially if it involves emotional subtleties, or is in an idiom they’re not familiar with.
The job then is simply to describe what you hear, preferably in very simple language. And this is the first lesson I teach in the course. I bring in music each week, play it, and ask the students to describe it. Not in any fancy, published-writing kind of way, but informally, the way they might describe it to a friend. “You’ve just heard this piece at a concert, and your roommate asks you what it was like. What do you tell them?”
The first lesson is to say the most obvious, most basic things. It’s surprising how often the students at first don’t do this. I’ve typically started the course with the slow movement of John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts (from 1950), in which the same few sounds keep recurring, with spaces in between. Students will sometimes tie themselves in knots trying to say what they think the structure of the piece is, when the first thing they might say — at least if the goal is to give someone else an idea of how the piece sounds — is that the music is slow and repetitious.
From there you can go on to complexities, if you’ve really heard them. (Or in the case of the Cage, to guesses about its subtleties, because the deep rhythmic structure of the piece is something not many people are likely to catch purely by ear.)
This year, to give myself some variety, I played them the beginning of Sufjan Stevens’s BQE (the multimedia piece, featuring 30 minutes of orchestra music, which he was commissioned to create for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and which turned out to be, along with Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver, one of the most successful — no, triumphant — classical pieces ever written by someone from the rock world.
Again that offered a simple enough descriptive problem. But here the emotional reactions to the music — and, more generally, the descriptions of how it flowed — were easier to get at, and so we had the more interesting (and more advanced) problem of both objectively describing what you hear, and noting also your subjective impressions. And then tying the two together, so that someone you talk to knows why you judged the piece the way you did. They may or may not agree with you, but at least they know what you reacted to, what it was about the music that you liked, or didn’t like, or felt ambivalent about.
Other music I’ve brought in: one of the tracks from the live Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane album, recorded live in 1957. And Ibrahim Ferrer, singing “Silencio,” a wistful (or at least that’s my word for it) from his first solo album, the assignment then being to describe exactly what emotion, or shade of emotion, you hear in the music. The Venice Baroque Orchestra playing part of The Four Seasons, a very individual performance, full of unexpected tempo shifts.
The start of the first Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations, which poses a very difficult problem in description. Almost everyone agrees that the performance is beyond wonderful, but how do you describe how wonderful it is, without falling into clichés? And how do you describe what you think makes it so wonderful? And, most wonderfully, there was one student who didn’t like it, and then had the fascinating job of saying why.
Also Franco Corelli singing “E lucevan le stelle,” from Tosca, in honor of the new production at the Met, a performance which divided the class in half, between students who thought Corelli took far too many liberties, and those who found his emotion compelling. Which was exactly how opinion divided about him in the ’60s and ’70s, when he was one of the world’s top opera stars.
And most recently the opening of Wagner’s Ring cycle, the beginning of Das Rheingold, which reprises the problem the Sufjan Stevens piece presented, of music that both stays in one place, and also changes. And which you’re likely to react to in some very personal way. By now, the students had, I thought, learned a lot about how to phrase a more or less precise description of what they hear, and to tie their emotional reactions — and, in this case, the stories or pictures that came to their minds — to what they heard.
My reaction to the Rheingold excerpt, which I hadn’t heard for a while: Well, yes, it’s pathbreaking, a long stretch of music on a single chord, which besides being striking in itself also suggests the vast time-scale of the operas that follow. But I also suddenly heard it as a piece of romantic exuberance, something that builds to a pulsing rhythmic climax in much the way that music of its time with many chords does. Something that works in very familiar, old ways, in other words, at the same time as it’s doing something radically new.