This fall at Juilliard

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.

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  1. says

    For a while now, I’ve been claiming that I do my research at the borders between aesthetics and metaphysics, and it’s only in the last year or so that I’ve started figuring out how to do this.

    What I find so interesting in the idea of teaching how to write and read criticism to people who presumably already know quite a bit about music is that it becomes, it seems to me, a question of explaining how when we think we are doing a real activity that is both physical, sensuous and productive, that doesn’t just describe but does something. So that, as you point out here, even people who have spent their whole lives in a certain discipline actually perceive both the world and their field of study differently.

    For the last year or so, I’ve been reading books like Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise and blogs like this ones and Jeremy Denk’s alongside books in the sciences like The Origin of Species and Schrodinger’s What is Life or (crossing-over) Oliver Sacks’s musicophilia — and what I think I’m starting to understand is how, on some basic conceptual level, whether we are writing in a qualititative or technical way, we are thinking not in representations (which lay over something without doing anything) but in metaphors — and metaphors literally do something (metaphor in Greek means literally “carry-over”).

    Kant called this “common-sense.” Rimbaud called it rather more provocatively “the systematic derangement of the senses,” but in both cases the idea is that those of us who are thinking and writing, whether we’re thinking or writing about the sciences or the arts are literally re-making the world.

    Realizing that, through criticism, we are not consigned to the tastes we happen to have been born with or inculturated to can be quite liberating.

    So thank you for sharing your thinking about criticism and music reception with us.

    I think metaphor — or, more broadly, poetry — is in the end where criticism has to go. To evoke what we hear in music, our verbal language has to be non-literal. The descriptions we’ve all seen, in which people use words to describe the actual notes (“the first theme emerges, with the violins playing an eighth-note rhythm, followed by the winds playing accented open fifths on every second beat””) tend to be unreadable.

  2. says

    I think it might also be interesting to spend a little time on criticism written for the internet–it’s a different animal but it’s also the future. I know, for instance, that I’m a lot more informal when I’m writing for sequenza21 than I would be if I were writing for a newspaper–but that doesn’t mean I’m being lazy, I’m just going for a different aesthetic.

    Which Tom Johnson reviews are you assigning?

    The course sounds fascinating–like something I would get a lot out of myself.

    You can find links to the Tom Johnson reviews, on the course website. I picked “Yoko Ono’s Snow” and a review about “The Unanswered Question” in a Brooklyn Philharmonia (as it was called then) performance. The “Snow” review deals with sound for sound’s sake, and with concepts about sound, far from the (by comparison) petty details most reviews (including mine) trade in. The Ives review is interesting as a narrative of a concert experience, in which the music, as it unfolds, is described along with audience reaction and Tom’s own thoughts.

    The different between blog and print criticism — not only in content, but in standards (are conflict of interest or libel restrictions less serious online?) — has been talked about a lot. I wonder if print reviews will get more informal, pulled that way by online writing. I’d bet they do.

  3. says

    Galen’s point is excellent. I personally find the less informal (?) writing about music on blogs MORE informed than what I read in the NY Times or Time Out.

    As a composer, I’ve tried to step up my game when it comes to the (little bit of) writing I do on my own blog in part because of my frustration with the print media I name above. I was also inspired by Matana Roberts’ blog and fanzine Fat Ragged (I have interviewed her as part of a “triptych” of interviews I did this past summer for my blog) as well as John Zorn’s ongoing Arcana project.

    It’s incredibly empowering when musicians write about their own work or the work of their peers. It’s also a way of documenting work that might fall into obscurity otherwise.

    Your class might also want to check out Greg Tate, Robert Palmer, Nick Kent, Lester Bangs, and Mark Kemp.

    I’ve used Bangs reviews both in the criticism class, and in my spring semester course on the future of classical music. There’s a huge range of good to terrific people to choose from.

  4. says

    It is very difficult for most people, particularly young people, particularly young people who have spent their high school years developing their sense of what “good” is from direct influence of this adult or that adult, from this attractive peer, or that attractive peer, to be honest about what they hear or what they think they hear. It is also difficult for musicians who spent most of their time in high school practicing (and not working on writing papers) to be able to put sentences together in a way that actually conveys what they instinctively feel about a musical performance (or about anything, really). I understand that the academics at Juilliard have improved during the past 30 years, but the demands that they put on the students support the goal of the school, which is to produce capable musicians and not necessarily excellent writers.

    I imagine that the papers you will get from this class will be amusing to read.

    The act of writing music criticism, I believe, is similar to the act of translating poetry. It is not the fluency you may have in the original language of the poetry, but the ability to use the language you are translating to that makes a translation truly successful.

    I don’t find the papers amusing at all. I like them a lot. You’ll see in the course overview (which I linked to in my post) that this isn’t a course in writing. Nobody is judged on writing ability. Instead, I’m interested in what the students think, which in fact they’re wonderfully articulate about both in class and on paper. I’m always wary of generalizations about what people are like, culturally, or how they supposedly got that way. Most of my students turn out to defy these generalizations, especially after a little encouragement. What I’ve found — not only in this class, but in other settings when I’ve taught criticism, or taught about talking about music — is that everyone has something in their heart, mind, and ear when they hear music. They notice things about the music, and they notice things about their reaction. With a little encouragement — often very little — they talk about what they’ve noticed, often wonderfully.

    I wouldn’t expect musicians to be good writers, whatever requirements a school might want to impose. (Juilliard is very tough, academically, at the DMA level.) Musicians should be musicians. If they also learn how to write, terrific, but I wouldn’t try to force what might be an alien skill on them. Though the reverse might be worthwhile — force aspiring writers to learn music. (Or knitting, or pottery, or architecture.) Too many writers have not much to say, and anything that opened their horizons would be a big plus.

  5. says

    Wonderful post and comments. One of the main reasons I follow various music blogs is to learn new ways of verbalizing about music making. For me there’s often an interplay between the two in that learning a new way to talk about music will sometimes open up insights into how to go about making it.

  6. Janis says

    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.

    Most reviewers don’t, either. They write and review as if everyone who will be reading the review has heard the piece a dozen times. They assume an enormous amount of pre-existing knowledge, so they dive right into the esoterica. This shuts out people who aren’t familiar with classical music and gives the impression that it’s just for the cognoscenti.

    Reminds me of an article (maybe I read about it here?) about a performance of “La Tosca” that mentioned an audience member being shocked when Floria stabbed Scarpia. The person gasped something like, “I knew she was angry, but I didn’t think she’d kill him!” A lot of people would see that as a chuckle-worthy bumpkin who didn’t go into the hall already knowing the story, but that describes a lot of people. And yet how many reviewers of opera go over the plot and characterization? (This may be because characterization in a lot of operas leaves something to be desired.)

    Sure, the reviewers have seen a dozen version of Lucia di Lammermoor and can spend a few column-inches comparing them all to the one they just saw, but that won’t reel in newbies. Too much of the classical world, including the reviewers, is just a bunch of people talking to themselves. Music criticism is another flavor of music outreach — but it’s hard to do outreach to newbies and write a review that will leave the connoisseur happy, too.