In my last post, I talked about the music criticism course I teach at Juilliard. One thing that happens in the course is that I bring recordings to class, and ask the students to describe what they hear in them. This is an exercise in, very simply, describing music.

And I included a link to the music I was going to play in class on Wednesday, which I didn’t identify. I didn’t tell the students what it was, either. Then I offered — well, not really a challenge, more like a curious inquiry. Would readers of the blog care to listen to the music, and describe (as if a friend had asked them what the music sounded like) what they heard?

To my delight, I’ve gotten three strong and individual responses:

Complex.  Layered.  The high notes pierce through.  Seductive and then stabs you.  Alarm bells.  Or war cry.  It sounds like memories attacking one another.      Sadness.  Alone with nothing but regret.  Pain. Exhausting. 

If a friend asked, my reply: it’s a spare, frail recording of a vocalist (and I would name her, but I won’t for the sake of the game) singing simple, breathy, emotion-tinged lines that occasionally overlap. But the effect isn’t contrapuntal (oops–hard to avoid lingo)–more like two or three sad copies of the same woman were sitting in an alley, lifting up their voices in random lines of melody that sometimes overlap in beautiful, unexpected ways. 

It sounds like eerie chanting voices, too close to your ear, and makes
you think of a dull cold pain.

From which you can see that this wasn’t any mainstream piece of music. To my non-delight, I got so involved in teaching that I didn’t take notes on what the students said, so it will be hard to add their voices here. (Apologies to them.) But they, too, tended to offer subjective thoughts, feelings, evocations. One, most interestingly, called the music — and especially the sound of the singer’s voice — both “raw” and “pure.” two qualities that might not often go together. “Pure” suggests calm, and “raw” suggests something tougher, stronger, maybe more violent. But the sound of the voice here, I think, really is both raw and pure.

Another student said the music sounded improvised, which I think it really does, even though the singer’s voice is multitracked, which would involve some planning. Another fascinating contradiction, in which both sides seem true.

What none of the students did — and this was one lesson that I wanted to teach — was to say the most basic things about what’s going on in the music. Namely, that it’s very slow, and very sparse, involving just two sounds, a woman’s voice and a keyboard, playing only single notes. Of course these aren’t the most compelling things that might be said about the piece, but I think they’re where we need to start. (And I might add that there aren’t any low notes.) If a friend asked me what this piece was like, I could say it’s wispy, or that it sounds hurt, or wistful, or a thousand other evocative things, but my friend couldn’t quite imagine how it sounds, because some basic information isn’t there.

(For years I began the course with the slow movement from John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts. My students gave me complicated descriptions of it, often including analysis of what they thought its harmonies and rhythms added up to. Nobody, if my memory is right, ever said the most basic thing, that the music is very slow, and that the same few sounds repeat over and over. Everybody heard those things, of course. But I think they felt that they should talk about things that are more sophisticated)

Though of course the basic information is only a start. Enter my students, and the three people who described the piece in comments here. In the class, it’s my job to teach, so I might push back a little when the students speak. If someone, let’s say, says the piece is “interesting,” I’ll want to know in what way it’s interesting.

It’s not my job to teach my commenters anything, but still, in the same spirit that I bring to class, I’ll offer a few thoughts. When, in the second description, I read that the voice is “emotion-tinged,” I want to know what the emotion is. The more specific a description is, the more it grips me.

I love “two or three sad copies of the same woman…sitting in an alley.” That beautifully evokes the sound of the voice double- and triple-tracked against itself. I could work for an hour trying to describe this music, and not come up with anything so vivid, or (as poetic evocation) half so accurate.

“Chanting voices” doesn’t work for me. For one thing — or am I being picky? — there’s clearly just one voice, even if it’s multitracked. And “chanting” suggests, for me, something more organized, more regular (in its rhythm), and maybe more insistent. Others may disagree about what “chanting” means. But the basic lesson still applies here — be very careful of both the literal meaning and the connotations of the words you use.

The singer is Bjork, and the music is the fourth track, “Bath,” from the soundtrack to the film Drawing Restraint #9. The instrumental sounds are computer music by Akira Rabelais. But Bjork is credited as the composer of the film’s score, so I assume she wrote what she sings, and put the whole track together.

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  1. Greg Sandow says

    Some comments were accidentally related. I’m restoring them this way.


    Some comments were deleted accidentally. I’m restoring them this way.


    I thought it was Bjork, some of whose work I like a lot. Her musical fragility brings to mind some of the work of George Crumb. A sort of cobbled together brokeness. For me, it’s almost the aural equivalent of much of Calder’s art. It’s a lovely piece.


    — from Richard


    I thought it was Bjork, some of whose work I like a lot. Her musical fragility brings to mind some of the work of George Crumb.


    — from Richard


    We are trying to do something similar at ImprovFriday. Each week about

    50 to 80 newly composed/improvised/mashed pieces are posted at Jim Goodin and I try to comment on as many as possible – but only to record our reactions and not necessarily to criticize.


    The result is here:


    The comments are shown and a link to the piece is given so it can be heard.


    Maybe this will help your class in listening and reacting to “something completely different…”


    — from Paul H. Muller


    I love this exercise. There are almost no critics who can describe what they’re actually hearing, and what we will hear if we attend the concert or buy the recording. To compensate for this lack, they depend incessantly on the comparison crutch, comparing the virtues of one recording to another or grading for adherence to the critic’s interpretation of score markings. The reader comes up empty unless his past cultural consumption is identical to the reviewer’s.


    — from Kurt Rongey