Talking about music

Such gratifying response — here, Facebook, Twitter — to my thoughts about my music criticism course, and especially the part about learning to talk about music better. Seems to be something many people feel is needed. (If you read my post about the course,  you’ll see that talking about music is a big part of it.)

So, more thoughts on all of that.

I said in my post that it’s important to be both objective and subjective. To describe, as accurately and vividly as you can, what you hear. And then to say what you think/feel about it.

These two things go together. Suppose I tell you about an Alvin Lucier piece I love, Music on a Long Thin Wire. A 50-foot wire is stretched across a resonant space, and set vibrating at four different frequencies. The sound that makes is a long drone that keeps changing.

That’s one stab at an objective description. But as soon as you read it — and especially if you haven’t heard the piece (follow the link to find a recording), or don’t know other music like it — you’ll of course wonder, “But what does that sound like? Would I like it?”

Enter the subjective description that needs to follow. Here’s one you’ll see if you follow the link I gave for the music. It’s from the Lovely Music website, Lovely being the record company that recorded four versions of the piece. (Which will sound different in different places, with different wires, and with the wire set vibrating at different frequencies.)

What results is not the low drone one might expect from a long, vibrating wire, but a complexity of evocative, ethereal chords.

I’m not sure the word “chords” is quite right, because, in music, chords are made up of precise musical pitches, and what I hear in Lucier’s piece is more like a spectrum of sounds, several of them sounding at once. But “complexity,” “evocative,” and ethereal” are right on target, for me, conveying not just the sound of the piece (in a way that no purely factual description could bring alive), but the effect of that sound. And also what the writer thinks of it. Clearly, h/she loves it.

I tell my students that they almost never will do justice to music, when they describe it, if they don’t say something subjective. But, as I also tell them, it’s best to tie subjective descriptions to some objective fact about the music. That way you’re grounded. You don’t go spinning off into space. And your readers (or the people you’re talking to, if you’re describing music in a conversation) can go back to the music, and more easily grasp what you meant.

An example. Yesterday, in the first meeting of my class, one of the students said that the music I played frightened him. He said this very gently, but the emotion was real. (He went on to say that it made him think of The Shining.)

That’s an intriguing road to go down, because in many ways the piece is also very gentle. Which then makes it especially important to tie the subjective description to something objective.

I asked the student if a rumbling sound that recurs on a cello might be one of the things he found scary. He said it was.

So, from his point of view, we might evolve a description of the piece that goes like this:

Very soft music that can sound frightening, partly because the same sounds insistently repeat, and partly because some of them — like a low rumbling played by a cello — sound scary.

I’ll add that, when I’m writing about music, I’ve sometimes sat for 20 minutes or more over phrases like that, trying to find the words that precisely evoke the way the music sounds to me, and the way I feel about that.

On Facebook, by the way, I’m at

And on Twitter, I’m @gsandow.

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  1. john pippen says

    Have you read Naomi Cumming’s book The Sonic Self? It’s an interesting deconstruction and theorization of critical reviews of performance in the press.