What I’m teaching today

taking my courseToday is the second meeting of my Juilliard graduate course on music criticism. I’ve blogged about the course before. Follow the link for details.

But because there’s been so much interest, maybe I’ll go week by week, and say what I’m teaching. One thing I do each week is play music, and ask the students to describe what they hear. That’s because a big focus of the course, as I’ve said here before, is learning to talk about music better. For me that means talking more precisely, more evocatively, more accurately, and in a more personal way. You might have different criteria. But many people seem to agree that we could all learn to talk about music better. (I know I can.)

So tomorrow in class I’ll play a performance of Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro overture. Click the link and you can listen to it. I won’t say who’s performing  — just as I won’t tell the class — because I don’t want to influence your (or their) judgment. Listen to the recording, if you’d like, and post a comment, describing what you hear. What are the characteristics of this performance, as you hear them?

There’s also a reading assignment — some of my own reviews. Not, as I tell the students, because I’m presenting myself as a critic they all ought to admire. Instead, it’s because I’m going to be holding forth about criticism all semester, and I think the students have a right to know what my own reviews are like. Maybe they won’t like them at all, and will question everything I teach them! Fair enough.

We discuss my reviews in class, and while often the students like what I’ve written, I’ve sometimes gotten some bracing critiques. From which I’ve learned a lot. Feel free to post your own comments here. Admiring or not.

Here’s the assignment, as the students see it on their online class schedule:

Some of my own reviews (so you’ll know what kind of critic your teacher has been)

Classical reviews, from the Wall Street Journal:

Enigmatic Debut

Putting the Music First

When the Solid Dissolves

You’ll see that I added a long postlude when I put this review on the web. You don’t have to read this extra part unless you want to.

Conduct(or) Unbecoming the Boston Symphony

One pop review, from the late ‘80s, when I was chief pop music critic for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner:

Vintage Talent’s Pop Wine: Rocking Chair’s Got ‘Re, James B” (about Aretha Franklin)

One of my reviews from the early ‘80s, when I was a columnist for the Village Voice, specializing in new music:

Cage Speaks Louder When the Street Gets Noisy

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    • says

      Hi, Ariel,

      Just so you can have more schools to disapprove of, there are arts journalism programs all over the US, at Syracuse University, for instance, and at USC. It’s a big growth industry, in academia.

      And many of these programs teach music criticism. I know they’ve done it at NYU, too. So isn’t life wonderful? Not only can you think Julliard is terminally dumb, but you can add all those other prestigious schools to your list!

  1. says

    Another reason for learning to write about music is that it is an essential skill for composers, musicians and concert organisers.

    When a composer is asked to submit a programme note, it is a perfect opportunity for the composer to prepare the listener for the music they are about to hear, and direct them to what to listen out for. It is what Seth godin would call “permission marketing”. I believe a programme note can go a long way to making more wayout music acceptable. A bad programme note can do much harm, unfortunately I found this out the hard way.
    A poor programme note would say:

    ‘The saxophone line innovatively questions the algorithmic structural procedures predicated on a series of pitch classes derived from the Fibonacci series.’

    A better programme note would say:

    ‘The unique tone of the classical saxophone has long been one of my favourite sounds. The melodic writing in this work, although abstracted, was written with this particular player in mind.’

  2. says

    I disagree with you Ariel. The second programme note personalises the composer and player, gives some background to the composer’s thinking, and avoids using obscure technical terms which are largely irrelevant to what the music sounds like anyway. It also informs the audience that the work is melodic, although not in an obvious sense.
    Programme notes are an opportunity not only to give hard information about the music but also to build a connection with them. I was at a recital tonight and one of the violinists gave perfect introductions to the works, guiding the listener what to listen for, details about the composer that were both true and relevant, and overall transferred her excitement and enthusiasm for the new contemporary work they were performing to the very mixed audience.

    • says

      Thanks so much for this, Bryan — for your support and kind words, both in this comment and on your blog. You’re making me wish I was an active critic again, not because you’ve praised me, but because in your blog you’ve said such powerful things about why criticism matters. I’d recommend following Bryan’s links. The Wikipedia entry is astonishing, in its blank paucity. And Bryan is very much worth reading, the first post for an acute lesson about how to judge critics, and the second for some equally acute more general remarks. Thanks again, Bryan. I’ll have to bookmark your blog. And I may ask my students to read you.

  3. Ian Stewart says

    “Programme notes are an opportunity not only to give hard information about the music but also to build a connection with them.”

    Sorry, I meant “programme notes are an opportunity not only to give hard information about the music but also to build a connection with the audience.”

  4. says

    Pace Ariel, music criticism is an important endeavor. If you want a benchmark as to how horribly degraded it is at present, just look at the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_criticism
    that is just a few brief sentences…

    We desperately need good music criticism to help listeners sort out the frauds from the real thing–it is even more important now than it was in the past. There are many reasons for this, some of which I discuss in various places on my blog like here: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/08/music-criticism.html

    and here: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/07/practice-that-dare-not-speak-its-name.html

    I think that the Schoenberg review that Greg links to, and especially the long postlude, is a fine example of real music criticism, stuff that uncovers the real issues and problems and refuses to accept the conventional wisdom. Good music criticism is difficult and demands a great deal of knowledge and judgment. Thanks to Greg for being a strong advocate.