…my music criticism course at Juilliard continues. I had to miss a week, for reasons my last post explains. And I’ll be gone from the NY area a second week, so I’m continuing the class by email. Something, by the way, that interests me a lot, because I’ve been talking about teaching a course partly online at a university. Aand because I’m planning to do a lot of distance teaching in the business I plan to start, in which I help people write and speak about music.
There are three things we do in each class meeting, in my Juilliard course. We listen to music, and try to describe what we hear. One of the students picks a music review from the New York Times, and critiques it. And we discuss whatever reading I’ve assigned for that week.
To make this happen by email, I put music online, and a student picked a Times review and sent the link to all of us, along with his comments. And I emailed questions about the reading, for the students to answer, in email again addressed to all of us. The students will also comment on the music and on the Times review. When all that’s done, I’ll send my own comments on the review, the reading, and the music.
First time I’ve ever done anything like this. I’ll be intrigued to see how it works.
If you’d like to join in, here’s the music I picked. It’s a track sung by Björk, from the score to a film, Drawing Restraint 9. Some readers may remember that I’ve used it in my course before, and posted it here before for readers to try to describe, if they liked.
This time I asked the students to
focus on Björk’s voice. Try to find words to describe how it sounds. Be as specific as you can. By that I mean try not to settle for a description that of the sound that might also apply to other voices. For instance, I might describe something as “delicate” or “precise,” and I might be absolutely right, but those words might also describe a lot of other things. Try to find words, or phrases, or sentences that convey the precise sound of Björk’s voice on this track, as you hear it.
The reading for this week was five reviews by George Bernard Shaw:
“Municipal Bands and Opera Tricks” (excerpt)
“A Sentimental Voluptuary” (an attack on Brahms)
And here are the questions I asked:
1. We talked in class about Shaw’s review of Hubert Parry’s oratorio Job [a scathing dismissal]. We talked about what an audacious writer he is, how strong his opinions are, and how he cuts right to the center of the issues he discusses. But what about the things he says about music? In the reviews you’re reading this week, he has many descriptions of things in the music he hears. What do you think of them? Do you think he knows music well?
2. The second question is related to the first. Sometimes he’ll write very short descriptions of the way someone plays or sings. Do you like these short descriptions? Do you find them convincing? Why, or why not?
3. Shaw loves Mottl’s conducting, and doesn’t like the singing he heard at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Do you believe his judgments? Do they seem fair? Or do they seem exaggerated?
4. Shaw’s comments on Brahms are very famous. And are generally thought to be very wrong. We think Brahms is one of the great composers, but Shaw — writing while Brahms was still alive — thought he was a superb musician, but was otherwise a complete baby, someone who loved pretty music and had no depth at all. Probably we all disagree with that. But is there anything in Shaw’s writing about Brahms that’s convincing in any way? Is what he says accurate enough, at least factually, to allow us to hear Brahms from his point of view?
I’m not suggesting blog readers take on my students’ work. My thought here was to show a little about how I teach.
But if anyone has a description of Björk’s voice, or comments on Shaw, feel free to share! I’m interested in what you all think.