As I come back to earth…

Me at Juilliard

Me at Juilliard

…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)

 “Bayreuth’s Indifference to Beauty

 “Herr Mottl’s Insight

 “Form and Design in Music

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.

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  1. richard says

    Yes, the Bjork is wonderful, and I think I said previously that it reminded me of some of Crumb’s work. I recently pulled out Crumb’s Makrokosmos I and II and have been studying them. What they both have in common is a tendency toward fairly sparse soundscapse with a great deal of attention to the individual sounds. If I resort to a visual metaphor, they both can remind me of an open field with a few brilliantly yellow birch scattered about. Also Bjork’s melodic ideas have an “ancient” quality about them, which Crumb does all the time. It’s like they are channeling music from some forgotten mythic past. I really wish Bjork would transcribe this work, I think it would have “legs” in the new (altclasical) scene.

    • says

      Richard, thanks for this. One detail I should have included – Björk didn’t write that music, though she’s credited with most of the tracks on the soundtrack album. But the composer of this one is named as Akira Rabelais. I’ll edit the post to include that.

  2. says

    Hi Greg,

    Your course sounds absolutely fascinating. Wish I were there. Looking at the contents, I get the urge to try and figure out the end of these exercises. Developing the ability to listen to and describe specifics, of course. The choice of Bjork is a good one, I’m sure. I’m afraid I would forget the purpose of the exercise and go on and on about why I have never liked anything she does! I would describe her voice as “weak, breathy, close-miked and helpless”. But strangely affecting.

    Shaw’s Edwardian prose does not conceal his striking qualities as a music critic. But I wonder a bit if his railing against the “Mesopotamian” tendency suits his time better than our own, when ignorance seems almost to be a virtue! I’m afraid that I think he is all too kind to Brahms, though. Where he finds him an inventive sensualist, I merely find him turgid.

  3. says

    I’m always looking for new ways to improve my criticisms, writing, and thought process (should those be rearranged?), and I appreciate you breaking down your lesson and exercises.

    A comment about the procedure: Would a blog be a better way to go about this? Private, of course, but that way links, comments, articles, reviews, etc. could be in one location (appropriately tagged), not scattered through inboxes, forwards and replies. I and a few out-of-state friends keep one and it is amazing the immediacy these posts have. We’ve maintained it for three years and it has kept us engaged in a very small, though distant, community. Seems like the perfect thing for an online course. Granted, long submissions are sometimes easier to read on email. And with blogs dates can be adjusted, so that takes an extra amount of vigilance. Just a hopefully helpful thought.

    Congrats, also, on the little one.

    • says

      Thanks, Libby. That’s a good idea. I think I’ll be using blogs or something similar for all kinds of distance learning (not a great term, but that seems to be what people use). I’ve tried teaching by email, and I learned the truth of what you’re saying — better to keep everything in one place.