Something set me to thinking recently about music criticism -- mainly
classical, but jazz and pop as well. Have you noticed that very often
music criticism doesn't really talk about music, but about something
else? For example, pop criticism seems to concentrate on sociology and
the Deep Meaning of lyrics; jazz criticism on the critic's "impressions"
as the music plays; classical criticism on the history of a work, its
composer, and its times.
I don't hold a grudge against any of these concentrations, except that
ultimately I do want to learn something about the music itself *as music*.
In other words, sure Louis Armstrong is great, but what musically makes
him so? In over forty years of reading and listening, I've encountered
only two critics who've provided answers: Gunther Schuller and jazz
pianist and historian James Dapogny. I've kvetched before about Joan
Peyser's "studies" of Bernstein and Boulez -- essentially bargain-basement
Freud, rather than anything musically insightful. Ultimately, I want
to know the music better, not necessarily the people who wrote it, except
for their habits of composing.
The thought that occurred to me was that we get so little about music
because most writers about music, despite their enthusiasm, their
acquaintance with a wide range of material, and their other talents,
don't seem to know much about music itself. It's a long-standing dirty
secret that at least one music editor of Time magazine, back in the day
when it regularly talked about classical music, couldn't read music.
At least one author of well-known studies of Louis Armstrong and Duke
Ellington couldn't read music, I think to the detriment of both books,
since the writer had no handle on or habit of thought for music as a
composer thinks of it.
I wonder whether that sort of literacy is necessary. If we were to take
literary criticism as an example, it undoubtedly helps that a literary
critic concerned with an evaluative judgment be able to check a text,
to be able to read words. Does this hold true for a music critic? I'm
not talking about reviewers -- a thumbs-up / thumbs down or x-number-of-stars
affair reflecting how high one's hormonal levels have risen -- but an
evaluative judgment based on an artifact (in this case, a score), an
ability to analyze and to synthesize parts and thus form a judgment. If
you can't verify with the score or the text of a literary work, how sound
can the judgment be?
On the other hand, Robert Shaw once said that the only things you really
need to understand music is the ability to recognize patterns and a good
memory. I've certainly read wonderful books on music by people who
didn't read it, mostly in the pop field. On the other hand, lacking
that skill seems to me to seriously limit the kinds of questions a writer
can hope to answer.
I throw it out to the group at large. What do you think?