August 23, 2015

There is no such thing as female orgasm

There is no such thing as female orgasm.  I've had sex with dozens of women and it never happened.

Few people (especially women) would fail to see the joke in the above argument.  Yet the same faulty logic, which takes limited subjective experiences as completely reliable indicators of objective general facts, seems to defeat the sense of humor in many music critics faced with evaluating the merits of new music.  Consider, as representative examples, the following excerpts from three different music critics reviewing new or very recent music (italics are mine):

[The composer] has drawn out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument ... [and subjected] the patience of the audience to a severe trial.  What relation [the last movement] bears to the [work as a whole] we could not make out; and here, as in the other parts, the want of intelligible design is too apparent.

[A] smaller treasure of ideas would have allowed itself to be shaped ... into a harmonious whole.  [As it is] the elements still appear too much in conflict for us to see the ordered world founded on the standard and law of beauty. 

[T]he ideal listener would be one who had experienced total short-term memory loss. I could love [the music's elements] so much more if only I were relieved of the need to relate them to what came before ... Each passage blots out its own past ... a long chain of them gets only an irritated shrug.

Although all three reviews employ the same fallacious mode of inference ('I don't get it, therefore there is something wrong with it'), only the first two strike me as mildly amusing posthumous self-embarrassments akin to the joke with which I began this post.  How could they not, given that they are reviews Beethoven's Ninth and Seventh symphonies from 1825 and 1828 respectively.[1]  But then the institution of public concerts and the business of music criticism for public consumption were still in their infancy in Beethoven's day, and there was next to no historical evidence showing that the artistic worth of new music neither entails nor is entailed by it being readily intelligible even to professional musicians [2], let alone to a wide general audience.  Which is why I think it is only fair to cut these early 19th century music critics a good deal of slack.

The third review [3], however, is vastly more embarrassing and not at all amusing because it was written only seven years ago by a highly credentialed music critic who had not enjoyed himself at a couple of concerts of Elliott Carter's music conducted by Pierre Boulez and James Levine at the Juilliard School in celebration of Carter's 100th birthday.[4]  Carter's music, as the critic makes abundantly clear in his review, was irritatingly complex, perhaps too complex for him to sit back, relax, and enjoy soothingly familiar harmonic progressions while using his cellphone to text a reservation to a nearby restaurant for after-concert dinner.  Be that as it may, Carter's music is certainly complex.  But a music critic who sees this kind of complexity as an aesthetic liability only proves himself unqualified for the job.

To explain:  Suppose I tell you that I had a bad time at a large dinner party the other night.  The conversation topics kept changing quickly, serious matters were often followed by lighthearted jokes, heated arguments quickly dissolved into amiable agreements, and often several people would speak simultaneously at different speeds and volume levels.  I found the whole experience deeply irritating because there were too many people talking about too many things, with each new topic "blotting out its own past" making it impossible for me to relate it to "what came before". 
     After hearing my complaint, would you commiserate?  Or would you tell me that I am a hopeless imbecile because that's what large dinner parties are often like; and if I wanted to hear a chain of clearly connected subjects, each elaborated at length with plenty of repetitions, I should have attended a public reading of Euclid's Elements instead.

The point of this digression is that, for those who take the trouble to understand Carter's general aesthetic motivations, what makes his music fascinating and hugely enjoyable is quite similar to what makes a dinner party conversation fascinating and hugely enjoyable.  It is mercurial interactions among interestingly contrasting personalities (Carter's choice of interacting instrumental groups) with their different temperaments (Carter's choice of designated tempos, dynamics, and phrasings for each musical 'personality'), favorite topics (Carter's choice of motifs for each musical 'personality'), spontaneous interjections (Carter's inimitable use of a large percussion section), and unusual points of view (Carter's deliciously tart harmonic palette).

Of course a music critic is under no obligation to enjoy what he hears, if only because his feelings are of no interest to anyone except, perhaps, close friends and relatives.  But the critic does have a professional obligation to understand and to communicate to the general public what in the music of a living composer attracts a significant number of important musicians, inspiring them to invest time and effort in mastering the music's challenges and to keep performing it even though they could continue earning their high fees by performing nothing more challenging than the well-worn music of Brahms, Dvorak, or Shostakovich.  A music review whose central message is the critic's feelings of discomfort is about as meaningful as a restaurant review whose central message is the color of the critic's feces the following day.

Perhaps I am being naive in expecting an average music critic to have the erudition and aesthetic sensitivity of Charles Rosen or Paul Griffiths.  Music writing of such quality was rare even in the golden age of printed media; and it is rarer still in today's world of the internet, where every retired Joe Schmoe with time on his hands and an account keeps busy dispensing critical judgments on all things under the sun.  But then who needs music critics in the age of the internet, when more and more concerts are offered online via real-time or on-demand streaming?  An adventurous music lover with a good internet connection can now make up his own mind about all kinds of music, including the music of Elliott Carter.

1.  William Ayrton, "Beethoven's Ninth Symphony", Harmonicon, March & April 1825; Ludwig Rellstab, "Moeser's Symphony Soiree", Vossische Zeitung, February 11, 1828. Reprinted in The Attentive Listener: Three Centuries of Music Criticism, Harry Haskell (ed), Princeton University Press, 1996.

2.   A good example is Ignaz Moscheles (1794 -1870) - a brilliant pianist, superb musician, and important teacher (Mendelssohn was among his students) - who felt that the then new music of Chopin was undermined by "inarstistic, ... inconceivable modulations" and was "hardly the work of a profound musician". (Kroll, M., Ignaz Moscheles and the Changing World of Musical Europe, Boydell & Brewer, 2014, p.83.)

3.  Justin Davidson, "After 99 Years, an Admission", New York Magazine, February 10, 2008.

4.  As far as I can tell, Mr. Davidson is one of those New York-based composers who feel aggrieved by their total professional anonymity and vent their frustration and resentment through condescendingly dismissive reviews of contemporary music admired, performed and recorded by well-known conductors, ensembles, and instrumentalists. 

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