The BOOKPRESS December 2000

On Writing About Music

Kiko Nobusawa

    In the introduction to his recently published essay collection, Critical Entertainments: Music Old and New (Harvard University Press, 2000), Charles Rosen discusses the difficulty of writing substantively yet accessibly about music. Where the literary critic "can easily quote something from the work in question," and "the art historian can display photographs," printed musical excerpts will likely "scare away almost all readers except for a few professional musicians."
    The layperson’s fear of a musical score is, however, as much a reflection of the sad state of musical literacy in general. It seems that we are simply reverting to, or perhaps rediscovering—depending on which paradigm one subscribes to—an aural-oral music culture, but one that relies heavily on an instantly gratifying mode of amplified digital transmission. Thus, Rosen concedes that "even experienced musicians do not call up all the details of a score in their imagination by looking at it with the ease of the reader of a poem," and speculates that "the day may be coming when music criticism will be easily and routinely accompanied by an audible illustration of the subject in hand."
    CD-rom technology already makes that day possible. In fact, there are many "click-n-hear" programs available on the educational and entertainment markets, including self-administered aural skills tutorials, music notation and playback software, and "CD-pluscore" recordings which enable interactive access to the musical score on screen (Beethoven Piano Sonatas Op. 22, 26, 53, by Maurizio Pollini on DG, 1998). But Rosen is certainly not advocating the type of sound-byte aesthetic into which such potentially instructive innovations often degenerate—for the essence of a musical composition, like that of a poem or any other interpretive genre, exists off the page and requires an active audience willing to engage beyond a "mac-reading." Ideally, then, the expectation held by a serious music critic—and one who is, furthermore, a practicing concert artist like Rosen—is that the reader would have enough interest and know-how to play through the printed musical examples for him or herself, and to consult the complete score for overall context.
    If being expected to play or otherwise recreate a musical illustration for oneself seems like a tall order, something only trained professionals do, consider this: that the development of popular music journalism, along with the field of musicology, paralleled the unprecedented growth and democratization of musical literacy in nineteenth-century Europe. Influential critics such as Francois Fétis, Schumann, Berlioz, and George Bernard Shaw, and even the more theoretically-oriented like Donald Tovey and Heinrich Schenker, wrote during a time when virtually every middle-class household had a piano and, presumably, one or more family pianists accomplished enough to read through solo works, songs, operatic airs, and four-hand arrangements. In this pre-phonograph era, the parlor piano and pianist served as the primary means of musical realization and dissemination, and the fashionable amateur would have kept up on the music scene by reading popular sheet music as well as reviews and journals (and also attending public concerts and the opera). So the sort of analytical music commentary with printed excerpts, which
now strikes us as highly specialized, originated in a cultural milieu where broader and more immediate familiarity with the musical language lent immediacy to such discussions.
    The marked proliferation of vernacular and pop music journalism in recent years presents a comparable situation. Among mainstream magazines, for instance, classical music commentary has dwindled down to a single imported publication (the British Gramophone, almost solely a CD-review rag, and with no printed music excerpts, by the way) while Rolling Stone forges ahead, followed by a raucous entourage that includes Down Beat, Rhythm, Blues Access, Guitar Player (which does print notated musical examples, interestingly enough), Dirty Linen, etc. This pervasive vernacularism has even managed to infiltrate musicological academia, making rock-n-rollogy a veritable growth industry: new volumes of documentary and critical writings about jazz, rock, and pop folk—many put out by tony university presses—appear almost weekly, and this fall’s American Musicological Society/Society for Music Theory conference in Toronto features presentations on James Brown, the Police,
and the Pet Shop Boys (with Schenkerian and neo-Riemannian sessions the morning after, of course).
    The allure of this pop criticism lies ostensibly in its relevance to contemporary interests, but depends largely on simple accessibility to the object itself—that is to say, we can easily recall or imagine the musical examples discussed because our memories of them are recent, based on repeated hearings and/or active singing, usually associated with memorable words (lyrics), and bolstered by collective familiarity with the idiom. Our aural frame of reference is, therefore, readily available when analyses mention "pulsating back beats," "jangling chords," "wailing guitar bends", and ask "'how does it feel?'" We don’t need notated details to recreate the sound in our mind, perhaps even accompanied by visuals, and neither does the music itself nor the critic. But in another 50 to 100 years, when digital technology becomes obsolete and aural memory grows dim—CDs and Bjork as the 78s and Puccini of the 21st-century—where will this mode of music commentary be without the immediacy of its context? It seems that the once freely, exuberantly accessible vernacular is falling victim to its own canonization.
    But it is, after all, the very elusiveness of music which constantly drives us to read and write about it, hoping somehow to encapsulate, document, preserve the memory of a mercilessly temporal aesthetic experience. Whether we listen to, perform, or compose music, we are always grappling with its immaterial yet viscerally powerful nature, and thus we often try to assign some kind of tangibility to our association with it. We seek form, meaning, validation; we consider the music’s relation to the composer, to the recipient, and to the structural elements within itself:

below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to surge upward in plashing waves of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. . . He could picture to himself [the piece’s] extent, its symmetrical arrangement, its notation, its expressive value; he had before him something that was no longer pure music, but rather design, architecture, thought, and which allowed the actual music to be recalled.1

    This quote is from a celebrated example of writing about music (authors and sources will be revealed below; feel free to play puzzler or mystery date in the meantime). Without referring to printed music or using technical terminology, except for "minor key" which is metaphorically evoked in any case by "silvered" and "moonlight," the writer conjures forth a vivid, specific image of the music and captures the psychological and intellectual state of the listener. The passage uses sensuous, physically-based qualities to characterize the music, and does so to great poetic effect by avoiding flatly representational comparisons.
    Representational considerations of music, though often the most easily written and read, generally yield naive and limiting interpretations. Sometimes the results have exceptional kitsch value, especially when related to composer biography.

[The E minor prelude depicts] one of the paroxysms to which Chopin was subject on account of his weak chest. In the left hand we hear his heavy breathing, and in the right hand the tones of suffering wrung from his breast. At the twelfth measure he seeks relief by turning on the other side; but his oppression increases momentarily. At the stretto he groans, his pulse redoubles its beat, he is near death; but toward the end he breathes more quietly (the chords must be breathed rather than played).2

    Injecting "meaning" into music by texting an untexted composition, and preferably with some tidbit from the composer’s life, is an ingrained habit nonetheless. It makes for a lot of unfortunate musical biography, even if the parenthetical directive above to the performer is potentially useful (we needn’t encourage aspiring young pianists to smoke, however).
    How about the private lives of compositions themselves, then? Here is an oddly endearing way to think of Brahms’s first piano concerto:

One cannot separate architecturally the astonishing nonconformity of its opening measures—the triadic expostulation of B-flat major as the opening of a D-minor work and the confirmation of its chromatic stubbornness by that mysterious A-flat in the third measure—one cannot disassociate all this from the exigencies of formal symphonic behavior to which it ultimately does conform: the poker-faced, absolutely verbatim recapitulation of the secondary thematic group, for instance.3

    This anthropomorphic analysis brings the concerto first movement to life as a stubborn, nonconformist poker-player who is ultimately a gentleman. But the writer, addressing an educated though general readership, presumes a working familiarity with the tonal and formal conventions of Western classical music.
    From here on it becomes an increasingly specialized world of printed musical excerpts, and the words used to explain them.

[In Chopin's etude, Op.10 No.1,] subtle opposition between two principal melodic motives—a turning figure around E (bars 1-9, 9-16, 15-24, 49-57 and 57-69) and either chromatic or diatonic linear descents (bars 25-36, 37-44 and 69-76)—generates tremendous momentum over and above the waves of arpeggios that provide the Etude’s technical raison d’être. The insistent focus on E in the treble is broken only in the middle section, where two circle-of-fifths progressions accompany a twenty-bar linear descent . . . and in bars 69ff., where the chromatic descent from G to B in the top voice overcomes the turning figure’s reiteration of E once and for all, reaching the tonic pitch in the melody and thereby achieving definitive closure for the first time in the piece.4

    This is well-respected, mainstream, academic musicology. It assumes ability to read a score, knowledge of terms, and understanding of harmonic conventions. The only concession the writer makes to the extra-musical is in describing the arpeggios as "waves"—not unlike Proust, incidentally—and maybe in suggesting that the etude has a raison d’être.
    And, finally, something for the specialist’s specialist:

This is where Siegmund ‘looks into the eyes of the Valkyrie,’ as Brünnhilde puts it later on. The subinterval 3 of the FATE network 2=(-1)+3 now becomes the overall interval of the FATE’ network 3=(-1)+4; (-1) remains a subinterval of FATE’. The pitch class A of FATE’ is bereft of its FATE-partner B, just as Siegmund will be lonely in Valhalla, bereft of his sister/wife.5

    The complete analysis is required reading for all those glib commentators who always insist on the music-and-math connection. This particular quote is especially interesting in that the pitch manipulations mirror the psychological state of the opera characters, and yet the extreme objectification of the musical material disassociates it from both composer and listener, allowing for sharp focus on the internal aspects of the work alone.
    Now that you have glimpsed the range and extremes faced by readers and writers about music, who is your ideal music critic?
    1) If you settled immediately on mystery date number one, Marcel Proust (from Swann’s Way, p.227-8 in volume 1 of Moncrieff’s translation—the Franck violin sonata may have been the model), you have distinguished taste. May your love be requited.
    2) The second is an unusually gothic choice. The writer is Hans von Bülow (as quoted by Harold Schonberg in The Great Pianists, Simon and Schuster, 1963) who was a highly respected, late 19th-century pianist and conductor. He wrote such programs for all 24 preludes in the set. Beware: von Bülow was married to Cosima Liszt, until she left him for Wagner.
    3) Expect only a midnight-to-dawn phone date with this critic, Glenn Gould ("N’aimez-vous pas Brahms?", in The Glenn Gould Reader, Random House, 1984). The legendary pianist was as fond of his collie dog as he was of sonata structure, probably.
    4) If you liked example four (John Rink, "Tonal Architecture in the Early Music," in The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, Cambridge University Press, 1992), you should consider graduate school in musicology.
    5) Those who chose the last author, Harvard music theory professor David Lewin (Generalized Musical Intervals and Transformations, Yale University Press, 1987), should probably get out more and try to hear a live concert now and then.
    Charles Rosen "began writing about music . . . largely to keep someone else’s nonsense off my record jackets." Indeed, nonsense does abound in the stew of fantasy, wishful projection, conviction, and innocent misinformation that often serves as the basis for our passions. Even a composer’s commentary on her or his own work can be misleading, limiting, or, yes, sheer nonsense. "The best writing on music can make a small difference, but we must not overestimate it," advises Rosen.
    During a rehearsal documented in the film Straight, No Chaser, about jazz pianist Thelonius Monk, the sax player squints over Monk’s manuscript score (always a great learning moment for dispelling the myth that jazz greats never read music) and asks whether he should play C or C-sharp in a certain measure. Monk replies, "just blow whatever you feel like, man." After all is written and read, we can only do likewise.


Kiko Nobusawa is a writer living in Ithaca. Her next article will consider the difficulty of musical biography

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