One of the most frustrating aspects of reading music reviews is the complete letdown that can follow when you go from a “good review” to listening to the music reviewed. Part of the danger resides in the fact that a “good review” can mean, beyond any judgement on the music, merely a well-written review; in other words, we can be swayed by a piece of rhetoric – which is, let it be said, not to be sniffed at. Rhetoric is a fine art in itself; in fact one of the seven branches of the classical liberal education. But it is not, and let’s be clear about this, it is not music.
A most popular note: Middle C.
Hold on a minute, though, before you decide that this is to state the bleedin’ obvious, ask yourself whether a book review, a theatre review or even a review of an exhibition of paintings or photos, suffers from the same difficulty.
Let’s say I’m reviewing Gene Wolfe’s latest genre-shifting science-fiction offering. Beyond comparing it to earlier offerings, retailing some parts of the plot, describing some of the characters, perhaps rendering judgements on Wolfe’s ability to create these things, tell a story, make it entrancing and all the rest, I can actually include as part of the review excerpts from the work itself.
It has been written, in perhaps the more despairing quarters of pre-postmodernist criticism, that the only worthy critique of, say, James Joyce’s Ulysses, that would come anywhere near doing justice to the novel, would begin with the words “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan …” and end with the words “… and yes I said yes I will Yes.”: that is, a bare recital of novel itself.
By extension, the only review of Bach’s cello suites allowable, would be for the reviewer to come around and put the recording on for you and sit in silence while you listened. Which, I might add, is a method I have made trial of myself on some few occasions and have found to be thoroughly satisfactory.
So far as it goes.
Because, as a matter of fact, it never stops there. We never in fact let the music (or the novel or the movie or the whatever) entirely speak for itself. That is because a work of art of whatever genre, is a social artefact. It is so by the mere fact of being in the image of its maker; who is, be he ever so misanthropic, a social being. It is also so by the fact of its being published (etymology causes us to suspect that the word “published” is somehow related to being made public, to being placed in the public square, to being made a social artefact).
Speaking up for art
As eloquent as any work of art may be, none of us is ever likely not to treat it as if it were mute; as if it could not indeed speak for itself; that it needed explaining.
The entire enterprise of speaking about beauty arises from the common intimation that the contemplation of beauty is a two-way street between each of us and the object in question; which makes for a central point from which any number of spokes radiate out.
We desire then to complete the entirely obvious figure by turning our attention to the termini of other spokes and inserting the connections that make up the rim. We talk about the experience and hope to find it common. If we do not find it common, unless we despair or find we have not the critical ability or wherewithal to effectively communicate our experience, we strive to make it common.
We equally strive not to be left out; we desire more or less to be let in on the secret, to know what others make of the work in question. We are all at the circumference of the work but simultaneously are so only in so far as we make reference to the centre.
But, wait, there’s more!
Without wishing to conjure the bogey of the “expert” critic, it is nonetheless certain that experience and exposure, dedication and obsession, along with a facility with words – “rhetoric” – allows some people to become more adept at finding the commonalities between the spokes and articulating them; becoming in the process, dare I say, a spokesman.
So, the critic or reviewer has a responsibility beyond letting us know that he likes or dislikes a certain work of art; any of us can do that with a grunt or the expression: “I think it’s nice”. The critic needs to articulate a social context for the work of art, to place it within an aesthetic region on the map, so to say, and speed them there that would go there in any case and entice them there that might otherwise bypass it.
Let it be understood that the social context of a work of art, as I mean it here, is not – or not merely – its meaning as social propaganda. It is that the critic or reviewer stands as an intermediary between the work of art and the public. He is a specialist whose services are often useful, sometimes imperative, occasionally indispensable.
Music’s special attribute
But, getting back to the particular difficulty of communicating the experience of music. In case anyone has not taken my point and wandered off to get a cup of coffee and listen to that new CD, the difficulty is that music does not use the same raw materials as the critic uses. A novel is made of words; so is the critic’s review; a poem is made up of words; so is any appraisal of it; a play is at least in part made of words; so is the review; even a painting is accessible to discursive explanation of its elements (colours, forms, narrative) in a way music is not. Although I would not press this point too far, especially respecting non-representational art.
For music, as music, as opposed to song as lyric, has no such access to the word. Words, the raw materials of poetry, epic, fairytale, novel, belles lettres, etc, always have a discursive attachment to the things they represent, however that attachment may be exploited in any work of art. The raw materials of music – tones, times, tempos, melodies, harmonies, rhythms – have no such attachment to meaning beyond their presence in the works in which they are used.
While the word “dog” will not fail to conjure an image of some mutt or other in our experience, however attenuated; while the phrase “damn’d blasphemer” will not wander far unattached from some mental association of tall black hats with severe countenances; the note of Middle C carries no such baggage, despite appearing in just about every composition ever made; the chord of G minor makes no case for poignancy apart from the ballad to which it contributes; 3/4 time bears with it at best the mildest reminiscence of Vienna, but only when attached to the waltzes from that city.
It is at this point that the true problem begins to make itself evident. Because the final goal of any review is to persuade the reader either to go the work of art to see for himself (or to keep away from it). In any event, any review of any examples of any branch of the arts must finally point beyond itself to the work in question. And, in all branches of the arts, except music – and the doubtful case of non-representational visual art – the reviewer points beyond the review by artfully appealing to those elements in the work of art that actually belong to it as social artefact rather than as object of beauty per se.
For, who will rush to see a play because it contains several exquisite examples of zeugma, anaphora and metonymy; or presents excellent working examples of irony, litotes and paronomasia? No one. These elements run somewhat parallel to the examples in music given above of tones, harmonies, times, rhythms and so on. But people will be persuaded if the reviewer speaks of fine characterisation, ironic presentation and challenge to complacency. And all of this is legitimate not least because each of us likes to see fine characters, even if some be evil; each of us likes to see hypocrisy exposed; each of us at least on occasion will accede to the need to be prodded out of self-satisfaction.
However, when such appeals are made on behalf of a piece of music, the suspicion arises that the appeal is no longer entirely legitimate. Deep inside is felt the intimation that an appeal to music as a characterisation of, say, a man on the cusp of committing a crime, or as a satirical take on the liturgy of the Church, are all somehow beside the point. That such appeals are a transgression and a betrayal. That the final point to music is that it is either beautiful or fails to attain beauty.
The same may be averred of the Romantic appeal to programmatic music; the music that conjures up a landscape (to wit, Beethoven’s Sixth (Pastoral) Symphony, Arvo Pärt’s Tabula RasaRomeo and Juliet, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or The Nutcracker SuiteElevator to the Scaffold).
Resolution of a discord
The appearance of a contradiction raises its head, here, for it is undoubtedly true that even the composers themselves will congratulate themselves on the way their music has contributed to the creation of atmosphere and mood and all the rest; but, it would be a brave composer who did not go on to say that he felt the music stood up in its own right. If he doesn’t say it himself, someone will say it for him.
So, the apparent contradiction resolves itself into something much more amenable to the healthy intellect; into paradox. For paradox is, after all, just those contradictions neither of whose elements we would happily and finally dispense with.
Once we have indulged in the programmaticism, moodism and atmosphericism, we must return to the music. If we listen to it at all – which is doubtful at times, given the modern propensity to endure rather than attend – our final response must be our own; the which must be averred to be incommunicable. All the rest must be an effort to entice others to experience that beauty and must be avowed as such.