December 10, 2005

Criticising in Context

I've been mulling over this rather extended debate going on in el blogosphere. I was having some trouble crystalizing my thoughts on the function of musical criticism, when I found a neat & tidy(ish) interview quote that did some of the heavy lifting for me:
We study the history of music as though it starts with Gregorian chant and goes to [Machaut], Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Schönberg, etc. But rarely do we learn when we study those things. What these people were really thinking about, aside from musical questions. We talk about them and listen to their work as though they only thought about music, and were not subject to the conditioning forces of the society in which they lived. As though that was something unimportant. Whereas, it is known in many cases that these composers were very often passionately concerned with social and political issues. Beethoven is certainly a case and point, or Chopin, or Wagner just to name a few, so it becomes a confusing question when we try to think how music, which we are accustomed to thinking of as a fundamentally abstract form of communication, how that can be a vehicle not only for feelings, but for ideas. I think that perhaps, in order to answer a question like that one has to examine not only the imminent characteristics of a piece of music, one has to imagine the piece of music as consisting not only of notes or sounds, but as a process of communication involving groups of human beings on a very basic level of course involving the collaborative activity of composers, performers, and audience, but also as a larger process of communication which involves a much larger and more general context.
(Rzewski, again)

He gives the issue a slightly political bent, but I suppose that's part of his personality. Looking at it more generally, it's an issue of context. The quote could easily be rephrased to say that we commonly neglect religion, race, gender, whatever, in discussions of music. Context is the difference between a chord with an added sixth signifying kitsch or signifying prayer.

The NYT review of An American Tragedy was itself criticized for what some saw as a slew of short-sighted omissions. What I want to know is why didn't it discuss the context of the premiere more? The first paragraph:
For a company of such international standing, the Metropolitan Opera has had an inexcusably timid record of commissioning operas in recent decades. Consequently, when the Met presents a new work, the stakes are almost impossibly high.
The context of the production isn't really touched on until the conclusion, when Tommasini does a simple tie-in to make the piece feel rounded out. What of the fact that the Met has commissioned so few new operas? Is the mantle of Great American Opera still worth aspiring to, or has it dwindled to a pointless pursuit in our present cultural climate? Is the choice of libretto significant in any way? What audience is the opera reaching out to? Should anyone else care?

Alternatively, you can go in the opposite direction and only discuss context. Pitchfork is an easy target, but a failing of a lot of rock criticism, particularly when you get into indie rock circles, is favoring "hot or not" "issues" over whether or not the music's any good. As usual, a median between the two extremes, "objective" and "subjective" reactions, is what should be pursued.

Returning to the Rzewski quote, his final point is worth taking note of: in the production of music, you witness an intersection of a multitude of extensive and interconnected social relationships. Jeremy Denk posted some thoughts on a review of a Richard Goode recital. The issue was that the critic was harsh on Goode, faulting him for making an unusual (perhaps daring?) performance. In playing the music, Goode was continuing a thread of relationships that began with the authorship of the music, led through all of his experiences with the piece, touched on whoever may've been involved in those experiences, and took a stop at his recital.

Rather than contemplate and consider this very extended train of thought, the critic (at least as Jeremy suggested) cut it off with a cold and slightly ambivalent response. Speaking from my experience as a performer, you know whether or not you played well on any given night. It's flattering and all to get compliments on how you did, but really, no one needs to tell you. Similarly, I'll know if I lost control in any spots. Saying that someone "[let] his passion surge ahead of his judgment" ... what does that really mean to a reader? I'm not being dense here; how much does that statement inform a reader's understanding of what went on that night?

Contextualizing the playing, though, talking about it in relation to the pianist's past performances, common practices on how the composer's music should be played, what kind of relationship the performer had with the audience... these comments can make up for not being at an event. They continue the discourse that started way back whenever the piece was written. They, to me, are the makings of good criticism.

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