“I wanna bite the hand that feeds me…”
– Elvis Costello
Since there have been artists, there have been critics. It’s all part of a great dialogue between the practitioners, who advance their disciplines (and change the world from time to time) and the thinkers, who codify and explain the “new” for future generations to better understand what came before. This is the purpose of criticism. Period.
Music criticism in particular has changed the most severely over the years. From the beginning of music there have, undoubtedly, been available cognoscenti. I even imagine cave people, pounding away at their rocks, while someone nearby criticized the nuance of their pounding, their conversion to slate, or mentioned that the previous evening’s rock banger had more soul, more insight into the whole idea of banging. Perhaps the ancients benefited, perhaps it even aided in the “development” of western music, a dialogue rather than a necessary evil, a means to an aesthetic end.
The impulse to criticize is a teacherly one—call it scholarly, academic, or enlightening, critics are there to explain. They can help us select a recording or attend a concert (or inform us of what took place at an event we the readers were unable to attend) but can also define a trend, draw conclusions, or introduce us to material we might not otherwise know. The same can be said of a gifted teacher; they serve the same cultural purpose.
The first music critics, Boethius and his Ancient Greek crew, wrote musical treatises, and approached music as an abstraction, another discipline on the road to purity through knowledge. As Arthur Koestler details (quite brilliantly) in his momentous The Sleepwalkers, music itself was actually the first known mathematical constant. Pythagoras figured this out, that “…balance and order, not sweet pleasure, are the law of the world.” Suddenly scholarship took music—most specifically the “…Pythagorean discovery that the pitch of a note depends on the length of the string that produces it…”—and admitted it to the highest realm of study, the realm of science. All of this from an ancient form of criticism: scholarship.
At some point, in music (as well as film) criticism and scholarship separated. A new beast was born—the professional “reviewer.”
As with everything else, times have changed. Critics are much different animals than the ancient scholars, and even the first professional thinkers about music—schools of thought still ebb and fold, countless words have been read on these topics, schisms and battles have been waged. But there is now, more than ever, a need for effective criticism. In the ancient world little existed, unlike the modern age. Scholars, teachers, and, yes, even critics are necessary in order to make sense of it all. Gone is the abstraction, it’s taken a turn to the real.