Everyone’s a Critic
One nice perk about hiding out in the hermitage of higher education is that you rarely have to deal with mean-spirited criticism. At least, you should rarely have to deal with mean-spirited criticism—the collegial atmosphere we try to foster here at the University of Minnesota promotes mutual respect, and I think most universities aim for a similar vibe. My fellow students and I differ in the ways we write music and, indeed, in the critical and aesthetic assumptions by which we operate, but each of us wants to understand what makes the others’ musical hearts tick, and we treat each other like rational, intelligent people.
Today I had the novel experience of hearing that a passage in a piece of mine “sound[ed] stupid.” Has anybody gotten this line before? It’s a little off-putting: You certainly don’t see it coming, that’s for sure. It sort of reminded me of the time a new acquaintance asked if I was a teaching assistant; I told her that I’d received a fellowship that temporarily freed me from teaching responsibilities, and she said, “That’s gay.” Really? Gay?
Stupid? Really? What a strange, Anglo-Saxon word to use in the ordinarily erudite and high-minded context of new music. What makes it worse yet is that this particular passage does sound a bit stupid, in the strict sense of the word. Here are the offending bars, if you’re curious.
The material—played by the clarinet, bassoon, piano, and low strings—is supposed to be crudely manipulative: If you find it pretty (which I do), you should also be moved to consider the possibility that you’re capitulating to habituation and aesthetic programming. The jagged upper material should be a red flag of sorts. It’s stupid, sure, but my hope is that the overall effect is cunning, if not properly “smart.” Even if you think it’s dumber than a bag of hammers, I bet you could find a more helpful way to phrase that sentiment than “stupid.”
Anyway, I wanted to share this bizarre experience with you all. It feels a little like I was punched in the face: Aren’t we supposed to be adults here?