I Know It When I Hear It
I have a confession to make: There’s a word I use in reference to music whose meaning I absolutely do not know. No clue. But I probably say this word at least once a day. When I hear a piece that’s somehow unsatisfying, that lets me down in a way I can’t (or don’t want to) articulate precisely, I assert, as if from the judge’s bench, that the piece doesn’t “work.” Conversely, when there’s something ineffable about a piece’s contour that’s especially potent, I might proclaim that this piece does indeed “work.” What the hell am I talking about?
Don’t play dumb with me. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Just about everybody I know in new music uses this verb. The thing about “works” is that we don’t really need to define it until we start disagreeing about what it means. Even though we can’t always put our finger on just what that might be, however, a consensus about whether a piece “works” or not isn’t usually too hard to achieve. The new music community has a large shared library of expectations that lead us, generally, to judge “works” by roughly the same criteria—even if we disagree on a piece’s merit beyond “works.” But they call it “new music” because it’s new, right? Aren’t we also held responsible for questioning the very value system that separates “works” from “doesn’t work”?
This is why writing music is so hard: There are millions of ways to write a great old piece and millions of ways to write a great new piece—but the ways to write a great old piece fill every library and record shop in town, and the ways to write a great new piece are concealed by even more ways to write new pieces that don’t “work.” Doing something both new and good is exceedingly hard, because if it’s genuinely new, how will we know whether it’s good?
I don’t know. We just will.