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.

7 thoughts on “I Know It When I Hear It

  1. increpatio

    What about those moments of stubbornness, I’m sure we’ve all had them, where somebody else, or maybe even ourselves, tell us that “no, no this isn’t working overall”, and yet we manage to put our foot down and say “yes, yes it does work actually, I understand and share your aesthetic considerations and reservations, but I see no reason to labour under them in this case – I will let things stand as is”.

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  2. increpatio

    What about those moments of stubbornness, I’m sure we’ve all had them, where somebody else, or maybe even ourselves, tell us that “no, no this isn’t working overall”, and yet we manage to put our foot down and say “yes, yes it does work actually, I understand and share your aesthetic considerations and reservations, but I see no reason to labour under them in this case – I will let things stand as is”.

    Reply
  3. jchang4

    I think this is where musicologists come in. I find that I too am a bit instinctive when it comes to my feelings about music. I either like it, or I don’t… or, as you would say: it either “works” for me, or it doesn’t. But musicologists seem to have the magic link between how we hear music and how it can/should be described. I’ll never forget how Katherine Syer described the da capo portion of Chopin’s Op 27 No 1 as somehow affected by the turbulence of the preceding, contrasting section. The notes are the same, but it simply cannot and does not sound the same. It is a feeling that I certainly also felt, but was unable to put to words.

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  4. Colin Holter

    Wow, fancy seeing increpatio here!

    That’s a good point, and sometimes what you’ve described is absolutely what we have to do. On the other hand, more than a few times I’ve convinced myself that the piece I’m working on “works” by some new standard, only to come back to it later (after refining my understanding of that yardstick) only to find that it sinks like a stone. Part of developing as a composer, I guess.

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  5. philmusic

    Roger Sessions said:

    “Composers are doers of deeds”

    Of course every project is different and some work requires more refection than others.
    Yet, at some point Colin you have to stop thinking about the music and just compose it.

    Let the chips fall where they may.

    Phil Fried

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  6. davidcoll

    sorry, but thats just bad advice in my opinion- and its not just because i find sessions music largely uninteresting because his later music reflects this same laziness of self-criticism

    if a composer feels compelled to ask a lot of questions its because theres they have a real need for it- and if people say its just procrastination, they might have a point- so long as we’re all honest w/ourselves it should be alright…

    thats my feel-good comment of the day…

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  7. philmusic

    “…his later music reflects this same laziness of self-criticism..”

    I thought this was more a question of staying on the composition track rather than switching to a related study–many universtiy student composers switch fields because they end up finding other apects of music more interesting and/or less stressful.

    I think if you want to compose -compose!

    anyway–
    Its easy to break and discard the idols of the past -every generation does it.

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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