Several friends of mine who write music criticism have extremely open and astute ears as well as a propensity toward advocacy and overall goodwill. Yet there have been times when some of these friends have questioned their positive judgments of music that the big bad wolves with the more famous bylines declared to be worthless. Such is the power of suggestion.
Anyone who reads these pages knows about the disdain I have for the de facto critical position of giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down. The more I think about the process of listening to music, the more I realize that any listener’s reactions to a piece are his or her own and have little to do with the music they are listening to, at least insofar as how that music will relate to any other listener. They also vary over time.
Each time you listen to something, what you are listening to is clouded both by what you’ve heard before and what you haven’t heard before. A repeated listen to a specific piece of music will never be the same as a first listen, but neither will multiple experiences to similar musical ideas in any piece be the same as that initial encounter with such an idea (e.g. prepared piano, 31-tone tuning, bowing crotales, you name it). Most people like music that sounds like music they already like. Such a stance has everything to do with multiple exposures to a particular aesthetic and nothing to do with the specific piece of music they are attempting to evaluate.
But the contrapositive is also true. We new music types like something because it sounds like nothing we’ve never heard before. But would we have liked it as much if we had heard something like it before? Since music exists as a phenomenon within society, if it were possible for you to actually be able to have heard everything that’s out there (something I’m trying to do but will inevitably never complete), chances are slim that you’ll ever hear something that’s completely unique.
This week the thumbs-up-thumbs-down crowd have taken some heavy critical hits themselves. Fanfare magazine’s practice of asking labels to advertise prior to committing to review recordings is old news to some of us, but Tim Mangan’s exposé in the Sunday edition of the Orange County Register made today’s music section of ArtsJournal. And Sequenza21 offers a long overdue excoriation of American Record Guide, whose nearly unanimous antipathy toward anything beyond standard classical repertoire played on turn-of-the-last-century instruments is legion. After all, the only constructive thing one can do with negative criticism is criticize it.