The Problem and Music Criticism
Rather than contribute my customary encapsulation of the Minnesota Orchestra Future Classics concert—Taylor Brizendine, whose piece was the highlight of the show for me, has covered that beat pretty comprehensively for the past week—I’d like to address a topic that came up in a post-performance conversation with the Box’s very own Molly Sheridan about the difference between music criticism and musicology. (One of the best things about the Future Classics concert is that I get to see my AMC overlords in person.)
As Molly pointed out to me, music criticism is essentially a form of consumer protection. A corollary of this role is that any insight a music critic offers about a performance beyond whether or not you should go see the second night is a bonus. They’re certainly not obliged to identify the problem of a piece of music, which is precisely the job of musicologists and theorists. Note that I don’t mean the problem with a piece of music, as in “this piece is too long” or “I can’t hear the violas”: To identify the problem of a piece of music, even (especially?) if this problem isn’t solved before the piece ends, is a constructive act; far from rendering a thumbs-up-thumbs-down verdict, it illuminates why the piece is so intriguing.
One problem often to be found concerning a piece of tonal music, for instance, is how to reconcile material in differing keys. Maybe the problem of The Unanswered Question is how to make sense of the coexisting “melody” and “accompaniment.” The problem of Six Pianos is how to conceptualize the six changing parts and the changing whole that they produce, a then-new kind of musical relationship. For me, the problem of Brizendine’s piece had to do with register: He scooped out the middle of the orchestra, leaving mostly high and low instruments; I’d love to know if there were important horizontal ramifications of this vertical decision and, if so, how Brizendine dealt with them. These are some of the things that make listening to music a rewarding experience, and critics aren’t expected to deal with any of them (although many do, of course).
I don’t mean this solely as a challenge to music critics, however, but also as a challenge to musicologists and theorists, one I’ve iterated here many times before: The perspectives that the latter folks bring to music writing might be very valuable to general audiences, provided that they can be communicated in a non-jargonistic way. I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about Future Classics, but if I may make one very small suggestion to the Composer Institute’s organizers, the integration of a writing component for analysts and scholars working in conjunction with the composers whose work they’re addressing might enrich the concertgoing experience and hopefully open up a longer-term dialogue on aesthetics and the orchestra.