Criticism: Possible Antidotes… and That’s Enough for Now!

NaBloPoMo Day 16!

At the end of the third installment in my series of reflections on criticism in musical academia, I left you with a quote from Shakespeare’s Sonnet LXV:

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”

I came across this quote the other day in a post about musical responses to great tragedies: “Requiems,” by Alex Ross, music critic for The New Yorker.

Ross’ understanding of Shakespeare’s question (which, as he mentions, Wallace Stevens cited while writing about World War II) concerns the light-in-the-darkness function that musicians serve in the face of horrific events:

How, in other words, can artists respond to news that exceeds their most extravagant nightmares?”

Happily, we can, and do, respond in many ways, some of which he describes: impromptu group singing on the streets of New York in the dark days after both September 11th and the sinking of the Lusitania. Concerts organized in record time to comfort and commemorate. Music as a means to express what people are feeling when they aren’t sure how to express it themselves.

Ooh, I said a dirty word. Did you miss it? I said “express.” Why is that dirty, you ask? Well, by way of an answer, here’s one more war story from the grad school trenches before I put that topic down for awhile. In certain music-academic circles, it’s considered rather uncouth to talk about music as a “language” that can “express” anything. A discussion about this came up one of my graduate seminars, and the points were made that music doesn’t have syntax as verbal language does; it doesn’t have the same precise powers of description and representation. Therefore, the typical associations we have with it must be culturally constructed.

Perhaps Igor Stravinsky started it in his 1936 autobiography, by provocatively and infamously stating:

Music is… essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention.

That quote perfectly encapsulates what bothered me about the seminar discussion: the general consensus (at least among those who were speaking up) that the idea of music as a language was quaint and slightly pitiable, since “everyone” knows it really isn’t. Now, there is a subdiscipline of musical scholarship known as music cognition — an interdisciplinary field actually, since it applies methodologies from other fields, such as neuroscience, philosophy, and linguistics, to the study of music. In simpler terms, it addresses what happens in our brains when we’re involved in musical activities.

And that’s a rich and fascinating field of study, and if I can find the time to catch myself up on some current work in the field, I might be able to report on how it can provide some insight into why music is so powerful for so many of us.

However. Around the same time as this seminar discussion, I was performing as part of the UCSD Music Library’s‘s outreach program run by my friend Scott Paulson. He and I performed together as the Geisel Library Toy Piano Duo. I played the toy piano — there are many models of toy pianos out there, but the best ones, in my opinion, are the miniature baby grands that will forever conjure in my mind images of Schroeder from Peanuts — and Scott played a variety of full-size, miniature, and novelty instruments, including baritone sax, concertina, nose whistle, and — regular readers may have already guessed — theremin.

We toured Southern California, performing at libraries, schools, and anywhere else we were asked. Our audiences often consisted of kids, but the adults in attendance seemed to dig us the most. One of our best numbers was an arrangement of “The Swan” from Saint-SaënsCarnival of the Animals, for toy piano and English horn. It was a bit preposterous, me playing the accompaniment to this soaring melody on a tiny piano, seated on a tiny bench on the floor.

But the thing is, when we played it, people cried. They cried. Now, you can sit around a seminar table all you want, talking about music-as-not-a-language and sniffing at the culturally constructed meanings we learn to associate with it. Come to think of it, it’s not clear to me why cultural constructs are devalued — isn’t that the job of culture, to create and curate the shared meaning of a group? Does that make it less real? Maybe in the lab, but not where the rubber meets the road, in front of an audience.

So, Stravinsky notwithstanding (great as his music is, he was a bit of a B.S. artist in his words — syntax only takes you so far), when it comes to how music functions for a listener, I think I’ll apply what one of my blogging acquaintances describes as the birders’ rule: “If there is a discrepancy between the book and the bird, believe the bird.”

As a corollary to Alex Ross’ explication of the Shakespeare quotation I began with, I would add another, more workaday sense: along with helping us cope with extraordinary tragedy, music can also serve as a noble antidote to the petty, grasping, contentious side of human nature that can wear us down bit by bit, like the death of a thousand cuts. I think it’s ironic that when we study music at the highest levels, we seem to become desensitized to the power of its beauty, as we focus so narrowly on our quest to be right about it. We humans certainly have a knack for getting our priorities screwed up! 😛

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    3 Responses

    1. Excellent post!

    2. Great series of posts; you’ve put a lot into all this. I like especially what you have to say about ‘expression’ in music and humbug!! to the naysayers…. else what’s the point of it all?? It isn’t the physics of sound frequencies and high math, dammit.

      Having read this Friday night it was a nice coincidence to hear The Swan on CBC R2 on my way home Saturday morning. Jacqueline Du Pre.

    3. Thanks, Michele!

      Thanks, Norm, too! I think music academics feel a need to establish their legitimacy by rooting out what is unquanitfiable. But it can go too far.

      I’d like to hear the Du Pre performance sometime! (I’m an R2 fan, at least til Labor Day! 🙂 )

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