WRITING ABOUT MUSIC

Writing about music is much like writing about (say) painting, in that we take as our objective (a) introducing a performance and (b) sharing our insight into the artfulness of that performance, in language that is as direct and as concrete as we can make it.

For us, "writing about music" includes (a) reviewing a concert or a CD or (b) writing liner notes, programme notes, an interview, or a tribute to a composer or a performer.

Understandably, writing about music is not as easy as writing about the verbal arts. Any given performance can please one listener and displease another. In this case, the challenge lies in translating the sounds of one language (the notes) into the sounds of another (the words).

Any discussion of the most famous music critics of this century would have to include such critics as George Bernard Shaw (UK), who (many would say) set the standard; Aaron Copland, Whitney Balliet, Leonard Bernstein, and Virgil Thompson (USA); and John Everett-Green (Canada).

Below, I offer some hints on how to help the reader appreciate the complexities of the performance you plan to write about. Once again, I focus on (a) getting ready to write and (b) writing the piece. I offers these suggestions as guidelines only, not rules that should be followed in all musical events.

Listening

  1. It stands to reason that, for the reviewer as well as the musician, the ability to listen is fundamental. We all listen to music according to our individual capacities. Many of us have acquired some bad habits--like listening to music as a background to other activities. In this way, according to Eric Satie, we turn music into wall-paper or furniture. To begin with, we should distinguish hearing from listening.

    By hearing, we mean being aware of the disturbances in the air known as sounds. You may be sitting in a room, studying for an exam say, while the sounds coming from the radio wash over you. We might say that you are listening, but in a passive way. Imagine someone entering the room and striking a note on your piano: suddenly, the atmosphere changes. Startled, you listen in a different way.

    By listening, we mean perceiving and understanding what happens in the music. In this case, you are listening in an active sort of way.

  2. In What to Listen for in Music (1957), Aaron Copland claims that we listen to music on three planes:

    a. the sensuous plane

    As Copland points out, the appeal of music at this level is self-evident. The sound element in music is a powerful as well as a mysterious agent. The surprising thing (he adds) is that many people who consider themselves qualified music lovers listen at this level only; they go to concerts in order to lose themselves; they use music as a consolation or as an escape.

    However, there is such a thing as becoming sensitive to the different kinds of "sound stuff" as used by composers, for different composers use sound stuff in different ways. We realize that a composer's use of the sound elements forms an integral part of his or her style and that in listening we have to take this matter into consideration.

    b. the expressive plane

    Copland argues that all music conveys meaning behind the notes and that the meaning behind the notes constitutes what the piece says, what the piece is about. Of course, we cannot put this meaning into so many words. At different moments, he observes, music expresses serenity or exuberance, regret or triumph, fury or delight. Music expresses these moods, and many others, in a variety of subtle shadings and differences. It may even express a state of meaning for which there exists no adequate phrase in any language. In any case, musicians like to say that it has only a purely musical meaning.

    For this reason, it can be argued that it is easier to "understand" Tchaikovsky (say) than Beethoven. It is easier to pin a meaning-word on a Tchaikovsky piece than on a Beethoven piece. Often, it is quite difficult to put your finger on just what Beethoven is saying. Any musician will tell you that this is why Beethoven is a great composer.

    c. the sheerly musical plane

    At this level, the listener attends to matters of form and structure. In order to follow the line of a composer's thought, the listener attends to such matters as melody, rhythm, harmony, and tone color in a conscious fashion.

    An analogy might help here. Think about what happens when we go to the theater. In the theater, we are aware of the players, the setting, the costumes, the movements, and so on. All these elements give one a sense that the theater is a pleasant place to be. They constitute the sensuous plane in our theatrical reactions.

    We would experience the expressive plane in terms of the feelings we get from what is happening on the stage. We are moved to pity, excitement, and so on.

    Experiencing the plot, following its development say, would be equivalent to experiencing music at the sheerly musical level. The playwright develops a character in just the same way a composer creates and develops a theme. As we become more and more aware of the way the artist handles his or her materials, the more we become intelligent listeners.

  3. To sum up, then, when listening to music on the sensuous plane, we focus on

    a. the medium, i.e., what generates the sound: voice, instrument, ensemble, and so on.
    b. the quality of sound produced, in terms of tone, uniformity, special effects, and so on.
    c. the dynamics or the intensity of the sound, in terms of loudness, uniformity, and change.

    When listening to music on the expressive plane, we try to determine how the music interprets--and clarifies--our feelings. Sounds evokes feelings:

    a. a busy passage can suggest unease or nervousness.
    b. a slow passage in a minor key, such as a funeral march, can suggest gloom.

    When listening to music on the sheerly musical plane, we try to focus on

    a. the movement of the piece, i.e., concentrate on its rhythm, meter, and tempo,
    b. the pitch, i.e., in terms of its order and melody, and
    c. the structure of the piece, i.e., its logic, design, and texture.

    This means listening for the "planned design" that binds an entire composition. As Copland puts it, in shaping his or her material, the composer generates "the long line," which provides listeners with a sense of direction. A composer might employ the principles of repetition and non-repetition to give a long piece and a short piece respectively the feeling of "balance."

    The composer also "shapes" his or her musical materials by "partitioning" the work, presenting in in a number of movements (say). Fundamental forms include the fugue, the concerto grosso, the sonata, and the symphony, to some a few traditional forms.

Writing

The hints or guidelines offered below supplement the observations I made above. They are based on a talk Harold C. Schonberg gave to music students at the University of Calgary. Schonberg, many years the senior music critic for The New York Times, also offers tips on writing about music in such works as Facing the Music (1981).

  1. Identify the musical substance, as it were. Are we talking about a new rendition of an old composition? This means focusing on the music itself, whether new or old. Identify the composition and the players. Put the performance into context.

  2. Try to capture the qestalt of the performance, whether live or recorded. It might help to wrap your lead around it. Consider the following example: Whitney Balliett, the celebrated critic, captures the sound and the feeling of a performance given by Art Taylor, the drummer, in the following passage, which taken from New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz in the Seventies (1977):

    [Art] Taylor, as is his custom, played just one number, but it lasted forty minutes. It was full of his usual devices--the slamming chords, the agitated staccato passages, the breathtaking arpeggios, the blizzard density--but it had two new qualities: lyricism and gentleness. Again and again, after Taylor had launched one of his tidal waves, his hands going up and down like driving rods, he slipped into a clear lagoon where shadows of melody glided just below the surface (p. 26).

    The point here is: Tell your reader about how you find the performance unique, artistically speaking. Perhaps you notice that one element of the performance stands apart. The following observations should help you focus your attention.

    Melody evokes emotion. We think of the lieder (art songs) of Franz Schubert (d. 1828); the ballads and the show music of the 1940's and the 1950's, especially that of Frank Sinatra; and much of the music of the 1960's, especially Ann Murray, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Carpenters.

    Rhythm excites us physically. This element of musical composition prompts listeners to tap their feet: they want to get up and dance. We think of dance music: the waltz, the tango, and the polka. We also think of "big band" music, especially the drumming of Gene Krupa, who worked with Benny Goodman, the founder of "swing."

    Usually, rhythm and melody go hand in hand, with equal importance and accent. Occasionally, melody is subservient to rhythm. A good example is Maurice Ravel's famous work, "Bolero" (1928), which consists of a single orchestral crescendo (lasting 17 minutes). If you listen to it closely, you will notice that it is nothing more than 18 repetitions of the same theme moving with increased volume and slightly increased tempo.

    Harmony has been described as the clothing of melody. From the point of view of the l9th century musician, harmony now is in a state of anarchy. Today, we think of (say) folk music, which combines the three elements very nicely, the barber shop quartet, or choral music generally. If you are a fan of the Kronos Quartet, you notice that the players explore rather subtle harmonies.

    Schubert's songs exhibit a romantic feeling for nature, together with a wealth of emotions. Song cycles like Die Winterreise or Die schone Muellerin are good examples. Notice that their idyllic opening is soon clouded by bitterness and resignation. The harmonies constitute the most perfect means of expression, with the piano accompaniment asserting itself as equal partner to the singer.

    Timbre means "tone-quality" or "tone color," which distinguishes the effect of a flute from that of an oboe, a note sung by a soprano choir-boy from that of the same note sung by a contralto, and so on. We think of the musical saw; the zither, the favorite instrument of the Tyrol and adjacent mountain regions; and the harp-guitar built by Andreas Vollanweider, the Swiss guitarist. We also think of Angelo Badalamenti, who produced the music for Twin Peaks.

    Remember, your goal is to tell your reader why the performance is unique. This means getting inside the mind of the performer as it were, explaining why he or she performs the way he or she does. Be sure to report only what your ears hear.

  3. Finally, as music critics, we can only make people think. We cannot change people's taste. For this reason, it is a good idea to concentrate on the performance, i.e., on those features that contribute to the "artfulness" of the music-making. Remember: a performer's job is to project personality. Interpretation is a mingling of the player's personality with that of the composer. We try to say where the one ends and the other begins.

    Sources

    Balliett, Whitney. New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz in the Seventies. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977.

    Copland, Aaron. What to Listen for in Music. New York: Mentor Book, 1957.

    Martin, F. David, and Lee A. Jacobus. The Humanities through the Arts. 5th edn. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1997.

    Schonberg, Harold C. Facing the Music. New York: Summit Books, 1981.

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