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05.08.2014

Why Write About New Music?

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"The truth is, we can do very well without art; what we can't live without is the myth about art."

 

Consider the inverse of the question: why not write about new music? There's a case to be made to leave music alone: to abandon efforts to decipher it, analyze it, contextualize it, qualify it, quantify it


There's a case to be made to let music just be. But this argument neglects the fact that music does not just happen. As Morton Feldman insists above, the Western art music tradition—of which new music is the reluctant, illegitimate heir—is energized and galvanized by the myths of its own making. In writing about the newest new music, we inevitably participate in this myth-making.

 

Many rue this state of affairs; myths become paralyzing when they are cast in stone. The new music writer is therefore tasked with keeping music's myths supple and dynamic. Art writing (at its best), for instance, sits in a dynamic relationship with arts practice, each flexing muscles against the other. After all, many composers shape their work through intricate theoretical discourse – which often, however, stays at the composer's desk. Writing about new music provides a platform to more widely communicate these vital pre-compositional concerns, and bring them into dialogue with the actual musical event and its reception.

 

The chief distinction between the work of the reviewer and the musicologist is that the reviewer is preoccupied with the liveness of the musical event. The reviewer doesn't try to nail down Peter Pan's shadow; the reviewer dances with the shadow (to riff on Frank Zappa's aphorism that writing about music is like dancing about architecture). While the musicologist treats music as something to be held in the hand (along with the score), the reviewer insists on the durational—and relational—experience of sound. Sound is heard through ears as well as through eyes, noses, nervous systems, memories, distractions, boredoms, changing minds, confusions, impatience, hypnotism, revelations. Although the eventual review is a concrete thing, it needs to capture perception's contingency on the slipperiness of time. Of course, zooming out and connecting the dots is important too. But the reviewer acknowledges the radical difference between perception during the event and perception after it – and how these modes interact in the business of myth-making.

 

Ultimately, however, all the critic ever has authority to comment on is their own experience of the musical event. Whenever a critic tries to erase themselves from their review in pursuit of an absolute, journalistic account, they become dishonest about the fundamentally subjective nature of musical perception. Like a Cubist painting or a flurry of metadata, healthy myths are built out of kaleidoscopic responses and perspectives. Consensus should be regarded with suspicion; it's usually a sign that the myths are closing in.

 

Celeste Oram

By Celeste Oram
05.08.2014

"The truth is, we can do very well without art; what we can't live without is the myth about art."

 

Consider the inverse of the question: why not write about new music? There's a case to be made to leave music alone: to abandon efforts to decipher it, analyze it, contextualize it, qualify it, quantify it