Address to Music Commentators’ Circle Inaugural Meeting

Sunday September 28 2003 2-4pm, Reinventing Criticism II

  • Future priorities for music journalism and criticism: looking at strategies for improving the role and contribution of music commentary

What precisely is music-making?

At the simplest level it is the act of creating sounds, sounds to be heard – heard and understood.

Yes, a rather facile observation but one that can be gently unpacked to reveal the stunning mystery of this deeply consuming activity that has so profoundly engaged the human spirit.

The mind thinks a thought, a thought that is made flesh as vibrations in the air. Sound is really just like the wind. Air, moving. No more, no less.

Music can only manifest through the medium of the very stuff that sustains our lives, stuff without which we pass from this world in minutes. It does not, cannot, operate in a vacuum.

The air is caused to move. It moves in waves and these waves wash up on the very shore of another human mind. The flesh is now made thought again within this new mind.

But how is any message carried in these waves? It seems our brains are hard-wired to the mathematics of sound. We can determine the ratios inherent in sonic events that unfold in time. This means that certain fundamental parameters of music are near-universal in human civilisation. There is a Rosetta stone by which we can to some extent decode music cross-culturally, something we cannot do at all with an unknown spoken language for example.

We may not get the full message, but we can get some message. Pulse. Divisions of pulse. Certain pitch relationships which themselves also represent events in time, a precise mathematical ratio of frequencies of vibration that the human brain honours – if not in the observance then in the breach. It is like body language, which also can be decoded cross-culturally: a threatening face, a grief-stricken face, a smile.

But this Rosetta stone of music fundamentals only allows us to decode the most basic layer of operation: for example we can generally distinguish between music for dance and a heart-rending lament even in the most extreme cases of cultural unfamiliarity. But beyond that, in the stratum of the gossamer webs where meaning is whispered through the almost-secrets of nuances that dance like moonlight upon water – here, we do need a real commonality. It is at this point that the message can indeed be instantly and irretrievably lost, where understanding evaporates for the want of a shared vocabulary, a shared dialectic. And the mind that thought that first thought finds it falls on ears that do not, or cannot, or will not hear.

So what of the music commentator, the writer, the critic. He or she is like the town crier of music, pounding the pavement, ringing the bell:  I listened, I heard, trust my ears, this is the message I received (or didn’t receive). For the town crier is reputed to know things and can shepherd others in their quest to pick their personal shamans, their medicine men and women, as they choose those that they will seek out, those they will listen to.

Our commentators: heralding the messages that the thinkers of the thoughts, the makers of the waves cause to wash through the air.

It’s a weighty responsibility.

Indeed our commentators are also rather like apostles, who must speak truly for the ones who speak the truth as well as calling to account the false prophets, the muddled, the inept, the vain and the deluded. So let them get close, if only to find out.

The musical prophets of the past are well-known, time has allowed their message to precipitate. But the town criers need to be prophets themselves – to telescope time and see the present through the eyes of the future and the past. They are perhaps midwives to the music, midwives who need to know the lineage from which the child springs and have the power to imagine the fullness of the being that can grow from this offspring. It is they who can interpret for others if they can get close enough and truly listen and understand with their special gifts of enlightenment. But all this is too easily squandered as our most trusted may fall into traps that dilute the acuity of their powers.

Some practical and specific suggestions, made boldly and bluntly, but certainly not without humility, by one who is more commented upon than commenting.

If a critic is reviewing the first performance of a new composition they cannot fully rely on their powers to distinguish a poor performance from a poor work. In this country almost all first performances are poor due to endemic under-rehearsal and widespread lack of commitment from performers and conductors as well as economic factors. But these performances are usually good enough not to obviously bring the performers into disrepute. It is a clever sleight-of-hand – this lacklustre – but commentators should be careful in deciding to what measure it is the performers or composers who are lacking the lustre.

Don’t bother to study the score. Highly-distinguished conductors sometimes grossly misinterpret the scores of new works, so you might too. Come to the final rehearsal where you will find the composer palely loitering. Ask them if the performance that will ensue fully represents their conception, and if not, why not? Take their answer into account when you towncry otherwise you risk unfairly impugning their reputation.

There is no canon of idealised interpretations of new works so you are in a vulnerable position and the composer is in an unenviable one. Indeed if the reading is poor, it is as if a new novel were published with many key paragraphs missing. Is not the writer entitled to cry foul, especially if consequently publicly accused of incoherence?

In the world of jazz, this distinction between performance and work is not anywhere near so apparent since the work is not mediated by interpreters, rather the performance itself is appropriated as the fundament of text by the performer-composer. Jazz critics can have other hang-ups. They are so close to the cut and thrust of creation that they can sometimes claim a kind of covert ownership of the creative discourse. This can manifest as a deep, perhaps unconscious, resistance to changes of direction by the artists themselves. This has been suffered by everybody from Miles Davis down. Talk to these people, those that change their direction, and find out if this new sound, this new repertoire can still be reasonably characterised as gratuitous, thinly thought out or an out-and-out sell-out before you dub it such. Jazz reviewing mostly takes place in clubs, so as the song goes, “now’s the time”. Surprisingly, despite the informality of a jazz club, the atmosphere between critic and artist can sometimes be like that of a funeral: a nod of acknowledgement, a hushed polite word through the pall of the pallbearers.

Corner the artist at the bar and ask questions if there are seeds of doubt. You may hear something that will enlighten. No, it is not enough to just listen to the music as everybody else does. With the established canon you already bring a dialectic of understanding to your commentary that has accrued through many years, one that is generally more enhanced than that of the ordinary listener. You do not just respond to the music with a child-like blank slate, nor should you. So with the new, rush to the source while it is still alive and kicking. Be ahead of the pack in your probing.

If all this sounds like being a mouthpiece for the artist this is precisely what you should be (with certain important qualifications).

A mouthpiece to this extent: the commentator needs to fully understand the message of the artist by recognising and laying aside the distortions that are brought about by the circumstances inherent in the particular manifestation at hand (for example, performance problems in a new work). Separate it out and cut to the chase.

Further. By self-identifying and counteracting any resistance and predisposition within their own mind (a process perhaps afforded through dialogue with the artist) our commentator can hopefully set aside all prejudice.

Now our town crier has becomes a medium for the message – they “get it”, they hear what the artist is saying, no more, no less. They now stand in the same place as the artist, with the same understanding of the word at hand.

And only from this point can real commentary begin.