Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Sounds Like It Sounds Great!

In my last post, I wondered if Alex Ross sometimes manages to make the music he writes about sound better in prose that it actually sounds in sound. In fairness, if he's wanting people to seek out the music he's writing about, it makes sense that he'd accentuate the positive. I know when I write program notes, I try to downplay whatever faults a work may have on the theory that the program notes are designed to get people to listen eagerly - I had a student recently submit some program notes that were sufficiently critical about one set of songs as to make me wonder why she'd chosen them. Why put the audience in the position of wondering why you're making them listen?

I recently posted some notes I wrote for the Faure Requiem and the New World Symphony. If you read between the lines, you might deduce that I think the last two movements of the Requiem are the weakest ones, but I purposely chose not to make a point of that. I also left clues that maybe the last movement of the Dvorak could use some tightening, but again, why set the audience up to look for flaws? People should be left on their own to determine what they don't like. They're good at that.

A book like Ross's is a bit of a different story since it has a more naturally critical perspective; still, although he's openly skeptical of the mythologizing that surrounds certain composers, you'll rarely find him describing a passage of music that he finds ineffective. The book thus sits somewhere between being objective history and subjective advocacy - nothing wrong with that. One of the challenges I always face teaching music history is dealing with works in the textbook/anthology that I don't find particularly effective. I think it can be bad teaching to pretend that dull music is fascinating, since it can make the student feel stupid for not being fascinated; on the other hand, I know that sometimes students take to certain works more enthusiastically than I do, and I'd never want to discourage that (unless they take a liking to that Haydn fellow).

And speaking of writing about what music sounds like, I was amused to see Matthew Guerrieri rhapsodizing about a piece he'd never heard. He writes that "[Harriet] Padberg's 'Canon and Free Fugue' sounds like one of the coolest pieces of all time." This praise (somewhat exaggerated for effect, no doubt) is for a highly experimental, partly computer-generated work that uses unusual microtones and unpredictable means of generating pitches - how could one begin to imagine what it sounds like, except in the most general sense? Padberg's work may fall into that big category of ideas that sound good on paper, but paper won't play in my CD player.

But perhaps it will sound like I don't know what I'm talking about . . . which is curious, because I'm not talking or otherwise making any more sound than the clicking of my fingers on the keyboard. And it's not a piano keyboard, so it sounds like I might need to get back to work.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

Hmm...well, you've got me and Ken Woods (as far as I can tell) as part of the great Haydn conspiracy. That's ok...I still like your blog. ;-)