Music into Words – join the discussion 

In addition to the live event Music into Words which I’m hosting tonight with guest speakers Jessica Duchen, Dr Mark Berry, Mary Nguyen and Simon Brackenborough, we are hoping to generate plenty of discussion and lively debate online.

The focus of the event is writing about classical music today. It’s a very broad subject encompassing music journalism, academic writing, concert reviews and music criticism, programme notes and blogging. The Internet has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the way we write and read about classical music, and the rise of the blogger and online review has made music criticism and writing about classical music more democratic. In addition, writers and journalists mainstream have also responded to the need to engage audiences today by offering more accessible non-specialist language in programme notes, for example.

If you have views on any aspect of writing about classical music today, please feel free to join the online discussion. You can tweet your thoughts using hashtag #musicintowords to my account @crosseyedpiano or to @musintowords, or leave comments on this post. The live event is being recorded and videos of each speaker’s presentation will be available soon afterwards.

13 thoughts on “Music into Words – join the discussion ”

  1. Thanks for planning to make the recording available — look forward to listening! The big question I’m curious about is how to help lay people express their reactions to music in words in a casual way. Today people write (and Tweet) so much about TV shows, about news, about just about any topic and are often very articulate and insightful (even in 140 characters). Personally I’d love to see the same happen more with music.

  2. One of the goals of writing about classical music today should be to explain and promote music by composers of he 20th/21th century. As much of the audience is listening to classical music 200 or 300 years old, ears and brains have been educated in a certain way leading to a certain concept of aesthetics. This prevents many listeners from enjoying music written by Schönberg, Messiaen, Ligeti, Boulez, Saariaho or Rihm. I experience this regluarly in Luxembourg, when after the pause a third of the audience has left.
    This type of music needs to be explained, set into a context. Program notes are not enough, media need to engage potential listeners in every possible way, especially on social media (chats with modern composers etc.). Isn’t it weird that we prefer music whose social context we cannot possibly understand since we don’t live at the time of Monteverdi, Mozart or Schumann? Why don’t we listen to music reflecting the present time? The music is certainly no worse than anything written by Beethoven or Debussy.

    Here, journalism can make a difference. But in the occasional reviews of occasional concerts of contemporary classical music, I see experts talking in to other experts, all expressed in technical lingo. The authors seem to be driven more by their vanity to show off than by the desire to explain whatsoever and to be a mediator between composer/performer and the audience.

    Finally, if we want to have full concert halls in 50 years, music journalism has better shape up and present classical music across the centuries in an intelligible form. Journalism has made much progress in coming up with popular ways to explain science and politics – which I did years ago for a living – but the realm of culture seems to immune to any progress in this respect. Classical music will become marginalized if knowledgable authors do not transmit their knowledge to the next generations of listeners. That would be sad.

      1. No. It has lost when nobody wants to listen to it, to pay for it, to schedule it. Because then it has become irrelevant.

      2. Yes and no. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that, as I said, the more you understand it, the more enjoyable it becomes. Along with that, I’ve found that the more I have to *try* to understand or enjoy a piece, the more I enjoy it later (Scriabin, Babbitt, others).
        Even something as simple and ubiquitous as Beethoven’s fifth, I believe, gets more enjoyable and comprehensible with even a five-minute talk on things like sonata form and tonic key. If people more readily understand what they’re hearing, they’re more likely to enjoy it, and that is FAR more the case with composers like Boulez, Messiaen, Rihm, Ligeti, as mentioned above (and I add Stockhausen and Babbitt, Carter, and others).
        A common hindrance to the average person walking into a concert hall or buying an album is unfamiliarity, the misconception of classical music as being something highbrow and arcane, at least in my experience. In the past year, I’ve dragged many friends (victims?) along to the concert hall, even paid for tickets, to see everything from Haydn to Mahler, and a few operas, and a handful of those were quick converts. The more you know…

    1. I think there are a few things at play here (so much to agree with you on and talk about from this comment, but I will be brief).
      As to not living at the time of Monteverdi, Mozart, Schumann: while most people couldn’t accurately describe the artistic/musical aesthetic, or how Bach’s differed from Haydn’s differed from Beethoven, etc. and the history and culture that goes into it, it’s music that’s much more amenable to emotional responses. It’s easy for people to ‘comprehend’ or process in a “this is so beautiful” or “sad” or “happy” or “free” way, etc. and it’s easy for them to make an emotional connection to it. Historically accurate or not, that is (oftentimes) a positive response, and I’d be happy with it; it can be the beginning of a passion if properly nurtured.
      In contrast there is, for example, the Darmstadt school, which I myself have struggled to appreciate, to be honest. My method of coping with this has been intellectual, or else academic: reading theory books, analyses, etc., because the music is much more difficult to process in the ways we’re used to processing really everything else.
      Similar but incredibly different from the Darmstadt School would be Milton Babbitt, a composer I’ve spent lots of time reading about and sort of ‘investigating,’ even had a long, delightful chat with his daughter. Paul Zukofsky told me that it is *not* necessary to understand Babbitt’s music to enjoy it. I find much of his later work incredibly difficult to read about, but some things, like the sixth string quartet, I just find striking to begin with.
      I would perhaps say rather than journalism, it’s PR, even marketing. Babbitt especially got a bad rap as a complicated sort of mad scientist of math music, but it’s really beautiful. Expectations and preconceived notions can be good or bad. Listening to Berio or Nono can be a wonderful experience, unless you walk in wanting Mozart. This topic interests me, because I’m still working to digest a lot of modern music. Thank you for your thoughts!

      1. Here is the way I look at it: With music written between 1750 and 1900, the common audience knows what to look out for: melodies, harmony, illustrative Programmmusik. If the listener finds any of these elements, he is happy. He recognizes what he has always liked and he likes this because he recognizes it. For him, this is what classical music should sound like. Anything else like serialism, 12 tone music etc. is new and suspect.

        Anyone writing about music should make an effort to explain the landmarks of a specific piece. As soon as the listener moves into unchartered waters, he needs a guide saying: The composer used this instrument in that part of the score because… This series of sounds is supposed to express… but you are free to interprete it in your own way. Which leads us to another point: meaning. Contemporary classical music is open to interpretation by the listener, much more than symphonic poems or sinfonies which at least have titles. Sometimes. 🙂 But freedom of interpretation can mean a burden. It asks for an intellectual effort. Many go to a concert to enjoy, not to think. Writing on music can help the listener to share the burden with a guide. But the guide needs to speak the language of the listener, otherwise he is of little use.

        I needed to listen 10 to 12 times to a piece by Ligeti like “Lontano” to identify structural elements and to appreciate the piece from an “intellectual” point of view. In a concert, the listeners hears the piece once. If he doesn’t grasp its essence immediately, he is lost and will not come back.

        Now for the emotional part, that is more difficult. I confess, the Neue Musik is intellectually stimulating for me because I am interested in music in general, but most of the pieces I cannot enjoy. They do not move me. Emotional value zero.

        Which leads to another thorny issue: What is the purpose of contemporary classical music? To be performed, to be sold as CDs, downloads and streaming data and to make the composer earn a living? Than it needs to please. Or is just to satisfy the legitimate need of the composer to express himself? Then the composer cannot blame the audience not to appreciate the message if he fails tonexplain the message.

        Mozart had understood all that quickly after he had moved from Salzburg to Vienna. “To be applauded, you need to write pieces simple enough to bevwhistled by a coachdriver.”

        L’art pour l’art? That rarely worked and will not work today. Otherwise most composer would not have spent so much time giving piano and violin lessons. If contemporary classical music wants to be relevant outside the small circle of insiders, it needs go-betweens. Would be a nice composition theme for future composition students: “Between two worlds”.

      2. I am puzzled why we all try to distinguish between new and old as if they occupy different functions? It is all music, and its function or purpose is communication, when it fails to do that, then it fails to do that whatever ‘style’ it is. Using audience ignorance as a reason is ivory tower thinking and and excuses the composer for his failure. Admittedly some connections take longer than others, but some ‘neue music’ is nearly 100 years old, how much longer do you expect the audience to listen before you own up to its falsity?

      3. Two things come to mind here.
        Firstly is the late and extremely talented/influential Pierre Boulez. I love his recordings of much of the repertoire (Bartok, Mahler, Stravinsky, Ravel), but his own ideas on music (emotion has no place in art, the last however many centuries of art should be destroyed, etc.) is radical to say the least. The Darmstadt school had some very clear reasons for proceeding in the way they did, and yes, it’s all music, but as for different functions… that’s almost true. It is art written to elicit a different response (I would say) than Chopin, Mozart, Scriabin, etc. in terms that are very unfamiliar (not incomprehensible, just unfamiliar) to most audiences.
        Second, Babbitt’s infamous “Who Cares if You Listen”, which he originally titled “The Composer as Specialist,” in which he basically says you wouldn’t complain about the quality or content of a lecture if you walked into a high-level mathematics class with no understanding of basic maths. It’s not a reflection on the audience or the lecturer, but the subject matter is just not something you’re familiar with. He was no elitist, and that’s not ‘ivory tower’ thinking; it’s simply that he wrote incredibly complex music that most people need a background in music (and repeated listenings and maybe a score and a thesis) if they are really to understand it. I have no problem with that.
        It’s adventurous and new in the same way that Schoenberg and his crew were 100 years ago, and they’re still not universally appreciated.
        Music from Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, etc., while obviously having some similarities, is overall (to the average listener) fundamentally different from anything even 50 years before, and it, too, will take time to digest.

      4. It is paradoxically a simple exercise to concoct a complex musical system that defies auditory comprehension over a few listens: also it is true that repeated listens to almost anything (machinery) will imbue a sense of knowledge or understanding, even provoke an emotional response. Truly great artists take everyday ‘ordinary’ languages and instruments, and do extraordinary things with them to create world views that express the previously inexpressible to everyman. A truly great composer does not need a new language, he/she can work with whatever resources are necessary or available. Complexity is a chimera, a method deployed by some to hide a failure of true imagination – what sets the ‘pre- or Non-Darmstadt’ composers apart from the ‘Neue’ brigade is their undoubted ability to work within the system provided with no ‘recourse’ to new languages contrived and devised to render music ‘elitist’. For the audience it acted as an encouragement to follow the composer on their journey because they understood from where it began – for Babbitt, Stockhausen etal, it was merely an assembly of musical particles designed to baffle and silence – and, on this basis it succeeeded, making 50 years of music entirely worthless to many who simply did not share their thinking – and still, even amid this deafening silence, we hang on their every word?

  3. I’ve been writing about classical music for almost as long as I’ve been listening to it. As very much an outsider, it’s become something I have derived an outstanding amount of joy from, studying, composing, performing, because it’s a reflection of life, of the human experience. While so many things in life have changed in the hundreds of years that separate us from J.S. Bach and his cello suites (as an example, since I was listening to a few of them today), they still have an emotional impact on me as a listener today, even though all I can do is read the music. I am not a performer, nor can I speak intelligently about the musical/technical reasons they (or anything from Mozart and Mahler to Bach and Babbitt) are so magical. It is art, and you don’t have to be a professional to enjoy it; you only have to be human. And, as with many things, the more you understand it, the more enjoyable it becomes.

  4. I was very impressed with Gillian Muir’s ‘soapbox’ contribution to Music Matters on Saturday: She opined that more discussion of how the music is put together would be appreciated rather than ‘airport novel’ descriptions of how one will be made to feel upon hearing the music – surely a thing for the listener to decide for him/herself. Most people seem to appreciate technical insights into, say, art, literature etc. (and certainly about science and nature) but one is often steered away from this in the world of words about music. I think it’s a great mistake and short-changes the listener.

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