The Criticism of Contemporary Music

The Criticism of Contemporary Music

Are there any objective standards by we can judge music or is it all a matter of individual taste?

Individual taste
I would like to continue the debate begun by Roger Doyle (‘An Ideal Critic’), Barra Ó Séaghdha (‘Look Who’s Talking!’) and Ian Fox (Letters) in the JMI by posing the following scenario: Two people leave the concert hall having just heard a world premiere. One of them says, ‘That was a wonderful piece’, the other replies, ‘No, I’m afraid that was musical rubbish.’ The question arises, is there any basis for resolving the difference of opinion? All of us are music critics in that we have opinions about what we have heard. The discussion that begins after the concert raises several important questions, not least whether either of the protagonists is right? And if so, by what criteria is the decision arrived at?

The least helpful, if most common, response to the debate is to say, ‘Well it’s all a matter of individual taste.’ If this view was correct, then of course, there is no point discussing the music. As Immanuel Kant observed: ‘We cannot say that each man has his own particular taste, for that would be as much as to say that there is no taste whatever, that is, no aesthetic judgement which can make a rightful claim on everyone’s assent.’

At the opposite pole is the belief that there is an absolute standard against which music can be assessed. Plato, for example, would have no difficulty in resolving the argument. For him the goal of music is the love of beauty, rightness and healthfulness. The ideal Republic would ban sorrowful or relaxing music leaving only ‘the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve.’ For Plato many-stringed instruments and flutes are not required in order to play this heartening manly music, as such they should be banned.

Western thought
Such conservative, reactionary, ideas about the assessment of music would be laughable, except that they have entered the mainstream of Western thought. Ruling elites throughout history have assessed music precisely by its function. For centuries the medieval music world was dominated by the idea that the purpose of music was to express the geometric perfection of the divine. Both the social realism supported by Stalin and the campaign against degeneracy by Hitler attempted to suppress modernist developments in music.

So Plato’s outlook needs to be taken seriously, although it can be rejected easily enough. The apparently objective nature of his argument dissolves when the assumption that music serves a moral purpose is challenged. Some music is indeed programmatic and can therefore be assessed at least in part as to how successfully it fulfils its aims. But even the programmatic musical experience runs for deeper than at the level of its immediate political message. This is how, for example, Shostakovich could overtly pay homage to the glorious social system under which he lived – fooling the critics – while moving audiences to tears with the sincere moments of sorrow and horror expressed in his work.

Aristotle better understood the divergent levels at which music operated, and offered, in addition to Plato’s character formingpurpose, the view that music also was a remedy for pain caused by toil, provided entertainment at social gatherings and gladdened the heart. These observations weaken Plato’s position by offering alternative criteria for assessing music. But Aristotle retains the teleological method of measuring music against its purpose – only now introducing several purposes. But music need not serve an end at all. It can, and generally does, arise from deeply rooted creative human impulses, which are only later harnessed to goals such as earning a living or pleasing audiences. It is a perfectly valid answer for an artist to reply to the question ‘Why did you create this work?’ By replying ‘Because I am human’.

As an aside, before leaving Aristotle, it is interesting to note his observation that audiences ‘are one of two kinds – free and educated, and the other a vulgar crowd composed of mechanics, labourers and the like – and the music will correspond to their minds; for as their minds are perverted from the natural state, so there are perverted modes and highly strung and unnaturally coloured melodies.’ He has a point, although not in the way in which he intended. Musical experimentation and innovation has often been associated with the lower social orders.

Objective standards
So, to say that music can be measured against the purpose for which it serves is an insufficient criterion for assessing music. Does this mean that there are no objective standards to which we can appeal?

Very many reviewers, and this is particularly true in Ireland, concentrate on technical comments. This is understandable. It avoids the issue of the taste of the reviewer and it is perfectly, scientifically almost, objective. You can sit with the score on your lap and assess how exactly the performance matches the composition. The problem is of course, this approach does not get you very far. The performance might be immaculate, but if the orchestra were playing ‘Baa Baa Blacksheep’ they would hardly be using their artistic potential to the full. Our two protagonists leaving the concert can agree very quickly on the standard of performance, what they want to resolve however is whether the music was any good.

Another attempt to retain objective measurements with regard to music is to look to the physical relationship of sound to the human being, because for all that the musical experience feels like a spiritual one, it is rooted in the vibration of the air and its effects on the human body. Again this aspect of music rarely advances the argument very much. The physical and cerebral levels of music are connected, but they are nonetheless very different. Trying to assess music by studying vibrations and the ear is like trying to assess literature by examining ink, paper and typeface.

So we have two propositions: (A) To say music is a matter of taste gets us nowhere, or (B) There are no objective methods of assessing music. Taken together, it seems that we are stymied.

However, Immanuel Kant offered a way forward when considering exactly this contradiction. For him the existence of these contradictory statements about music was evidence that there existed a higher level from which these statements only appeared to be opposites; in the same sense for example that considering light to consist of waves or particles leads to contraction. It is both and neither. Kant concluded that there must be a supersensible transcendent beauty that approached by our intellectual faculty resolved the opposition. While the feelings of pleasure that we experience from music are subjective, the objective existence of beauty means that all people can find satisfaction in the music. Music gives subjective aesthetical experiences which being personal give no grounds for debate, and at the same time its beauty is objective, existing in a transcendent manner.

On first reading, it seems as though the philosophy of the enlightenment has broken through the sterile, monolithic aesthetics of the ancient philosophers. We are back on track with an exciting, dialectical theory of music. But there is a problem, Kant’s transcendent beauty turns out to be a logical category and nothing with physical existence. It is ‘supersensible’ and by definition cannot be investigated. In other words, it is a concept (more than a bit like that of God in Kant’s system) that cannot act as a guide to composer or audience.

At least Kant introduces the idea that there is a dialectical interaction between subjective and objective aspects of music. The next step is that of finding a dialogue which is more material than Kant’s rather mystical, if fine sounding, transcendent beauty.

While our taste appears to be our own, at the same time, human beings are social animals. We share languages, the times we live in, schooling, the experience of world events, of shopping, of TV programs. Our personalities are unique, but the cultural forces that helped shape them are shared. This shared culture gives us a medium and a context for discussing musical experience in a genuinely useful way.

Suppose one of our proponents believes, as someone recently argued with me, that the highest form of musical excellence is the work of Mozart, and music has been downhill since then. This is a plausible argument – it is pretty much the line taken in the Concise Oxford History of Music. It also dovetails with the literary argument that there was a turning point in the history of the novel (about a century later) and it has been downhill ever since.

Now at this point anyone who loves contemporary music would have to roll up their sleeves and start fighting, but with what weapons? We have agreed that the experience of pleasure is a subjective one, so we cannot belittle our opponent’s deep spiritual responses to the music of Mozart. Nor would we want to do so – it is unlikely that anyone who has not become familiar with Mozart and responded powerfully to his music would go on to find even stronger resonance’s in Ligeti say.

Common culture
Our tools have to be those points of contact we share through our common culture. In general, the argument for modern music would rest on the same features of the world that champions of modernism in art and literature would also refer to.

The world we live in is a modern one, for good or ill. We are surrounded by sounds that would seem incredible to someone living in Mozart’s day. Aeroplanes, drills, heavy machinery making noise at the lower end of the scale, high pitched drones from electrical equipment, whining, the screech of vehicles at the other. Living surrounded by these sounds means our musical needs must change. Furthermore, socially we live in an extraordinarily fast moving world, with enormous cities, mass communication, swift travel. An inchoate babbling world, full of wonderful possibilities and at the same time utter misery and alienation.

It is understandable that someone might deliberately try to keep this world at bay by trying to limit the impact on them of the art that has arisen from it. Understandable, but as mistaken as those members of the audience who in 1913 rioted in anger at the performances of The Rite of Spring, or who found cubism undecipherable and Ulysses unreadable. Modernism in art was a conscious challenge to romanticism, and thankfully it broke through. Otherwise we would be shying away from important aspects of our own beings, aspects that have been shaped by forces that did not exist in Mozart’s day. To someone arguing that it has been downhill for music since Mozart, the main response is that this belief is cutting themselves off from extraordinary musical experiences that relate to a much more complex, dangerous and yet thrilling part of our personalities. Ligeti, for example, is not better or worse than Mozart, by some Platonic or even Kantian ideal. But he is a great composer living in our times and has all the technical and compositional tools at his disposal that have evolved in the intervening period. That means that for those aspects of our lives that are not universal but are features of the last two hundred years, Ligeti strikes deeper than Mozart.

Gloves off?
So, am I heading towards a conclusion that Roger Doyle in his initial letter was right, that a music critic should be a polemicist, hitting out with ‘the gloves off’? Actually, I would be much more in agreement with the view expressed by Ian Fox. Albeit for slightly different reasons; in the main the argument has moved on considerably since modernism had to fight its way into people’s consciousness. There are no currents in music that need defending in the same way as the early modernists, the serialists or even the minimalists did. In fact the greatest enemy of contemporary music is apathy. Apathy that is socially constructed by the tendency of the market to be conservative and of audiences to be tired.

In preparing for this article I have been asking people in conversation can they name any Irish composers – alas in the main they cannot. If criticism in the JMI takes sides within a small Irish contemporary music scene, it will rapidly sound like a shrill religious sect. There are policy issues that can be fought for with regard to the Government, the Arts Council, and so on. And events like the RTÉ Living Music Festival, the 2nd Viennese School Weekend, and the upcoming Up North! festival to be championed enthusiastically. But in terms of appraising concerts, I feel it is right to tread carefully. If it was 1913 in France, the gloves would be off and I would be in the thick of things dealing blows on behalf of Stravinsky. But it is 2002 in Ireland.

Audiences for contemporary music
Of course criticisms should be raised, I encouraged some friends to attend the 29 January NSO performance of Ligeti’s Lontano on the basis of the kind of arguments for modern music made above, and it is important to say that the orchestra and conductor failed us that day, because otherwise people will not come back for more. But in the context of trying to increase an audience for contemporary music, the overall tone of criticism surely has to be favourable to new music? This is particularly true for works previously unheard, such as unrecorded pieces or world premiers. How often have you gained enthusiasm for a piece because you have been won over to it after repeated listening and perhaps argument? It would be very rash to firmly plant a banner and say, ‘Here I stand and I can do no other’, on a piece that you have only heard once. In fact, some pieces, by their complexity or intensity, or playful geometry are inevitably not going to be grasped at once.

Unfortunately, philosophy can only provide a methodological approach to assessing new music. To actually write a review involves a certain flexibility, discussion and if the critic is lucky they will have accurately understood features of the music that have resonance’s for the audience who were there, and indeed those who were not present but through the description gain some insight into the music from the concert. And it is by those features and their connections to the social world that we share that a critic should be able to offer an opinion that is not entirely arbitrary.

Visit The Journal of Music’s reviews section.

Published on 1 November 2002

Conor Kostick is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Revolution in Ireland (1996) and, with Lorcan Collins, The Easter Rising (2000).

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