Why the Detritus?

I enjoy Anne Midgette’s articles. She’s thoughtful. She’s articulate. She’s eloquent even—a nice fit with the venerable Washington Post. But today...

Somebody forgot to tell the violinist Hilary Hahn that Schoenberg is ugly.

This is, by far, the most disappointing thing I’ve ever read from a respectable, industrious, (how about) progressive critic. More importantly—because after all that was only my opinion—she crossed the boundary between impartiality and partiality. “Schoenberg is ugly” is declarative in the worst, most biased sense. This is something we expect from others, but not our Anne!

And now for something completely different:

The music of Arnold Schoenberg, of course, isn't ugly at all;

How can this be? She just said, “Schoenberg IS ugly.” I don’t get it. What kind of twisted negative rhetorical device is this?

(loud, pissed-off sigh)

Sorry. Well, I’m not sorry. No one gets to have it both ways. Either Schoenberg is or he isn’t. So, Anne, choose the form of the destructor.

in fact, he's one of the last of the romantics.

Let me understand this correctly. Schoenberg isn’t ugly, BECAUSE he’s a romantic composer; if he were a modernist, he’d be ugly. Is that really the direction you want to take this, Anne?



Her new recording of the Schoenberg Violin Concerto on Deutsche Grammophon, released last month, shows no traces of the spiky, unpleasant angularity that represents Schoenberg in the popular consciousness.

You, Anne, and all critics are the everyday opinion-molders of the popular consciousness. Thus, Schoenberg’s reputation is your doing. You are the one(s) responsible for his unpleasantness. They are your descriptors.

I mean, listen, really listen, to what this says:

Both musicians [Esa-Pekka Salonen and Hahn] are smart enough not to get tied in knots by Schoenberg's score, and to see through it to the composer's inner romantic.

It says that the conductor and violinist smartly mined romanticism out of Schoenberg’s otherwise ugly, difficult, spiky, unpleasantly angular, dense, clotted, ferocious piece (all adjectives found previously within the article).

Do you now see how Schoenberg and modernism get their reputations? Reviews like this, which say, “Despite Schoenberg, the music is beautiful, because of the performers.” What kind of dismissive, backhanded logic forgets that the composer put those sounds, those romantic, angular notes, onto paper and not the performers? Apparently articles like these:

To sweeten the pill for non-initiates, Hahn pairs Schoenberg with Sibelius [...]

I am truly disgusted and disappointed, today. But, then again, this is why we are here: to defend good writing and trash the bad.

(By the way, I didn’t say “fuck” once, but I wanted to. Congrats Empiricus! Thank you.)


AnthonyS said...

I wish critics wouldn't get "tied in knots" about Schoenberg. It seems like she genuinely WANTS to be progressive and interested and supportive of the Schoenberg, but just doens't know how to do it without injecting the same music criticism biased tropes. Perhaps if there were better models...

Txyeni: a starchy legume, cultivated over 2,000 years ago by the inhabitants of present-day Chiapas

Murderface said...

You'd think such a canard would be beneath even Midgette's stature.

/dodges pun brick.

YBDOZJLS: The #1 selling toy for Christmas 1986 in Czechoslovakia. Constructed of equal parts hay, mud, and glass shards.

Anonymous said...

I think you misinterpreted what Anne meant. She was actually poking fun at all critics who call Schoenberg's music ugly by saying that Schoenberg himself is an ugly person. It was all in good fun. She then explained herself(she probably could of been more explicit) by saying that Schoenberg might be ugly but his music certainly isnt. Hope this clears things up for you. :)

Empiricus said...

One problem anonymous (and thanks for your thoughts), is that she describes the Schoenberg Concerto as (okay, maybe not ugly, but) difficult (playing-wise), spiky, unpleasantly angular, dense, clotted (the secondary noun meaning: a foolish, clumsy person), ferocious and, finally, a pill, all of which are so incredibly negatively charged that regardless of her "ugly" pun, the picture is painted in anti-modernist (it's a new crayola color). I'm not saying this was at all intentional on Anne's part (or any critic for that matter), but this is the kind of imagery that is...well, two things, either irresponsibly lazy or purposefully venomous. I prefer to give her the benefit of the doubt and hope that it's the former. But, It's so prevalent in critics' reviews (do an NY Times archive search, pick six random reviews each from a different decade, you'll see what I mean)that these very descriptors have achieved a sort of cultural Gestalt. The adjectives, in other words, precede the piece, not the other way around. Therefore, it's easy to fall into the automatic description mode without realizing it.

An uncle of mine, who is genuinely interested in new music but doesn't know much beyond what he reads in the papers, once asked me about Wozzeck. "What was twelve-tone about that?" he said.

I know this doesn't clarify anything, but I tried.

Thanks again for your participation, anonymous.

Sator Arepo said...

Anonymous may be correct, but the gentle ribbing did not translate in the article in question. I guess the latent state of modernist criticism is so bad that we assume the worst. I can see anon's point, though.

EGHZZ: Eggs.

Empiricus said...

I forgot to mention that we generally don't approve of the lionization of historical periods (as Anne does to romanticism), especially in ephemeral, temporal-dependent mediums.

Family Guy quote: "No way, man. The Bronze Age was totally better than the Stone Age."

Anonymous said...

I think Empiricus is making some excellent points in this discussion. The problem with reviewing Schoenberg, and his modernist ideological cohorts, is everyone seems to feel the need to throw in their two cents on why his music elicits such strong reactions. And the easiest thing to do is rely on these overused and cliched descriptors.

It's not that they're inappropriate, but they are increasingly becoming loaded terms (and as Empiricus points out, elude to a long history of attacks and backhanded undermining of dissonated music), and it would probably be to the benefit of any writer to be aware of the intended and unintended affects of their word choices.

Okay, I shit you not:
DTRRTSZ: A snarky, sarcastic, short-tempered blog written by the Statler and Waldorf of music criticism

Anonymous said...

elude = allude

Fucking editing.

Kthriib: The best part of the Kthy. A delicacy in most parts of Petoria.

AnthonyS said...

Nice Muppet reference.

AillumJ: unsucessful hip hop artist in Grand Rapids, Michigan; currently manages a small recording studio and works as a desk clerk at a local Motel 6.

anzu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anzu said...

(Let's try this again, with Schoenberg properly spelled this time. . ..)

Two comments--
First, I had a very different reading of this, like anonymous. I think the tone is less pejorative towards Schoenberg and more so towards the writer's perceived Schoenberg non-initiates as she calls them and Hilary Hahn. I think most or all of the negative references to Schoenberg are not direct opinions of the author, but more "it can sound x" or "people think of Schoenberg as y" sort of deals. e.g. she says "can make the piece sound clotted, but on the recording it sings." That's not the same thing as the author saying "Schoenberg's Concerto sounds clotted." Same can be said of spiky and the other negative attributes. She says, ". . .shows no traces of the spiky, unpleasant angularity that represents Schoenberg in the popular consciousness." (Italics mine) This doesn't sound like the author herself is saying "Schoenberg sounds unpleasant."

However, what I do have a problem with is that attitude--she's presuming that others less keen? knowledgeable? more philistine? than her will think Schoenberg is spiky, angular, etc.

Also, I'm not a fan of Hilary Hahn, but I really don't like when critics make annoying useless comments like, "her playing is usually woody and hollow, but in this recording, she's da bomb." 1. If you don't think much of her, fine, but don't taint an otherwise good review (of her playing) with projections of other recordings. 2. If she sounded empty and hollow in another recording, then fine, mention that when you review that particular recording, but this is really unfair to Hahn. 3. The negative comments directed at her are really vicious. I can't really tell if this is an appraisal or criticism of her.

Ok, that was my long first comment.

Second comment: since you guys are in the business of critiquing bad writing, I would like to ask-- why is it "musics' ivory tower"? Since music is uncountable, shouldn't the possessive form be music's, plural or otherwise? I haven't actually looked it up, but does the form "musics" exist?

anzu said...

Btw, I don't mean to keep stealing posts from you and using them as ideas for my own blog, but sometimes, if I have longer comments, and I'm seething over something I read, (as I did today) I feel like I should post a condensed comment in the comments section and then ramble in my own space, rather than write a blog-length comment in your comments section.

Still, I feel like I should post original things. . .

Anyway, I do attribute where I got the fodder for the post from, but if you want me to stop swiping your ideas, please say so.

Sator Arepo said...


Thanks for the editing on the header, I've fixed it. Buh. Talk about ironic...

Anyway. First, I understand your point of view on the article. If one reads it from that perspective it is far less objectionable, although (as you intimate) the tone and inherent backlash still exist.

Second, I for one don't care if you use us for inspiration. I think that's great. It means we're not just fucking talking to trees, here.


Tom Strini said...

She's a little too roundabout in saying, but I think Midgette's bottom line, in most minimal form, is this: Schoenberg sounds pretty good, if you play him right. Hahn does.--Strini

Empiricus said...

I certainly admit that these are all good points and that they are probably right. In fact, I believe they ARE right; Hahn plays the Schoenberg well and Anne thinks they both sound pretty good.

However--and this a big however, because writing about music is a difficult endeavor--HOWEVER, I still think that there is something missing in Anne's language. What that something is is a momentary memory lapse of critical imagery, i.e., given the entire body of Schoenberg descriptors over the years, those she used (albeit in jest) fall into the same negative tone of those who dislike Schoenberg's music. This is what caught my eye in the first place. But, that isn't bad in itself, because, hey, she is entitled to her opinion (which I got wrong, apparently).

What I find off-putting about Anne's word choices is that they are so very cliche, by now, that they are appropriate only for Schoenberg and/or modernism, further reinforcing the already negative, critic-judged stereotypes. He should be, in my opinion, as matter of fact, as canonized as Beethoven. And we wouldn't dare say anything like that about Beethoven.

Test drive and compare these statements:

1) The music of Schoenberg, of course, isn't ugly at all; in fact, he's one of the last of the romantics.

2) The music of Beethoven, of course, isn't beautiful at all; in fact, he only pointed toward romanticism.

I find the last clause of each to be the most interesting. Was it Anne's intension (exmaple 1) to lionize romanticism, as we did with Beethoven? Or was it her intention to make a fairly abstract (though, true) association that may "connect," or mitigate modernism, with the average concertgoer/reader?

Either way, statements like that, I believe, are logically lazy--they reinforce negative stereotypes. Besides, if she were really down with the Schoenberg (that is what the kids say today, right?), I don't see any reason to play with or against the common perception; just review it as if it's simply a part of musical history, a part of the canon, which is where I think she wants to place the Violin Concerto.

The sooner we can accept what happened as a necessary and important step in the evolution of musical thinking, look at it with fresh eyes and place it where it belongs (i.e., not in a wheelchair), the better.

Good dialog, guys and gals.

Empiricus said...

I meant to say that the "momentary memory lapse of critical imagery" is what happened, not what was missing.

Q: Why did Schoenberg cross the road?

A: Because he thought he had to.