Critic in Wonderland

(With apologies to Lewis Carroll)

I hardly know where to begin, so let's

"Begin at the beginning" the King said very gravely, "and go on until you come to the end: then stop."
Even the title makes me think that my friend went to the good concert, while I was stuck with:

Marko Feri offers new classical guitar music that's full of personality

You would characterize Marko Feri’s solo guitar concert Thursday as classical.

No. No, you would characterize it thusly, apparently, and just did. And whatever I may have thought you meant by "classical" will be absolutely goddamn unclear by the end of this review.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I chose it to mean - neither more nor less."
But pieces by four living composers owed a huge debt to jazz, pop, folk, even rock — contemporary influences heartily embraced by today’s guitarists and composers.

So clever: begin with a vague assertion ("classical!"), move on, in one grand sweep, to destroy all of the genre boundries that have been plaguing Western music for, oh, a couple of centuries or so. Plus: we're all friends here, "even rock" - right?

So: it was classical, but not really. But it was, sort of. But it was, you know, friendly; comfortable. But it was serious, though:

Each piece on the program at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was serious and intelligently presented by Feri, a Slovenian who lives and teaches in Italy.

It was intelligent, and played by a Real European!* Golly! Maybe it was classical after all?

"Then you should say what you mean," the March Hare went on. "I do," Alice hastily replied; "at least - at least I mean what I say - that's the same thing, you know."

The next paragraph is my favorite.

Three of the works are sonatas and the fourth a theme and variations — epitomes of classical forms.

First, as almost an aside: "are"? What happened to the tense? Ach, so.


'Theme and variations' is not a form, it's more like a description, like 'pet store.' It gives some inkling of what kinds of things could be in it, but not really. Also, through no fault of the reviewer, "Sonata" has ceased to mean anything like "sonata" and instead often just means something like "longish, possibly multi-movement piece" which is pretty vague.

However, these objections to the argument "You would have called it classical--but! Gotcha!" are pretty trivial compared to:

But the sound and feel of the music was pop...

Wait wait wait.

Although the music...was (sort of) classical...the sound of the music was pop?

The sound of the music?

"Curiouser and curiouser."
Which part of the music wasn't the sound? Was it the "feel" which was also "pop"?

But the sound and feel of the music was pop, its coherence conveyed through comfortable chord changes and rippling, repeated "licks" familiar to any jazz player or garage-band rocker.

Uh. The...level of repetition was "pop"? Is Reich pop? Do uncomfortable chord changes give one a musical wedgie? Also, putting "licks" in scare quotes merits demerits.

Dissonant "outside" notes brightened the colors and sharpened the musical poetry.

Oh good christ. Someone please explain what dissonance is and/or does so we don't have to sit through this tripe? As if there were no dissonances in Mozart. Or Machaut. Or whatever.

Because, look: Dissonance was introduced simultaneously by Schoenberg and "Jazz" in the 1920s, when people were too distracted by flappers to notice until it was too late.

Under Feri’s sensitive fingers, liveliness prevailed; he charged moody introspection with lovely stillness.

That sentence is utterly meaningless: it describes basically nothing, and does not advance the argument one way or the other.

Which, admittedly, might be difficult at this point: It was classical music, but not. But really, it sort of was. Or was it? Kind of, in some ways. Except how it sounded.

Sonata by Giorgio Tortora of Italy began the program and was dedicated to Feri’s daughter. Composer and performer are friends; a familiarity of spirit was conveyed in the easy grace of Feri’s playing.

This description serves to debunk the idea that, although the work is dedicated to the guitarist's daughter, the guitarist and composer do not know one another.

"It's as large as life, and twice as natural!"

Libra Sonatine by Roland Dyens of France began jazzy, went into a slow, soulful largo and concluded con fuoco, which included tangy bends that hinted at slide guitar.

This pretty much describes Dvořák's 9th. Except I guess for the "tangy" bends. How I hate that description: it makes it seem as if they're unimportant, decorative, superficial. Perhaps, instead, they're somehow related to the "sound" of the "music"?

In Variations on a Theme of Django Reinhardt by Leo Brouwer of Cuba — the most renowned composer on the program — Feri brought delicate but decisive machinations to the patterns of the wistful melody.


The four-part Jazz Sonata by Dusan Bogdanovi of Serbia had the pleasing pulse and comfortable chord changes...

Really? Liked "comfortable chord changes" so much as to use it twice in a 300-word review, huh? I guess the editor was asleep that day.

"It's a poor sort of memory that works only backwards."

...of jazz and world music — including a gorgeous ballad, a jig and a fast, happy reel.

I also hate the term "world music," largely because it tells me nothing. Thorough-composed music, apparently, is not of this world. Dun dun dunnn!

Here was music full of invention and personality, new classical music that connected with listeners as easily as the tango and the torch song, which Feri played as encores.

Ah. So, the point was that new classical music can appeal to audiences as long as it borrows from the "comfortable" idioms of jazz and "world" and pop musics?


It's okay if it is "classical" as long as the sound of the music is "pop."


When you are describing

A shape, or sound, or tint;

Don't state the matter plainly,

But put it in a hint;

And learn to look at all things

With a sort of mental squint.

Figure 1: Lewis Carroll. Or, as his friends called him, "Sarcastic McWordy"

*A Slovenian who lives and teaches in Italy is sort of like a Rhode Islander who lives and teaches in Boston.


Empiricus said...

"Pleasing pulses" is...

Well, I could say that Ferneyhough has pleasing pulses, i.e. andantes, largos and what have you. But that phrase just doesn't mean anything, unless for some reason allegro vivaces cause one to convulse, which I'm pretty sure they don't.

Nice Lewis Carroll references!

Sator Arepo said...

Goddamn formatting problems.

AnthonyS said...

Hilarious stuff.

Not sure that I agree that Theme and Variations isn't a form, though. It seems to me that Beethoven took it very serious as a form, devoting movements of several piano sonatas and such to them. I'm not sure another large form label really works for any of them. Or are you referring to it not being a form in criticspeak? Perhaps I'm just not understanding what you are saying.

Sator Arepo said...


I guess I'm saying it's not a "form" in that it doesn't have any formal functions. The name describes what it "is" in a way, I guess, but not what it "does"--because it doesn't *do* anything (formally).

In a way, I could see it as a proto-cubist sort of form, showing latent possibilities in a theme, but that seems perscriptive. Too often it seems like a page from a sketchbook or something.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But it's almost like a fantasia (on themes of blah-de-blah), which again is a name for a kind of piece but not a formal form, if you will.

Gustav said...

A few things:
1) The Carroll quotes are simply amazing.

2)"...new music that's full of personality" -- is he trying to say the music was fat and probably ugly?

C) Is Reich pop? yes. Much more popular than babbitt or carter. Is it a coincidence that the most popular composers of the past 40 years (Glass, Reich, Adams, Corigliano, Williams) all write in neo-romantic, tonal styles? Or, with glass, reich and early Adams, repetitive forms that often utilize "pop" chord progressions?

4) I agree with Sir AnthonyS, Theme and Variations is a form. I understand the objections you're making SA, but it does have formal parts...one being the statement of the theme, and rest being variations. Simply put, it's an A A' A'' A''' A''''' A'''''' A''''''', etc., form. Even if modern interpretations of that form have difficult to dissect boundaries (much like modern sonatas), they ostensibly still exist.

V) Also, not to harp, but I think the attacks on words like "sound" and "feel" may be inappropriate here. Music is still largely an emotional experience and "feel" is how we talk about emotion. However, these words can be abused, and, more likely, be employed to state absolutely nothing. But I think that "pop music" has become an accepted colloquialism and carries a certain number of standard meanings, not least of which would be triadic, up-beat, repetitive (largely in 4 bar groupings), simple, etc.

6) I know that "dissonant" is a word that often sets of the alarms of the Detrital Halls, but I don't this writer offends. I don't think he suggests that mozart didn't use dissonance to "brighten and sharpen", but that this composer did, and it it was noticable, and it effective. "Dissonant 'outside' notes birghtened the colors and sharpened the musical poetry," sounds about right to me. It's obviously a very generic, nearly meaningless thought when you think about it--but it's probably true.

G) Yes, "world music" is a most loathesome term. Plus "world music" also often sucks -- and it often feels like "pop" to me.

Sator Arepo said...

re: Form,

I guess, Gustav. I guess. If a box is a form, then: fine. But if a form *does* something besides merely contain, then Variations is not a very effective form. Perhaps I've thought about it too much.

re: Sound and Feel,

If, by your reasoning, the music "sounds" and/or "feels" like Pop, why is it not pop? Because it's thorough-composed? Which is exactly what a track on an album is (with some notable exceptions). In fact, the track "creator" or whatever you want to call him/her has far more control over the sound of his actual product than a composer writing a piece on paper to be realized by performers with acoustic instruments.

Is recorded music the new classical music? Or only if it's not in four-bar groups?

More soon,

gustav said...

on form: I suppose this is a question of degree. Form is already a loosely appropriated word (eg. how often do you find words like "binary" and "ternary" to be vague and debatable). Is strophic not a form? how about versus/chorus?

On some levels, a sonata is a form that dictates change/contrast from its musical material. A sonata is underpinned by the battle between dissonance and a relative tonic. Contrarily, a theme and variations is the opposite, comprised of invariants, musical elements that do not change against a set of transformations.

Forms are dictated by their levels of organization -- how measures are grouped, motifs, melodies, arrangements of accents in rhythmic phrases, cadences, and so on. T&V is just the same dictated by these same elements. It is certainly a very versatile form allowing for variations in the form of passacaglias or chaconnes, or other polyphonic or contrapuntal constructs, but its effects are still the same. T&Vs are not dictated in the way that harmonic variation is dictated in a sonata, but an element does sit at the center of the T&V -- only it is invariance. It is a non-developmental form at its core (although, it can conform with developmental forms, such as the rondo and ternaries).