When describing unfamiliar music to readers—say, for instance, a Czech composer who fell victim to the holocaust and isn’t frequently played or well-known—critics often invoke other, more familiar music to give the sense of the general style or sound world of the piece.

This approach, by invoking a known quantity as a model, has the virtue of at once explicating features of the music while simultaneously, by exclusion, eliminating some of the features of the referent.

Thus juxtaposition is a neater, all-in-one version of the old “compare and contrast” strategy.

Figure 1: When used properly, juxtaposition can be informative or even humorous.

This I associate with pointless papers dating back to high school English class.

Figure 2: Your assignment for Monday is to compare and contrast the modes of realism in Madame Bovary and The Scarlet Letter. For extra credit, contemplate the ennui of the bourgeoisie.

(This invariably involved books that at the time were Really Boring but turned out later to be Really Awesome.)

Juxtaposition was elevated to High Concept status by the Surrealists* vis-à-vis their notion of collage…

Figure 3: Max Ernst, Murdering Airplane (1920)

…but that’s not really the point. The jarring, poignant effect/affect of this kind is not of interest to us, here. Er, right now.

In a music review, however, juxtaposition can be quite useful because it communicates a great deal of information with little prose.

Witness with me now the awesome power of juxtaposition at work!

Ah. But first, a little light reading for context.

Navigating a course among 4 composers
(Allan Kozinn, New York Times, 4/12/2010)

The Henschel Quartet,

(String Quartet, that is.)

…from Germany,

You don’t say.

…made news last month when it performed for Pope Benedict XVI at his residence in Vatican City.

That's not news.

Well, wait. At his residence?

What, is it an all-male pre-pubescent string quartet?


[In New York] Its musicians performed early-20th-century scores by Erwin Schulhoff and Samuel Barber, and standard repertory works by Haydn and Schumann.

Schulhoff, eh? What was his deal?

The quartet began with the least familiar of its four works, Schulhoff’s Quartet No. 1 (1924) and made a powerful case for it.

It didn’t come in its own case?

Schulhoff, a Czech composer who died at the Wülzburg concentration camp in 1942, was an eclectic,

Here we go, this is good stuff. A little historical background, and then boom! with the juxtaposition:

…and in this quartet, chunky Stravinskian rhythms…

Embeddence 1: Schulhoff: String Quartet No. 1 (1st movement)

Okay. Fair enough, I guess. Juxtaposition! See?

…and acidic figures that would have been at home in Bartok…

Interesting; I think I’m still in agreement.

…are offset by unabashedly tonal, folksy dance themes.

Unlike, say, in Bartók, who never used tonal, folksy dance themes?

Is that the same Bartók who sort of pretty much invented ethnomusicology?


I hate to be all internet-y, but: Juxtaposition fail.

Figure 4: Pretty much. (failblog.org)

[Coda: Bonus Snark]

The Barber had the most inconsistent performance here: its opening movement sounded slightly shrill at times, and more Ivesian than it should have.

Translation: The Barber wasn’t boring enough. Hey-o!

*And Dadaists, yes, yes.