If I told you that you had a beautiful body...

would you promise to stop using semicolons? One of the Detritus’ new favorites, Matthew Guerrieri, apparently has little or no idea how to use a semicolon, or write coherently about music. Again, this is a favorable review; but, as usual, Guerrieri muddles his good-natured intent with poor punctuation and ambiguous narrative.

This one is about Collage New Music, who presented a program featuring the music of Luciano Berio. If you don’t know Berio’s music, check this out (fantastic performance, but I especially love the comments).

Without further ado, take it away Guerrieri!

In the fourth of the “Folk Songs” Luciano Berio arranged in 1964, a lover petitions a nightingale. “Apprends-moi ton langage,” he implores, “teach me your language.” On Monday, one could hear Berio asking the same of music itself.

Um, well... I thought Berio was dead. I’m not quite sure that anyone in the concert hall could hear Berio ask anything, especially, if he’s the one doing the asking, as opposed to the music. The music could, perhaps, pose questions. I guess. So, I’ll go on that presumption. New translation: Berio’s music asked, “teach me your language.” Hmmm. That still doesn’t sound right. Maybe, Berio, in 1964, asked of music, “teach me your language.” Still doesn’t sound correct. Either way, I’m sure Guerrieri will clear this up. Right?

...[the concert] focused on works of the ‘50s and ‘60s, when the late Italian composer both honed his avant-garde expertise and began to stake his claim to the unexpected directions where his music subsequently would go.

This has nothing to do with him asking things; it would seem the opposite. Berio was refining his musical language. Which people heard on Monday. That makes sense, Guerrieri. Why didn’t you just say so? Why this round-about poeticizing? This doesn’t make you a learned writer. This makes you a failed poet. One who gets paid. Yuck.

One would assume, then, that, from the first two sentences, the point of the article, aside from critiquing the performance, is to show how Berio’s music changed over two decades.

Show away my fine poet friend.

[Sequenza I, for flute] is designed to dazzle, and Christopher Krueger certainly did, with playing of confident proficiency; but a deeper emotional thread to the piece never emerged.

Beautiful! Seriously. The first piece was dazzling, but that’s all there was. Guerrieri described the piece (because that’s what we’re going to do—see how Berio changed) and the performance (because this is a review). On point, so far.

Also, notice his crafty punctuation. He skillfully, and correctly, joins two independent but related clauses with, my friend, the semicolon.

“Sequenza II,” for harp, triumphed both as etude and narrative; in Franziska Huhn’s technically accomplished, superbly paced performance, the production of exotic sounds...was adjunct to the drama of their interaction.

Kshhht. Columbia, this is Houston. We’re gonna have to contextualize the mission. Over. Kshhht.

While Guerrieri continues to tell us about how Berio’s music changed, I find it difficult to swallow this loosely relevant linearity—“dazzling” to “etude” and “narrative.” Yes, etudes are purportedly dazzling. However, narratives are, at best, metaphoric associations. Is Guerrieri saying that the flute Sequenza (the first piece on the program) is devoid of any possible narrative-like interpretation, while the second Sequenza is rife with imagery? I’m not sure one can say that. Besides, I’m listening to them right now and, in my opinion, they’re both pretty evocative pieces, capable of engendering narrative.

What really gets my goat, though, is the semicolon. His first was exemplary. Here it’s suspect; the two clauses are nebulous, in their relationship. If “their interaction” refers to the piece’s etude-ness and narrative, then maybe one could defend semicolon use. It’s not clear, though, if “their interaction” refers to the performer’s technical accomplishments and superbly paced performance. I just don’t know. For this, he gets a B-.

Either way, how can exotic sounds be adjunct to the interaction of etude-ness and narrative-ness? On the other hand, how can exotic sounds be adjunct to the interaction between technical accomplishment and superb pacing? Awkward, to say the least.

The fact remains: Berio’s music was dazzling. Now it’s dazzling and narrative-ing.

In 1959s “Differences,” tape-recorded versions of five instruments morph into alien electronics as their live counterparts attempt communication with bristling urgency; in the end, Berio restores the music’s initial common-tongue. Collage’s vibrant reading made for an intense conversation.

Berio’s music: morphing, communicating with electronics and recapitulating.

Unfortunately, the semicolon, again, is thorny.

For your pleasure, here’s quick lesson in grammar from the Chicago Manual of Style:


Use of the semicolon. The semicolon, stronger than a comma but weaker than a period, can assume either role, though its function is usually closer to that of a period. Its most common use is between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction.

e.g. The controversial portrait had been removed from the entrance hall; in its place had been hung a realistic landscape.

Before an adverb. The following adverbs, among others, should be preceded by a semicolon when used transitionally between independent clauses: then, however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, and therefore.

e.g. The controversial portrait had been removed from the entrance hall; indeed, it had disappeared entirely from the building.

Before a conjunction. An independent clause introduced by a conjunction may be proceeded by a semicolon, especially when the independent clause has internal punctuation. For more common use of a comma with conjunctions, see conjunction between clauses.

e.g. Maria had determined to question the ambassador; but bodyguards surrounding him, as well as the presence of dancing girls, prevented him from noticing her.

Here, Guerrieri should have begun the second clause with a conjunction, like “but” or “yet.” Instead, he begins with a preposition, in which case the semicolon should really be a period. Or, maybe, he should have dropped the preposition entirely, which could have then warranted the use of a semicolon. Just saying, the writing is immature. Normally, one or two trespasses wouldn’t bother me. But, in a 600 word article, I expect a better effort.

Score so far: Berio’s music was dazzling, then dazzling and narrative-ing, and now it’s morphing, communicating with electronics and recapitulating; Collage New Music performed well.

“Circles,” from 1960, also seems designed to loop around..,

You didn’t mention that before.

Addendum: Berio’s music was dazzling, then dazzling and narrative-ing, and now it’s morphing, communicating with electronics, recapitulating and looping.

...settings of three E.E. Cummings poems, the texts repeated to form a five-movement arch—but the effect is of a new language coming into existence.

So now it’s looping and arch-ing. And this leads Guerrieri to conclude that Berio achieved a new musical language. You hear that, composers? Looping and arch-ing. New musical language.

Soprano Janna Baty, expertly delighting in the deconstruction of each word into its constituent parts, began by trading phonemes with Huhn’s harp; her sounds and choreographed gestures soon brought two percussionists... to vociferous life.

I’d make the argument for two sentences. How ‘bout you? Or I’d omit “her sounds and choreographed gestures soon.”

Read this way:

Soprano Janna Baty, expertly delighting in the deconstruction of each word into its constituent parts, began by trading phonemes with Huhn’s harp, bringing two percussionists to vociferous life.

I think it’s more clear this way.

With the “Folk Songs”... Berio began to apply his newfound vocabulary to the whole of human activity; Baty’s traditional singing and the group’s untraditional playing were united with seamless ingenuity.

Wait a goddamned minute! What on earth is this? How did Berio apply his new musical language to the whole of human activity other than music making? Did he send some starving, third-world family a copy of his score? Did he resolve the Vietnam conflict with incessant looping? Arch-ing? Did he make a withdrawal from his bank by recapitulating? This is quite possibly the weirdest thing I have ever read.

And he follows that up with another hopelessly unnecessary semicolon! How is Berio’s super-musical looping at all related to the group’s seamless ingenuity? Two. Sentences. Guerrieri.

Berio never exhausted his curiosity.

Yes. He was very curious. I thought you were going to tell us how Berio changed over the period of a couple decades. No? Okay. I wasn’t really expecting it anyway. But, thanks for telling us how he didn’t change.

Collage opened with the 90-second-long “Autre Fois,” a 1971 memorial to Stavinsky (performed twice). An unstable rocking interval in the harp that traditionally would resolve instead proves the music’s unchanging core.

So Berio’s music didn’t change at all? Across two decades.

And, by the way, I doubt that an interval, defined more or less as two periodic sound waves presented simultaneously, forming one periodic sound complex, can prove anything, ever.

The journey is the point; the goal is possibility.

Nice semicolon. (grumbles to self, looks at watch)


Empiricus said...

Greatest shit ever. I just stumbled upon Guerrieri's blogger, where he badly criticizes critics and promotes himself.

Soho the dog?


Empiricus said...

Oh yeah. And he's a composer.

Aaron said...

The problem with semicolons is that you hardly ever need them. Sometimes, sure; but not often. If you have two thoughts that are suffciently distant from each other to make the use of a comma problematic, you can usually (as in, almost always) turn them into two independent sentences without causing any problems. The added bonus is that the sentences you do use will be shorter. That improves both their power and comprehensibility.

An allegedly professional writer like Mr. Guerrieri ought to know that. If he doesn't, his employer ought to employ an editor to teach him.

Seriously, do newspapers edit the copy these guys put out?

Aaron said...

Also, and I admit this is a pretty minor gripe, it's not "E.E. Cummings." It's "e.e. cummings." He was very particular about not capitalizing his name (or much else).

An editor would catch that kind of thing, though.

Matthew said...

Gentlemen: I freely admit that I think the annoyingly prescriptivist Chicago Manual of Style and its evil cousin, Strunk and White, have unforgivably impoverished modern prose in comparison with that of the 18th and 19th centuries. I owe my own addiction to the semicolon to the examples of Gibbon and Henry Adams. (I dream of the day newspaper style sheets once again allow the semicolon-long dash [;—] as a rhythmic bridge between the individual symbols.)

And, honestly, as much as I often wish to change things upon seeing my overstuffed sentences set up on print, I remain damned proud that I was able to get orchidaceously into a daily newspaper. I love seeing oddball or archaic words in a modern, clinical journalistic setting. It's like sportswriting from the 20s and 30s: the incongruously grand language is part of the fun. I'd read a lot more boring political analysis if they'd slip in tergiversation once in a while. (One thing to consider: semicolons save words, which is important when you're facing down a 400-word limit. Ten conjunctions turned into punctuation is ten obscure words I can work in elsewhere. I may have just made Empiricus's head explode.)

Aaron: I was equally surprised to see cummings' name capitalized—it may be a Globe style sheet anomaly. I'll forgive the copy desk, who actually have saved me from even more obvious howlers. More than once, I've hit "send" at one in the morning, only to wake up the next day and realize I wrote that the concert was on Sunday when it was on Monday. Alas, they can't fix the way my brain tends to branch out in nine directions at once.

By the way: I'm pretty sure it's Sazerac, not Sazrac, although that is the correct pronunciation, having once been corrected by a native who proceeded to give a inebriated demonstration of how a proper New Orleans accent consists of pretty much saying every word as if it only had two syllables. Are you in Boston, and, if so, do you know of a local source for Peychaud's? Back in my Chicago days, we had to special-order it.

Some great rants, gentlemen. It was only this week—after a full year's writing—that the Globe got an angry letter about me. I was beginning to think it was a lost art.

Anonymous said...

Yet another example of miraculous ignorance from Matthew Guerrieri! He takes great glee in savaging Derek Bermel's short (and quite beautiful) work for the venerable Guarneris. But he doesn't even mention - i.e. doesn't realize - that it's a riff on Beethoven's last quartet, op. 135. Instead he brands it a “turn-of-the-last-century parlor-sweet berceuse."


Uh, sorry Mr. "Critic"...to which century are you referring? I was at the concert, and I guarantee you that two thirds of the audience - Mr. Guerrieri being a proud member of the less-informed third - knew what the composer was doing. The piece isn't “the sort of thing Charles Ives would have quoted." The whole opening is ALREADY a bloody quote! Jeez, what did we Bostonians do to deserve this pompous and ignorant chump?

Sator Arepo said...

Interesting. Thanks for reading Mr G! And I'm glad you take our fun in the manner in which it's intended.

Yes, I spelled "Sazerac" wrong, thanks.