Good Grief

Like we’ve said all along, music is terribly difficult to write about. If we copied and pasted Elvis Costello’s fun quip—“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—every time a review had communicative difficulties, we’d find ourselves in that perpetually skeptical no-man’s land, shielding ourselves from the possibility that we can effectively describe the music we love. This is why we tend to nitpick over grammar and descriptors; often, we’ve nothing to overtly criticize. Moreover, I’d like to think that we are optimists, happily acknowledging the best of music criticism. It may not seem like it, granted. But our hearty thanks is omission—that’s the reward for writing well.

It saddens us that we’re constantly confronted with reviews that miss the mark (nay, miss the side of the barn), which is why poking some fun in the authors’ direction can add to the discussion about how we can effectively talk about, let alone criticize, music. Thus, every so often, “dancing about architecture” is the perfect quote to describe the awful mess in front of us.

Standing out as a haunting reminder of the historical importance of the early 20th century, the performance of Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's String Quartet No. 2 is unquestionably the highlight of the concert.

Though it might be sign of canonic progress--that Bartok is the highlight of the concert whilst performed alongside Haydn and Schumann--a retranslation is in order: "Bartok’s String Quartet was the highlight, because it stood out as a reminder that the early 20th century was important."

I’m no historian, per se, but isn’t it the case that all historical periods were important? Like I said, I’m no historian and I could be wrong.

A further distillation of the sentiment might read like this: "The Bartok String Quartet reminded me of the early 20th century; that’s why I liked it." Coupled with the knowledge that it was written in 1917, this statement says nothing. Nothing at all.

Bartok's String Quartet No. 2 was written in 1917, not long before he emigrated to America, and is clearly the composer's musical reaction to the First World War.

This is why I would like to require our critics to cite their sources (I know it’s not going to happen, space-wise, but still.). I simply don’t know where this tidbit comes from. It might be perfectly true--that the String Quartet is a reaction to the war--but after scanning several journal articles, the only connection that I could find is one of chronological coincidence. So, “clearly” is clearly dubious.

By the way, I once had a class on presidential campaigns with an encyclopedic professor who hated, absolutely hated certain adverbs. He would not hesitate to fail us for using “clearly,” “obviously,” or “surely.” I see why.

The work explores the depth of Bartok's mourning over the death and destruction of the war.

Surely (con sarcasmo), but how so?

Uncomfortable and lengthy dissonances...

Are you fucking kidding me?

Uncomfortable and lengthy dissonances thread through the melodies even as the scalar passages drive the work ever-forward like an unrelenting march toward the inevitable end.

Another retranslation: "Marching toward the end, with dissonant, scalar passages, exemplifies Bartok’s deep exploration of mourning over death and destruction."

...I’ll let that one soak in.


Mmmm, wanting.

The last movement is unmistakable in its grief; the unapologetic dissonances and scant melodies are certain to resonate with modern audiences reflecting on the current state of war around the world.

Summa: dissonance + scant melody = unmistakable grief.

Fig. 1 Aaarrghh!

Often compared to Beethoven's famous string quartets and considered equally as important to the canon, Bartok's six quartets invoke many folk melodies.

New books about the Beethoven Quartets this year? 10,028. New books about the Bartok Quartets? 3. (My source is clearly accurate.)

His works often infuse the Hungarian folk songs he studied in great depth as an ethnomusicologist...

If by “studied in great depth” you mean “collected and appropriated,” then...sure.

...with the movement toward atonality common to the time.

And if by “atonality” you mean “other triadic hierarchies,” then...fine.

Although, like any good composer, Bartok repeats his melodies throughout the works...

Does this need a retranslation? (pauses for fifteen seconds) If retranslations lead to absurdity, then absolutely! “The hallmark of a good composer is whether or not he/she repeats melodies.” That was fun, eh?

...he mimics the tradition of folk music passed from one musician to the next, by presenting the themes or melodies in slightly altered ways each time they return.

Jesus. This is indubitably becoming a retranslation party. Check this out: “Although Bartok repeats his melodies, Bartok repeats his melodies but not literally.”

This means that everyone ever, in the history of melody and melodious historicism, which includes those dissonant fuckers, mimics the traditions of folk music. Brilliant.

And, in case you were wondering, “those slightly altered ways” is just a fancy musicological phrase meaning “ornamented.” Ugh.

But go on, dear author, what does melodic variation do?

This gives Bartok's music a sense of evolution; each presentation of the thematic material represents an individual life within the enormous scope of time.

Fig. 2 Gratuitous Calvin and Hobbes


Joshua Kosman said...

Probably Elvis. Or possibly Frank Zappa, Thelonious Monk, Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, or who knows who.

Details here.

Gustav said...

Although, like any good composer, Bartok repeats his melodies throughout the works..

This is the funniest thing I've read in a while -- that is quite possibly the stupidest thing anyone has ever said about music (and I don't feel the need to qualify that remark!).

Regardless of whether or not Bartok's 2nd string quartet was written with special reference to WWI, this is a perfect example of the real problem of music criticism -- several times, this person passes off opinion as fact. Phrases like "unmistakeable in its grief" are exceptional hard to swallow. This sort of sentiment continue the unfortunate decline of reducing all music to major/consonant as happy and minor/dissonant as sad. Barf.

Sator Arepo said...

1) Kosman: Very interesting, thanks for the link. What a strange mystery quote.

2) Gustav: Yeah.

3) E: I cannot see figure 1. Is it showing up for you?

Sator Arepo said...

Edit: I can see it now. And now it makes sense...

Empiricus said...

BTW Do melodies and scalar passages march? I didn't understand that one, so I let it go.

Strini said...

I know people who actually do dance about architecture. I'm just sayin'.

http://www2.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=599208 (This story has a link to video that is fun to look at.)



Anonymous said...

This guy was totally on in some ways. That dissonance creates tension, conflict, despair and grief is a fact posited by all the great music theorists concerning the bulk of music people actually listen to. Basing pieces on dissonant intervals alone is precisely the reason for the scant 20th century audience (despite the awesome music)! After all, people demanded new music before the "liberation" of pitch from mode and consonant chord. As far as we know, Bach was never exposed to Schütz's work!

Furthermore, this growing trend of "conflict" in early 20th century music coupled with disregard of the audience directly parallels the path to two world wars which resulted in the deaths of millions of people. No better music sets "Survivor From Warsaw" than that of the 12-tone system.

My advice to composers? If you're unhappy with people calling Major 7ths and minor 2nds uncomfortable, use more Perfect 5ths! But I rant...

The 'repeating melodies' thing is weak though, argh.

Anonymous said...

Oh and about the war stuff... just look at the themes of "Rite of Spring", "Miraculous Mandarin", "Lulu" and "Wozzeck"-- the smell of death is in the air.

These ain't no magic flutes.

Empiricus said...

I could agree with you Cereal, but I have one small obstacle, which prevents me from doing so:

"That dissonance creates tension, conflict, despair and grief is a fact posited by all the great music theorists concerning the bulk of music people actually listen to."

"Fact," as you put it, is malleable; that is, it exists within the social institution that created it (hierarchies of consonance). And like all institutional writ, it is amenable to change. (change for the better is definitely debatable though) So when you say "tension" and "conflict," those are direct consequences of institutional practice, wherein it IS appropriate vocabulary to use. (Despair and grief are a little subjective, but still working under the "tonal" institutional framework)

So, as I see it, if you're still playing within that practice today, you're going to see dissonance as creating tension. But, on the same side of the coin, you're also denying the 20th century its dismissal/dissolution/interplay of that institution.

To hear Bartok today as conflicting with traditional signifiers (consonance and dissonance)--and that's what makes it effective--makes me suspicious of the author's familiarity with music written in the past one-hundred years. Or, I wonder how much of that music has the author digested.

Besides, "grief" and "despair" are quite specific things, which I'm not sure can exist in any concrete form in music, unless explicitly noted.

I'm not saying the author is flat-out wrong. I'm just saying that there's not a lot of wiggle room if the "facts" aren't supported.

Anonymous said...

Some facts and truths are more difficult than others to ascertain.

Imagine laying a man on his back and resting a 20 gram stone on his chest. No problem, right? Now imagine instead a 20 kilogram stone placed on his chest. At what weight does he suffocate? That might not be known exactly, but what is known to be truth is that one weight will kill a man and another will not.
That is the same with the intervals. Consonance and dissonance not only have factual definitions (simply their ratios), they have a concrete emotional ones. While, like the above analogy, it might differ slightly from person to person, each interval has a different affect, as would each differently weighted stone. Even 20th century serial theorists don't deny this about the interval but classify them something like "the stable intervals are boring and the unstable intervals are exiting." While the emotions felt by people with a suffocating weight on their chest may be slightly different, I imagine that the some feelings would have quite the recurrence. For one, fear and panic, come to mind first- and I'm just using my imagination!

But I'm wary about beating my head against the wall. For years I believed that perception was contingent on exposure. I now denounce that view entirely. The Greeks supported their "philosophical" claims with math over 2000 years ago. And the preponderance of evidence points that they had it right. In regards to education, it would be plain stupid to make a practice of children 7ths first. It would be tantamount to saying let's teach first graders calculus first. There is a chronology of intervals used in teaching roughly based on their difficulty. But every generation needs to prove their fathers wrong. Props Guido, you got it.

Empiricus said...

I do not believe that perception is entirely contingent on exposure. On the other hand, I can't go along with a deterministic set of preferences when it comes to a matter of taste, especially within an arbitrary tuning system.

Rather, preference, according to my meagre studies, is due primarily to timbre recognition, as opposed to dissonance consonance (is it my wife or a lion?). Therefore, perhaps, since upper partials distinguish one sound from another (i.e., "dissonant" intervals), those are most critical in our immediate preference recognition. But familiarity, to some degree (maybe not a whole lot) plays a part in our preference systems (I see my wife a lot, so I'm no longer scared).

Anonymous said...

Agreed for the most part, Empiricus. Our system is based on octave equivalence, and the fifth (and fourth) which at least as old as the Greeks. The other intervals are stretched to accommodate semitones. But our fifths and octaves are no different than any other fifths and octaves around the world-- so I think 'arbitrary' is not the right adjective to use as the perfect intervals are perfect and the imperfect intervals are the arbitrarily tuned ones. In parallel, our notation system is successfully used by most other cultures (to my knowledge) to notate their musics, because our tuning is worked around the natural mode-- not against it.

But anyway, I'm totally with you about people telling me what I'm supposed to like. I think what we're trying to deal with is a disproportionate dislike of certain modern musics which typically we try to explain away with exposure. After 80+ years it's time to reevaluate this very complicated subject.

Peace, brother.