Stephen Mager: Composer -- Conductor

On writing about music

A friend recently sent me a New Yorker article about Bach, written by the prominent critic, Alex Ross. The article was interesting, but I have to say that I am of two minds about Mr. Ross. In my doctoral studies, I took a class that used as a textbook his “The Rest is Noise.” It is well-written, but reads a little like an NPR critical feature sounds. Alex Ross seems rather enamoured of his own prose. His elaborate trademark descriptions of musical excerpts are mostly pointless — as a musician, I find them to be strenuous exercises in discerning just what music he may be talking about. It’s like wine lingo — it is mostly unhelpful, because verbiage is no substitute for the actual experience of tasting or hearing something. Just as you would never use music to give instructions about auto repair, the converse equally applies. Language is woefully inadequate at capturing and conveying a musical experience. That’s why we have music.

Besides the inadequacy of language itself, there is one other critical factor in the failure of such critical babble, and that is, that music takes place in time, it takes time, and it is somehow separate from time. There is no way that a few over-wrought sentences, that take a few seconds to read, can convey a sense of this. The only verbal analogue might be a running commentary that takes as long to read as a musical work were to last — obviously a meaningless exercise.

I have always thought this about concert program notes: musical analysis is ponderous, and descriptive writing is a waste of time, so in my concert commentaries, I write anecdotal accounts, information about the composer, his/her life and circumstances, and perhaps the aesthetic and philosophical foundations of the musical art. Or I might link up the music with poetry… or with an image, such as the art of Monet as a reflection of the music of Debussy. The point is not to tell the reader about the music, but to engage him/her with a fuller understanding of its context, and thereby encourage that reader to listen with interest and care.

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