Friday, January 18, 2008

Why Classical Music Writing is So Difficult to Read

Have you ever read the liner notes of a classical music CD and scratched your head wondering what the heck the writer was trying to say? Or attempted to read a classical music concert review in your newspaper and felt totally illiterate?

One of the things that frustrates many people about classical music is its perceived elitism. It's unfortunate, but most of what gets written about classical music only worsens that perception.

Most of the classical music writing I see out there--either in symphony concert program books, in concert reviews in major papers like the New York Times, or worst of all in the little essays in the booklets accompanying most classical music CDs--is quite simply terrible. Often, it is pretentiously written, it is full of industry jargon (yes, even the classical music industry has its own jargon), and it reads like an intellectually insecure liberal arts student's PhD thesis.

There are a few reasons for this. First, there's the fundamental difficulty of taking the elemental and often indescribable emotions in classical music and rendering them in precise language. It is never easy describing something experienced in one discipline (music) in a totally unrelated discipline (writing). How do you talk to somebody about an apple pie when it's so much easier to have them taste it? How do you explain the concept of "blue" to a blind person? We usually respond to great music at a very basic level, either emotionally or by dancing or by singing along, but rarely do we respond verbally or conversationally.

But just because something is difficult to do doesn't mean it can't be done.

The second reason stems from what I would call the "expert problem." People who consider themselves established in any discipline often can't help themselves from using the jargon and code words of their profession. By lacing their language with obscure terms and expressions, they (supposedly) demonstrate that they know more about their profession than the unwashed novices. And certain professions--classical music, art history and oenology spring to my mind--tend to be the worst offenders.

Third, CD liner notes and concert program notes are often translated from another language, and this layers on yet another opportunity to use confusing expressions and word choices.

When you combine the expert problem with translation problems, and then combine that with a medium that quite frankly is difficult to discuss verbally in the first place, you get jargon-laden and informationally useless sentences like these in your CD liner notes...

"The connecting passage in which this feat is accomplished bespeaks a degree of intensity whose elemental force is surely unsurpassable." --(from a 1992 Sony Classical CD of Beethoven's 4th and 7th Symphonies)


"The shape of the first movement is by no means unconventional, but it is a perfect realisation of the later 19th century's reinterpretation of classical principles." --(from a 2003 London Symphony Orchestra recording of Dvorak's 7th Symphony)

...and these two samples come from just the few CDs I've tackled so far for this blog! In other words, I didn't have to go hunting at all to find two really embarrassing examples of babble.

I guess the fundamental truth is that you have to shut up and listen to classical music to really learn it and understand it. And if I ever devolve into jargon or babble in this blog, please call me on it.


TheSieve said...

Great points here. I am going to download some classical to my ipod and give it a try. I especially like your point about just listening to the music. It reminds me of the same intimidating culture around wine. Elitism is abundant and it can be quite intimidating for a novice to appproach the stuff. Everyone tells you how to taste and what to look for. What that misses is the most basic experience - to taste yourself and find out what you enjoy - then describe it. Sounds similar here.

Thanks for the education.

Daniel Koontz said...

You are welcome! I look forward to "tasting" a lot of classical music over the next year, and sharing the process with readers.

Thanks for your comment!


Anonymous said...

"The shape of the first movement is by no means unconventional, but it is a perfect realisation of the later 19th century's reinterpretation of classical principle"

What is wrong with that?
It simply says that without being innovative, it is a realisation of a principle, done in a way the author appreciates.

"I am going to download some classical to my ipod and give it a try"

The thing most people do not understand about classical (and art music in general) is that it is fundamentally different from entertainment music (pop, hiphop, rock+derivatives, EDM) in that it is a piece of art rather than a soundtrack for dancing or a means of passing time on a bus ride.

The equivalent of listening to art music in the same way as to entertainment music is going to an art gallery and masturbating in front of the paintings.

So in order to understand a different kind of music I would recommend listening to it as an active, primary instead of a passive, background activity.

Anonymous said...

In the last comment I implied that downloading the music to your ipod and "giving it a try" means listening to it as background music (as that is what i use my mp3 player for). sorry if I'm wrong ;)

Daniel Koontz said...

I agree with you on how classical music usually requires active listening rather than passive listening, although some types of classical music (perhaps compositions by Haydn or Telemann would be good examples) can be listened to passively as well.

But I don't agree with you on wondering what's wrong with that quote. The simple fact that you needed to rephrase it to make it (somewhat more) comprehensible proves my point.

Thanks for reading and commenting!


Mumsicles said...

I appreciate any efforts to make "classical" music more approachable. It is possible to learn just enough, perhaps just enough to know how little you know, to be able to glean something from listening.
My years learning about this music were gratifying, but came at the expense of learning about a lot of other things. Sure, I'd love for my children to have the grounding in classical that I received, but if they have to do "classic lite", so be it.
There will always be snobs in any field, but there are also people such as Blogger Dan who will share their knowledge willingly and without disdain.
Sister Les

peskypesky said...

pretty much all you have to say about a piece is either "it sucks" or "it rules". everything else is superfluous, self-serving drivel.

Daniel said...

Good one peskypesky. And not printing all that self-serving drivel would be better for the environment too, wouldn't it? Would save a lot of trees.

Thanks for reading!