Looking for the Magic

Roger Ebert, film critic and blogger extraordinaire, has just written a blog post called “The spheres of music,” which begins like this: “What do you think of while you listen to classical music? Do you have an education in music, and think of the composer’s strategies, or the conductor’s interpretation? Do you, in short, think in words at all? I never do, and I suppose that would make me incompetent as a music critic.”

What follows is the comment I posted on his blog in reply.

Roger, I’m a music critic, semi-pro. I cover CDs for an English site called MusicWeb, which is a great gig because our reviewers are encouraged to be a little more informal: we tell stories about the first time we heard a piece, or what it means to us, or the time when we had drinks with the composer, etc. Emotion and “response” are more of a factor in our reviews than things like “the orchestra doesn’t appropriately observe this marking in bar 163.”

Writing about music is a tough fight. There’s a sense of desecrating hallowed ground: the music was composed as music because words were useless in the first place! And yet of course listening without a guide is like hiking without a map.

What I’ve found is that the easiest reviews to write are the worst CDs. In and out, a job that feels dirty but can be done quickly. Hard to do are the “it was okay, not great but not bad,” because it’s so hard to find something to say. But the hardest, by far, are the CDs that really leave me speechless.

Of the 99 reviews I’ve done, 2 CDs were (I thought) so great as to be beyond description. The first time this happened (Bernstein’s Mass with the Baltimore Symphony [click for a sample track in iTunes file format]), I tried writing an analytical essay about what made it great. I went point-by-point, delved into some musicology, did a lot of comparative listening. It took five months to write the review.

The second time that a CD thwarted my critical faculties and left me totally without words or even thoughts, I gave up the rational approach. This was a jazzical album (Gershwin by Grofe, with the Harmonie Ensemble and 93-year-old sax player Al Gallodoro [click for sample track, this time an mp3]). It’s one of those CDs that forbids you to sit still, or indeed sit down. I couldn’t figure out what to say. “Perfect” gets old.

So I described going to a local jazz club when I was a teen, with the guys up on stage egging on each other’s solos. The days when every performer had a glass of wine to sip between tunes, when they took breaks every hour to “test the bar service,” when jazz was a refulgent old-school sharing of good tunes among improvisatory friends. I said, “this is where the CD takes me.”

“This is where the CD takes me.” [Roger,] You’re really not as far from being a music critic as you think. Good music criticism has a lot in common with good film criticism. Sure, you make sure to praise the actors, and the writer, and the things that go into making a film good. With music, the writer’s skill is usually (but not always) well-accepted, but the performers and audio engineers get their marks.

But that’s really not the heart of matter, either in film or music writing. None of your reviews are “about” the acting or even really about the movie. They’re about the state of mind the movie gives you, or the emotional response, or if you’re lucky, the celebration of just what great art can do. The “Great Movies” columns are about movies on one level, and on another they’re an ongoing discussion of how art nourishes and replenishes the human spirit, the ways art has of touching us all.

That’s what music criticism aspires to be, too. Yeah, we have to deal with problems of how to describe a melody, or a write about structure. But the secret of we music critics is that what we really want, most of all, is to be left speechless, wordless. We seek to make our own profession helpless. We want to describe music – but really, deep down, what we want is to feel the magic.

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1 Comment

Filed under Art

One response to “Looking for the Magic

  1. If you’re still coming to visit me in Spain, you must take me to see some music so I can hear one of these reviews in person!

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