The Art of Criticism - Guys Named Mark, the Symphony  

Posted by Wayne Bretski in

First I wanted to share an interesting fact about music criticism. There are more reviews on Pitchfork Music by guys named Mark than there are by women. Check out Matt Yglesias' reaction for the facts.

Secondly, the New York Times has done away with TimesSelect; all the content is free online. Including crossword puzzles! Paul Krugman now has a blog as well; check out this post from today about political journalists acting like theatre critics.

We went to see Leslie's friend Alex play viola in the ASU Symphony last night; Mahler's 5th on the bill. I had heard the piece before - Alex played it one night when we were over just in case! - and I do enjoy other Mahler symphonies. I find that listening to classical and especially symphonic music has its share of profound joys, and clearly a certain level of elegance has been lost in the transition to 'pop' music. It did make me think though, about why I prefer to listen to other music so much more. I think the answer lies in the historical context in which Classical music was composed and performed - it's a bit like wondering why people don't listen to full albums anymore. In both cases it gets back to the accessibility of the material: when a composer is commissioned to write and perform for a particular audience, that audience will be more lenient regarding the whimsy of the composer. When the piece is played hundreds of years later, it seems more arbitrary, and is compared to other performances and other similar pieces. There are just large barriers to entry in terms of comprehending what the symphony is doing: the music itself is just not accessible, it doesn't follow conventions that are readily obvious to a first time listener (and the conventions they do follow are frankly esoteric) and in the same sense that a bottle of Two Buck Chuck or Yellow Tail Cabernet can taste like a reasonably complex and well crafted beverage, so too can a poorly played piece act as a perfectly good proxy for a heady and tasteful performance. As Alex said, "We almost derailed a couple of times there." I knew I wasn't listening to the London Philharmonic but I couldn't point to two places where the orchestra nearly "derailed". And the pomp and formality wears on me too. To get back to my earlier point, I really only listen to singles and select songs off of albums first, perhaps getting back to the whole work later if I can download it or get it at the library or from a friend. There is so much music out there for the picking now, whereas symphonies were created as a world unto themselves, for a contained social group. Now I can find for free online Pre-war Delta Blues from the '20s and '30, early bop from the myriad musicians that played with both Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, or super-rare garage rock from all over the U.S. and the U.K.; it's as easy to see to influence of James Brown and American funk on Africa as downloading or streaming 2 tunes, one from the early '60s before Live at the Apollo! came out and one from say 1967 after his African tour (and the birth of Afro-beat). So I guess it boils down to a bit of ADD, as I would prefer to genre-hop, groove for a while, and otherwise 'multi-task'. And I can't really find a piece of truly Classical music that entertains me the whole time, as they would have been termed "bombastic" and probably trashed. Also, as the symphony careened into the last minute of the final movement, blasting away with all they had making joyful noise and really getting somewhere, I realized the perfect analogy to describe my experience at the symphony: fireworks shows. Many, many minutes of maybe one or two bursts, sometimes picking up speed but quickly curtailing, and finally going nuts and being entertaining, but for far too short a period.

Finally, here's a picture I took of myself with my computer's built-in camera using a program called Iris. It's in the "clubhouse" at the apartment complex.


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