The Uses and Abuses of Music Criticism

What is the point of writing about music? This is a question that is not asked enough. I will do my best to answer this in order to justify what I am doing on this site and hopefully find some fresh insight. One way to approach answering this question is to address the common mistakes that I think critics make and arrive and some better methodology via negitiva.

The first and most common mistake is the reduction of musical statements to merely be reflections of the artists biography. For example, there are endless analysis online of what was happening to a particular artist at a particular time this is then present as the final answer to the purpose and the meaning of the work. Whilst it is undoubtedly true that life experience plays a decisive factor in the creative process it is not the only factor for there is a wide spectrum among musicians as from those who’s artistry addresses personal topics an example of such a person is Jil Scott. On the other hand, there are artists such as Max Richter who work primarily in the world of instrumental music and usually produce there work under the guidance of a theme that is not directly part of there life.

A further criticism of the stock biographical interpretation is that it ignores the ways in which local and personal emotions can be channeled into something abstract. Via this route all music even that very far removed from the exact experience of the performer can become personal. Simple biographical interpretations render everything a trivial product of what has happened to a person rather than a fusion of life experience and creative intelligence. Without such a general intelligence it is hard to know how anything could be transmitted artistically from one person to another without both having had identical life experiences. Even for people who may have lived such identical lives there will always be the difference that it is they who are the experiencing it with their own unique personality.

The next mistake is simplification via some sub genre label. For example, the odious term “jazz fusion” which principle use seems to be ghettoise a variety of styles and approaches. What music exists that does not owe it’s heritage to something else? Is not almost all music if you go far back enough some kind of “fusion”? The same can said of completely ridiculous label “progressive rock” . What does it denote? According to Wikipedia “…prog’s scope is sometimes limited to a stereotype of long solos, long albums, fantasy lyrics, grandiose stage sets and costumes…” The problem with such stereotypes is that it only list of sins not a characteristic of a style. There are plenty of groups who have dressed in variety of garbs that do not commit the other sins. Fantasy is just as much a part of pop as any other genre, although in the main the fantasies are hedonistic not conceptual.

Perhaps in the past this label could be applied to a cadre of bands that shared certain characteristics and in this sense could be described as meaningful. However, culture has moved on since then as have the musicians who may even apply the label “prog” to themselves. Of course the idiotic press is ready for such developments and can simply accommodate these changes by declaring whatever developments have occurred to be “neo…”. This solves nothing. Am I perhaps uncharitable in looking for higher standards in what is ultimately slang? Also, we must keep in mind Wittgenstein’s motto that meaning is use, that language is a flexible medium that can change as people use words in different ways over time. This said, I do think the essence of my criticism still stands. That by following such practices the level of discourse is lowered.

However, I would say that often slang in reified by music critics to take on a status beyond mere slang to a stronger and more certain categorization. This I object to, it is the intellectualisation of something that is used intuitively. It is through this process that needlessly sharp distinctions are drawn and barriers erected.

What of positive purposes of music criticism? I think criticism can illuminate aspects of a work that we can have been previously blind to. Further, through the exploration of an other’s opinion we can understand more clearly why we hold the opinions we do. In this sense misguided analysis can be helpful and instructive. However, it must be said that verbal analysis is no replacement for experiencing the music. This is the place that all true musical knowledge stems from and where the transcendent power of music can be encountered. In comparison to this mere words can seem dead and lifeless. None the less, I think there is enough to be gained by writing about music that I will continue to do it.

Two Visions of Philosophy

by the river ect 003

When people speak of philosophy, they are usually thinking of two different things: one is a subject that concerns itself with the question of how one should live both ethically and practically. The other is a theoretical pursuit chasing the perennial questions of existence. These two visions interact with each other but are nonetheless separate.

Often these two visions are forced into conflict, the rationality for this is that either theoretical pursuits are a waste of time or they are inferior to the higher questions and in some way not “respectable”. First, let us turn our attention to the first contention: one may think that there are so many practical issues to deal with in world that such speculation is morally reprehensible. The mistake here is to forget that our modern world has been equal assisted by ideas as well as technology. The idea that we should no longer be governed by kings, or that we do not perceive reality without an interpretative framework to filter our perception were once considered outlandish. Now they are common knowledge to the extent of almost being cliché. Karl Popper rightly pointed out that in science it does not matter where the ideas come from initially whether it be dreams, experiment or visions. What matters is what fruit they can bear, his judgment about science can be expanded to the field of ideas in general. We do not know what will be of practical use in the future, therefore, we should remain open to many different possibilities and not prematurely close off avenues to knowledge.

Even the ideas that do not possess any practical application have a beauty of their own that demands they do not be idly discarded, they reside in what Robert Pirsig described as the high country of the mind in which the intellect is elevated to a greater and wider discourse, free of idiocy of the mundane and every day.

Now let us turn our attention to the second criticism that practical philosophy is of no worth because it does have the intellectual solidity of the theoretical philosophy that is entrenched is most British and American universities. To criticise philosophies such as stoicism for not having a strong intellectual foundation is to miss the point entirely. The test of a practical ideal is in the living of it, which is something lamentably few “philosophers” would ever dare and attempt. Further, in the case of stoicism it is an open set of ideas which can be easily modified and attached to some other underlying belief system that may be more intellectually rigorous.

These endless division of philosophy has led to a pernicious division of the mind where intellectuals tend to concern themselves either purely with the practical or the intellectual spheres, which is itself been hastened by accelerating march of specialisation of work and thought. We see those like Alain de Botton who possess much practical insight but meagre theoretical understanding and on the other hand, the archetype of the university professor who possess great theoretical wisdom but very little practical understanding. The world needs people who embody both meanings of philosophy and is doing so give richer and broader lives to the world. Without generalists we will live in a meagre and divided world in which people will be unable to understand each other so lost in their own experience and jargon.

Meditation On Death

Recently I suffered the misfortune of having to go to hospital for an extended period of time. If I had  not checked myself in I almost certainly would have died. This experience has forced me to reflect death and to know it more intimately. Whilst I was in intensive care two people were taken out in body bags.

The first and most shocking realisation I had was that my death was a very real possibility and when it occurs is only partially in my control. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger thought our prevailing attitude towards death was inauthentic. What he meant by this is that we think of death as some distant phenomena that will never visit us, we only see death as happening to someone else. Even though I have studied Heidegger my attitude was still inauthentic, certain truths can only be learnt through experience.

With this new knowledge I have tried to reconsider what I am going to do with the time I have left. I would urge you dear reader to do the same. There is a darkness in such thoughts but also a chance for liberation.

Another hard question that my experience raised was how to find a balance between future and present orientated thinking. Because we can never be sure when we are going to die we might be tempted to make immediate preparation for the end. However, if we have many more years to live this would be unwise. How are we to find balance? The answer lies acting in harmony with this uncertainty mixing future and present desire together, exercising spontaneity and prudence in equal measure. I put this forward as an ideal goal rather than something that can be easily achieved.

It is equally unwise to dwell on death too long for as Nietzsche said:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146