Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Making judgements about music

"No art is so subject to indiscriminate judgement as music. It would seem that nothing could be easier to judge. Not only professional musicians, but even those who pose as amateurs, would like to be regarded as judges of what they hear."

". . . We fare no better with regard to composition. We would not willingly be considered ignorant, and yet we do not always feel that we are capable of deciding matters rightly. Thus, in order that we may regulate our judgements accordingly, our first question is usually, 'By whom is the piece composed?' If, then, the piece is by someone to whom we have previoulsy given our approval, we immediately, and without further reflection, declare it beautiful. If the opposite is the case, or if we perhaps object to something about the person of the composer, the piece too is considered worthless. If anyone wishes to be palpably convinced of this, he needs only to put forth two compositions of equal quality under different names, one in good, the other in bad repute. The ignorance of many judges will soon be apparent."

Johann Joachim Quantz, On Playing the Flute (1752), translated by Edward R. Reilly

Musicians are still basically an insecure lot, and there is nothing that aggravates musicians' insecurities more than having to make a judgement about a piece of music written by a living composer. There seem to be all sorts of strings attached to formulating an opinion, including exposing oneself as being ignorant of 20th century- or 21st-century techniques, or being thought of as "backwards" for embracing and enjoying tonality. Some people find favor with music from "exotic cultures" simply because of the "hipness" of the culture, whether it be foreign or domestic; and some people have preconceptions about music written by a person of a particular nationality, and they don't know whether to judge the music as "good" on the basis of how much it represents their own preconceptions of the culture. We also still tend to judge music on the basis of the gender of the composer.

I find myself in at least three positions regarding making judgements about music. Since I write CD reviews, I am required to make judgements about recordings I hear. I always have to go with my instincts regarding new music that is unfamiliar to me. Through reviewing recordings I have found several living composers who have written pieces of music that I really like. I feel it is my duty as a musician to say why I like what they have written. Hopefully there are music lovers and composers who appreciate my efforts.

As a performing musician I look for usefulness in music. If I am going to perform a piece of music, I want it to be a piece that I can spend several hours a day with for a long time. I want it to be a piece that is continually interesting for me to practice and rehearse. I want it to be a piece that can eventually sound good on my instrument, and a piece that I can express myself through musically.

As a composer, everything is different when it comes to making judgements about music because I don't write music to be judged. I write music because I like to write music. I do not consider anything I write to be anything besides what it is: music to play and to enjoy. It is not great. It is what it is. It is a vacation from what I do as a "critic," but not far removed from what I do as a performing musician because I do feel that it is somehow useful. People still need new music to play, and people (people who do not feel the burden of having to make any sort of "larger" judgement) seem to like listening to the stuff I write. I have come to the conclusion that people of the present like to have music and art that reflects something of whatever this era we live in is, and as long as I need to express myself in this way, it is perfectly fine to do so.

So, if anyone reading this ever hears anything I write, please refrain from having to make a judgement about it and its place in the "grand scheme" of music. Just enjoy it if you do, and listen to something else if you don't. I imagine there are other composers who feel this way.

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