Thursday, November 15, 2012

Knowing Stuff About Music

Yesterday an acquaintance introduced me to a person who was visiting our fair city. She told him (wanting to give a good impression of our town) that I had an encyclopedic knowledge of music, to which I replied, "What I know is rivaled only by what I do not know."

I'm kind of proud of that statement, because it is true, and I am confident that it will continue to be true for the rest of my life.

I used to think I knew a lot about music, and I did know a lot of stuff about a relatively small amount of music when I was a teenager. I knew the flute repertoire inside and out (and would study the 1967 Frans Vester catalog of flute music to strengthen my knowledge).

I read Grout and Lang, knew most of Brahms' chamber music by opus number, and could identify most of Bach's instrumental music and some of his cantatas. I knew much of the standard symphonic repertoire from going to concerts and from listening to the radio, and I read the books about music that were in the house. When I re-read those books now, and re-visit music that I used to think I knew really well, I can see how shallow my understanding of music history (and of music and musicians) once was. I appeared to have learned enough in the process of reading and listening to give the impression of being far more knowledgeable than I was.

Now, thanks to our friends at the IMSLP, thanks to 13 years of working at a radio station, thanks to 20 years of reviewing recordings, thanks to escaping the confines of the pre-1967 flute repertoire, and thanks to the musical arm of the internet, I am pleased to say that I now know far less about music than I ever have known in my life.

It makes life exciting when every day can be an adventure.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Hoo boy, 100% agreement on this one.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your humility.

And here is a nice addendum by Bernard Holland:

"Music is terrifyingly simple, something the inquiring intellectual has a hard time dealing with. Its effects can be profound and lasting, but its processes render the word ''meaning'' meaningless. Music bypasses reason. It attacks us directly and unthinkingly. Music wears its illiteracy proudly, like a medal. I know this from my work as a music critic. I am helpless to write about what music is; I can only record the aftershocks it leaves behind"

Erin said...

I thought I knew a bit about music, until I started working at a big arts centre and writing about it all the time... that was a crash course in all the things I didn't know. I got to work with this man ( and I learned quite a bit from talking through the season's programming and how it all fit together. But I am the first to admit I don't know a lot! Still!

Elaine Fine said...

What a fantastic Holland quote, Anonymous! And I'm happy to have company in my acceptance of an ever-expanding lack of knowledge, Lisa and Erin.

Lisa Hirsch said...

In context, I'm not so impressed with the Holland quotation. He was reviewing a book called "Musical Languages," by Joseph Swain, which is described elsewhere as a systematic attempt to compare music with language. I cannot tell whether it's a book intended for a popular or academic audience. However, it's clear that Holland is basically opposed to that approach - which doesn't make him a good reviewer for the book, unless he's going to make a serious and cogent case why it's a bad approach. Instead, he's impressionistic.

In the review, he uses an example from the book that...well, he may find it problematic, but I certainly don't. The whole review is an argument against analysis or intellectual attempts to understand music.

It's just another case of Lazy Bernard Holland, IMO. And I'm betting the anonymous poster is the Pelleastrian, the only person I know who regularly, and approvingly, quotes Holland.

Unknown said...

What a fantastic Holland quote, Anonymous!

Yes he has several good ones!

(I had a login glitch yesterday)