Music Illiteracy Alert

Another week, another questionable bit of writing about music in the NY Times. I don’t mean a review with which I disagree. I mean the following:

In the article about Arvo Pärt in last week’s magazine section, Arthur Lubow notes that  “…it is also important that Pärt, a fanatic for detail, painstakingly adjusts each score to achieve the result he is after.” Goodness, a composer who painstakingly adjusts each score! What will those crazy composers think of next? Who knows, maybe writers will start “painstakingly adjusting” their writing after having it looked at by someone who knows something about the topic on which they are working.

And in Paul Simon’s review of Stephen Sondheim’s new lyric collection, he states that “He [Sondheim] often uses dissonance (notes from one key added to chords from another, as if the ear were hearing two different keys at the same time) to indicate a character’s inner turmoil.” So there is no such thing as dissonance using only the notes within the key? Maybe Simon missed the class on diatonic non-harmonic tones. There are hints of polytonality in Sondheim’s music, but that is not the only source of dissonance.

OK, enough sarcasm. I am happy to see writing about significant composers get some column inches in the newspaper of record. And the Pärt piece is remarkably free from gaffes given that it is written by (I assume) a non-musician. Simon’s review is basically well-written as well. I think his mistaken explanation of dissonance is trying to refer to the use of blue notes, because it comes in the context of an intriguing point about how the sound of jazz does not play a role in Sondheim’s musical vocabulary. This is partly explainable by the European settings of some of his shows. Still, I hear little, if any, black influence in the music of “Company”, a quintessentially New York City show. My sense is that jazz musicians respond in kind, so to speak, because few show interest in covering Sondheim songs. What Sondheim tune would you like to submit for consideration by The Bad Plus?

May 2013 UPDATE: regarding the last sentence above, see this.

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