Greg Sandow on Abstraction

In a post about classical music’s abstract qualities, Greg Sandow suggests emphasizing this side of music is not helpful to the cause of promoting it. The post closes:

Think of symphonic movie scores. Everyone can follow them, can tell you when the music changes mood, and what the changes are. Why can’t they do the same in Beethoven or Richard Strauss?

First of all, they can. The storm in the Beethoven 6th is pretty easy to catch. But more importantly, of course everyone can follow movie scores – the whole point of movie music is to push emotional buttons clearly and powerfully and without ambiguity. That is not the point of classical music. Why is “it sounds like movie music” a valid criticism of a new piece? It means a piece has an insufficiently rich abstract life. Classical music’s abstract quality – the fact that it is, in part, not about anything other than itself – is precisely what attracted me to it as a kid.

Why did the music video develop? In part because the abstract life of pop songs (at least some of them) is too under-nourished – and under-nourishing to the listener. Visuals (usually vacuous themselves) jumped in to fill the vacuum created by vacuous music.

In the same way, some musicologists these days seem to prefer to write about vacuous music – because it gives more room for the critic to play. Sandow’s concern about the abstract side of classical music reminds me of the modern musicologist’s contempt for the notion of “the music itself” – use the phrase in front of many of today’s scholars and you will get a snicker, polite or otherwise. Musical scholarship is all about social context these days; everybody wants to be an ethnomusicologist. And scholars are quite right to insist that music is not just about notes, but about race, gender, sex, politics and more – it is about all those things all the time. But it is also about the play of forms, about patterns of notes and rhythms. To throw formalism (a dirty word these days) completely out the window is as dumb as pretending music isn’t political. But if everything is social context and what note comes next (exactly what composers care about) is beneath contempt, then the critic has more room to play. Since there is not much to say about the chords in a Madonna song, a discussion of, say, the social construction of gender immediately comes in to fill the void.

Then there are the scholars who try to explain the play of forms by means other than the formal. Hence we get “gay chords” or sexually violent recapitulations. (Doesn’t sex wish it was like music, rather than the other way around?) This kind of writing can be interesting, as well as causing a good deal of eye-rolling. It can easily remind one of critics and musicians from an earlier era who wrote fantastical programs for pieces – Hans von Bulow, for example, writing about how one of the preludes depicted Chopin hitting himself in the head with a hammer until the blood dripped.

James Anderson Winn’s book The Pale of Words is relevant here. To quote the description given here,

He [Winn] exposes the hostility and fear with which writers and philosophers throughout Western history have regarded forms of expression not couched in words, despite the fact that much of what humanists study originates in performance.

The insistence on social contexts and social contexts only as the proper focus for thinking about music reflects this kind of fear.

So, long live abstraction in music. And excuse me now while I try to figure out what note should come next.

4 thoughts on “Greg Sandow on Abstraction

  1. One of the best blogs about interpreting music I have read. The third paragraph is my favorite – very sharp and insightful.

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