Monday, July 28, 2008

What's good?

The world seems to be abuzz with questions of who should assign quality and how. First, we had the stream of critiquing the critics. Sandow's latest post is about the question not of quality exactly, but the relevance of classical music. Fair enough. But for every Gilda and Butterfly, there's a Tosca too, a Rosina, etc. And part of the beauty of many of these works is they leave room for interpretation, not just for performers but for listeners too. And if Motown can still have a place for modern listeners, why not classical music. I do agree that we have to open ourselves up to new ways of listening, but it's not simply a relic to be admired (more on that in a second).

Next we have this excellent summary and cautionary tale about modern music from Kyle Gann, namely that the circles of good music and difficult music are neithger mutually exclusive, nor the same. Impressive, and well worth the read. I find that the biggest problem in modern music for me is finding a hook to latch on and follow. It can be melodic, it can orchestral color, it can be atmospheric, but the best pieces feel like they have something to follow, rather than a smattering of ideas thrown out at the listener.

Finally, I'll offer up this interesting article from the Times about reading. And reading this, I found my mind going in two directions. Fundamentally, I do think reading is important. In reading you learn language, expressiveness, history, character, fiction and nonfiction alike impart at least a basic lesson of the evocative power of words. And reading classics easily render history in vivid tones. Would integration be as fully understood without To Kill a Mockingbird? Victorian England without Hardy and Dickens?

But there's a tone that creeps into the arguments for print text, a tone that smacks of the same school that says your babies will be smarter because they listen to Mozart. The argument that reveres things just because they're old, or culturally valued, without understanding anything, just accepting that this is culture because it is. And just as these great books (and they are great) or pieces have something to say about the past, they can also say something about the present, whether it's through contrast or unexpected similarities. But we should be in touch with our own cultural landmarks, our own books, our pop music, our news, our lives. I thank Sandow for raising the consciousness about our pop landscape. But the voices of the classics also have something to say, voices which should neither be confined to the same dusty script, nor to a distant silence. Even if he's long-winded, hear Dickens and Gilda out.


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