Will Upton discusses the art of writing about music.
When I came to Oxford I knew I’d soon be sweating over essay deadlines and presentations. I probably thought a weekly column would be some light relief. I have an admission to make: writing about music is really hard to do. Writing about music for a popular audience is made even harder when you’re not allowed to use the technical language you use every day in academic life. Every art has its own vocabulary, but only in music is its public use such a taboo; even Figuration is an ‘F-word’ not to be allowed; nowhere else is there such a gulf between academia and criticism. For critics this is either something to be endured and regretted, or a screen behind which to hide.
Ironically, with the introduction of the English Baccalaureate, conceived ostensibly to combat illiteracy, musical literacy is likely to vanish completely. Music is set to become a second-tier subject, and children will be increasingly poorly equipped to talk about music in anything but the most general and instinctive of terms. Of course, being able to name a musical feature doesn’t necessarily enable one to hear it, but it certainly goes a long way to helping. There is also the question here of what qualifies someone to talk about music. I’m reminded of the ‘No Vote, No Voice’ placards that currently adorn the streets of Oxford. If you can’t articulate your views on music, do you waive your right to an opinion? Of course not, but there will be those to say you do.
Actor and musician Martin Mull once said that writing about music was like dancing about architecture. My response to this is why should somebody not dance about architecture? Likewise, is singing or dancing to music any different to singing or dancing about music? There are so many ways to understand music and communicate our feelings about it. The precariousness of modern classical music is that it tends to rely on technical forms of explanation, and so it is more threatened than any other by these reforms.
One other way to articulate your views about classical music is by playing an instrument – something I will be doing with the Oxford University Orchestra on Thursday 8th November at 8pm at the Sheldonian Theatre, where we will be playing Wagner’s Tannhauser, and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. We are all familiar with the arrogant soccer pro who dismisses the layman’s criticisms of soccer teams with ‘Show me your medals before you tell me anything about football.’ As Tom Stoppard elegantly showed in Professional Foul, you don’t have to be Robbie Savage to have a valid opinion. Having spent 4 years on a performance orientated course I was surprised to find that by no means everyone studying at the Music Department here is a performer. The good aspect of this is I don’t have to be up at 7am to get a practice room; the downside is that everybody knows far more than me
Will’s Weekly Recommendation
Last week I recommended Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, a work so ahead of its public that although it was written in 1906 it wasn’t published until 1940. In John Cage’s infamous 4’33” the audience attends to a literal musical ‘silence’. In Ives’ work the silence is metaphorical, embodied in the hushed strings as the trumpet repeatedly probes a question to which the woodwinds frantically seek an answer.
This week’s recommended work is Steve Reich’s Tehillim.