clap clap blog: we have moved

Wednesday, November 09, 2005
Over at The Rambler, Tim has a series of good posts up about the idea of "applicability" in music and how this might be a better way of talking about it than "relevance" i.e. it's not about whether the work itself seems to be addressing events in your life, either world-historical or personal; it's about whether the work makes itself a part of your daily life and an event in and of itself. It gets started here and there's a little more here, but for my money, he really gets rolling with this post. Key bit for me:

...a bugbear of mine is that music (especially classical music) is almost invariably talked about as though its components are such things as melody, harmony and rhythm, when in fact it is more useful to talk about music as formed of time, sound, memory, quotation, distortion, and so on. What's more, these terms actually apply to all music, rather than the small subset of Western art music 1600-1900, so they're doubly useful (if admittedly nebulous). These are qualities, like light, colour and space in the visual arts, that listeners encounter in every moment of their daily lives, and it is at these conjunctions that music can attain 'applicability'. Because when a work has something to say, or to reveal, about one of these things, that revelation can be passed through the listener into their daily experience.
After this he goes somewhere I'm not entirely sure I'm willing to follow him--it leans a little too heavily on the questionable idea of art as something grandly life-changing, and I'm not sure what he's describing (to be more than a little snarky about it, you're walking down the street, and then bang, Messiaen!) is in any way unique to art, at least not in any way that wouldn't be better accomplished by making the now-standard argument for a widening of the definition of art. (Isn't anything that changes our perspectives art?) But the bit I've quoted above is very good, and, it seems to me, very important. Although we're primarily concerned with different things (I think Tim's working on the vitality of art music whereas I'm dealing with understanding pop), it reminds me of something I used to blather on about: the necessity of discovering the meaning of pop songs not just in the lyrics but also, maybe primarily, in the music, and not through the shallow, uninformed "semiotic" readings that are usually the best we get on this score. Tim here is, in part, explaining why this is so important: it's these qualities, not the formal elements, that follow you out into the world.

He's also (though I think he's dancing around the point) making a great case for the importance of personal criticism. Personal criticism is oft-condemned these days, especially when folks who actually get paid to write things are feeling threatened by "bloggers." But when it's done right, personal criticism addresses the phenomenon Tim describes: the way music interacts with the rest of your life, with those horrible banal bits we seem to dislike associating with art, and this is maybe the primary way we experience music. Personal criticism isn't an excuse to write about yourself instead of the subject you're criticizing, it's an opportunity to take music into the social realm in which it actually functions. Personal criticism isn't narrow, formal criticism is, because it puts the subject in a box and tries to observe it in isolation; personal criticism lets it run free in the world, talk to other people, go to parties, drive to work, cook, clean. And, if anything, this gets us closer to the truth.