REPORT: Music and Criticism at the RMA Music and Philosophy Study Group Conference

L-R: Dr Guy Damman (Uppsala University) and Dr Mark Berry (Royal Holloway) 

Sebastian writes: 

I attended a session focused on Music and Criticism during the two-day conference of the Royal Music Association’s Music and Philosophy Study Group,

What had drawn me to it was a paper by Dr. Guy Dammann who writes about classical music and opera for the Guardian and the Spectator and for various heavier-end periodicals. His paper was entitled ‘The Ontology of Music Criticism.’

Dammann’s basic thesis is that criticism of (classical) music goes way beyond the notion of “retrieval” posited by Richard Wollheim, essentially in the book “Art and its Objects” from 1980. If ‘retrieval’ were the limit of the ambition and purpose of critical activity, then writing about music could – were one cynically inclined – indeed be as pointless as “dancing about architecture.” (see exploration of the source of that quote.)

In Dammann’s view – he explained in an introduction – all people who know and have studied music in a contextual way have a responsibility “to renew the shine on the jewels of music history and the musical present,” to renew the contract between these works and society.

Dammann – I summarize – sees the “work” as much more of a living thing, in his phrase it is an “intersubjective construct.” It “becomes formed by a “cycle of performance and of writing, reading and listening,” and thereby grows in presence and relevance.

“Acts of listening are re-constitutive,” he said. Conversely “if no one is listening then the existence of thr work shrinks, it disappears, it becomes a dry construct.”

So in this context, good criticism (by which he means “interesting, well written criticism, which can tell a compelling story, can grow the work”) will help the work to grow, whereas either “boring” writing, or poor writing, or indeed no writing at all, can diminish it and make it less relevant. “This is how works grow in culture.”

For antecedents he used ETA Hoffmann’s major piece on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as having  “connected the musical work with traditions about idealism the readers place in the world .. German culture and the infinite.”

Dammann wants to go beyond the notion of criticism as retrieval, which is rooted in the idea of the primacy of “authenticity , historicity, and author intention,” and in which success therefore becomes a question of accuracy. Dammann prefers to look at whether criticism “sticks” or “has traction,” whether it has value ar part of an effort of renewal on behalf of a work.

In summary, “the critic’s job is to assist the gravitational process by which the work draws in the culture which opens around it back into it.”

COMMENT: 1) Conceptual authority… I found the approach illuminating, thought-provoking and useful. In academic circles, however, (and “conceptual authority,” one of the late Richard Cook’s favourite phrases, comes to mind)  there will always be a lot effort of effort given to deconstruction. Dammann’s paper was treated with respect, but the following paper, which I also attended, gave rise to a particularly unedifying bout of Korinthenkackerei between musicologists and philosophers critiquing the assertion “this is an atonal piece of music.” Good luck to all who sail etc., but I couldn’t help feeling that Dammann’s notion of “the work” is going to get some holes in it below the water-line before it sails very far.

2)  The previous paper I heard on an adjacent subject by a currently active critic was Ben Ratliff’s keynote address in Amsterdam in 2012. His thesis is that listening patterns have changed markedly, the juxtapositions of listening habits mean that “the work”, as perceived by Copland in What to Listen for in Music – and perhaps even “the  album”  – are being replaced by other cultural memes. These two approaches would be very interesting to juxtapose.

3) Perhaps cynical. In writing this I couldn’t help lapsing into metacritical mode. Yes, I blagged/bartered my way into this conference on the understanding that I would write about it. So whereas this piece owes its existence in part to my curiosity about the subject, it plainly would not have been written without a trade-off being done between the promoter and a writer. This pre-condition of criticism existing in the first place is surely of material relevance. In jazz, that question of “what gets covered,” is very different from, say, in opera.

Previous posts on this topic on LondonJazz News have included:

Ben Ratliff’s Keynote address

 -our most-read article on the subject, the ultimate music critic joke

This Annual Conference was co-hosted by the Music and the Philosophy Departments of Kings College London and London University’s Institute of Musical Research.

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