In tune with the possible

from the Times Literary Supplement, June 10 2009

Bayan Northcott
And other writings on music
222pp. Plumbago Books

George Edwards
173pp. Scarecrow Press

It is impossible to speak about music”, said Daniel Barenboim, somewhat disconcertingly, at the outset of his Reith Lectures on the subject in 2006 – but critics have been trying for centuries. Some address their ideas to like-minded specialists, while others achieve a broader appeal. And, as with all the arts, there are a small number whose writing satisfies the interests and tastes of specialist and generalist alike. Bayan Northcott, who became the first music critic of the then new Independent newspaper in 1986, belongs in the latter group.

There is one aspect of our attitude to music – or rather classical music – that is genuinely peculiar, and that is the ingrained assumption that it is too good for us; that while its general appeal may be broad enough, only a select group of fiercely intelligent beings, endowed with exceptional sensitivities and powers of memory, can really “understand” it. Northcott’s refreshing approach to this feature of musical mythology is the subject of the brief title essay in The Way We Listen Now, a collection of articles spanning his career writing for the New Statesman, Independent, Music and Musicians, BBC Music Magazine and, in one case, The Times Literary Supplement. The article in question, in part a homage to Donald Tovey, surveys the range of what can be attended to in any single performance and comments on the fact that it is the fear of not understanding – rather than the mere fact of not being able to describe certain processes and developments – that distorts and ruins the average listener’s instinctive grasp of most musical works.

Among the essays are insightful discussions of composers living and dead. Elliott Carter’s softer edge is revealed in an article for the New York Review of Books by a recollection from the Huddersfield Festival in 1993, where Carter explained that his Triple Duo was just as strict in formal conception as his other works – but only up to a certain point: “[It] began to get boring, so I curtailed it”. A long and fascinating account of Stravinsky’s somewhat meretricious dealings with Britten is reproduced from an Aldeburgh festival programme note.

But the best items are the Independent columns, in which Northcott’s informed judgment and humane gaze were turned to issues ranging from the relation between the time of music and that of the clock to the importance of silence, and from worries about populism and Muzak to the demythologizing of modernism and “authenticity” in early music performances. Reproduced and, in some cases, re-worked in scholarly garb with footnotes, and illustrated with drawings by Milein Cosman, the widow of Hans Keller (Northcott’s mentor), these pithy yet leisurely contributions are sometimes difficult to picture in their original newspaper setting. Yet I remember them well enough there, a generous broadsheet page of views each Saturday. They were fresh and thought-provoking and remain so today, testament not only to the writer’s gift but also to the memory of a breed of editor capable of encouraging such a ruminative strain in music criticism.

Many of Northcott’s concerns – for instance, about the art of listening in the age of Muzak and the routine peddling of musical ignorance – are shared by George Edwards, an American composer who for many years occupied the prestigious MacDowell Chair at Columbia University. A student of Milton Babbitt, Edwards is one of the several serious and thoughtful composers who exercise tremendous influence in the restricted sphere of American university music departments. Outside this (mostly) East-coast enclave, Edwards is not well known. This is a shame, mostly because his music is deserving of wider attention, but also because his assessments of the issues that plague musicians and their academies are excellent.

The appeal of his writing is not as wide as that of Northcott’s, and some of the contributions to these Collected Essays are specifically intended for a readership with specialist training. Yet his thoughts on the relationship between modernity and tradition, the emptiness of most of the categories of postmodernism (in music and elsewhere), and the importance of universities in providing the tradition of non-commodity music with some meaningful continuity, can be read to the advantage of almost anyone. The essays are written with the kind of evenly measured directness peculiar to American scholars of a certain generation. Neither patronizing nor apologetic, they clear the way for an understanding in which many of the routine and arcane features of musical life make a great deal more sense – as good a reason for writing (and speaking) about music as any other.

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