State of Art

Yuga Cohler

Yuga Cohler is a 28-year-old conductor whose mission is to revolutionize musical culture.

Let's Talk About Music

Nobody in America is writing or talking about music.

I'd like to be clear. Music is

an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through the elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.

(Sorry,  I don't have a subscription to the O.E.D.) Form, rhythm, melody, harmony, and color - these are the elements of music. When I say that nobody is talking about music, I mean that nobody is discussing how these elements express ideas and emotions.

You may not believe me, but it's true. Let's consider a canonical music review - say, one of Taylor Swift's 1989 by Rolling Stone. Take a good look at it.

There is not a single word to do with music (as defined above) in the entire article. It does consider the music's emotional effect, the music's words, and the music's cultural implications. You could maybe argue that the brief mention of the instruments employed ("guitar") constitutes an acknowledgement of the music's "color." But that's such an elementary musical analysis as to be fatuous. The fact is, this musical review does not discuss the album's musical elements.

You might suspect that this is a characteristic unique to mainstream publications; that more cultivated or niche outlets would place priority on sonic details in their analyses. Not so. To take an example, I just went to Pitchfork's "Best New Music" page and clicked on the first review on the page. Same thing: lyrics, genre comparisons, and hermeneutics are all there. They identify the use of "trumpets." But no musical discussion.

How about classical music? Well, take a look at a typical New York Times review of an orchestral concert. It does have fancier words ("legato") and a slightly more specific treatment of color ("glossier, glassier"). But do you have any sense of what the music was like? What were the particulars of the sounds that were emitted - the form, rhythm, melody, harmony, and color ? If you read it closely, you'll notice that the text does not describe or pay homage the music in this sense.

There are notable exceptions to this phenomenon. One who immediately comes to mind is Alex Ross, who is deservedly well-known for his descriptions of works from the classical canon. But in American society today, there is no large-scale forum or shared language for musical discourse. Musical literature focuses predominantly on  extramusical implications, and  musical content is  ignored.

This phenomenon is:

  • mind-blowing, because it underlines the possibility that the word "music" has in fact been redefined by society to mean something else altogether, and
  • troubling, because it suggests that there are no objective means by which people can evaluate the validity of musical claims.

If you don't talk about the music itself, how can you assert with any authority what the music is about? Could you imagine a review of a book without any mention of its plot, its literary devices, or its words? It's inconceivable. Just take a look at the beginning of the New York Times' review of Jonathan Franzen's novel, The Corrections.

Jonathan Franzen’s marvelous new novel, ‘The Corrections,’ starts out as discouragingly as any marvelous new novel you’ll ever read. The very first page devotes a full paragraph to overextending the metaphor of an ‘’alarm bell of anxiety’’ ringing in a suburban house, in a community heavy-handedly called St. Jude.

The writer's emotional reactions are based on the original text, which he references through both quotation and summary. He can claim that the novel begins "discouragingly" because of the "metaphor of an 'alarm bell of anxiety'" on its first page. Describing Franzen's writing is integral to the review, and is the basis for the interpretive conclusions that the writer draws. In contrast, musical discussion today accomplishes only half of this, highlighting the implications of the content while skirting the content itself.

Make no mistake: I think that all of the things that musical writers currently do are both interesting and important. Cultural and extramusical examinations of musical works are critical to understanding their larger significance. Music is often about stuff and we should know what that stuff is.

But here, I want to talk about music. And if you're wondering what "talking about music" actually looks like, or perhaps more pressingly, why doing so is at all important, then keep reading. Let's talk about music.