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Questions about the evolution of music criticism

In February 2012, Grove Music’s Editor in Chief Deane Root talked to contemporary music scholar Paul Griffiths about his multi-faceted career and his involvement with Grove in print and online. Grove Music Online has been the leading online resource for music research since its inception in 2001, a compendium of music scholarship offering full texts with numerous subsequent updates and emendations, more than 50,000 signed articles, and 30,000 biographies contributed by over 6,000 scholars from around the world.

Paul Griffiths has had a profound influence on the coverage of music scholarship, particularly on music created since 1900. Like many of the young editors hired by Stanley Sadie to pull together The New Grove beginning in 1973, he was fresh out of school when given the enormous challenge of planning out the scope and depth of an area not already comprised in the dictionary — music created since 1900. His writing and his coordination with scholars in many countries set a high standard that Grove Music Online continues to emulate in updated and new entries on living musicians and composers. While he continues to contribute to Grove, he has become a prolific author and editor on music, preeminent music critic, novelist, and librettist.

The Spirit of Music. Source: New York Public Library.

Since The New Grove in 1973, there’s been another print edition and now the ongoing process of Grove Music Online. How do you feel about the evolution of Grove?

I have a fondness, of course, for the edition on which I worked for six or seven years at a crucial point in my life, and also because we still believed then that we were making something for the non-professional as well as for scholars. Later Grove teams can hardly be blamed for how much the world has changed, but I would like to hope that there could again be a time when knowledge would be transmitted beyond the bounds of the academy.

I think many of us would agree that we live in a time when the economy of wealth has been stretched, the rich now richer than they were, say, forty years ago, the less advantaged less advantaged. I believe this to be true also of the economy of knowledge. Maybe there isn’t too much we can do about the economy of wealth, but as intellectuals (not a word that sits easily in English, but I can’t think of another, and we shouldn’t pussyfoot here) we do have it in our power to spread knowledge a little more widely than the culture would seem to like at the moment. Let’s try to think not just of our colleagues, not just of our students, but of somebody in a library somewhere who simply wants to know.

Last year, OUP released the third edition of Modern Music and After. In the thirty years since the first edition, how has your thinking about post-war music changed as the music itself has evolved?

A lot, of course. But also not so much, as comparison of those editions will show. The 2011 version takes over a good deal from the 1981, reflecting my view that the music written in the fifties and sixties remains important to us. Also, with rare exceptions (many of Ligeti’s works, for example, or Berio’s Sequenzas), this music has not been assimilated into musical culture. It may even be less known now than it was in the seventies. The book tries to make a case for it, and for later music that responds to it, or that seems to spring from the same fundamental doubt. In a way the success of the modernist enterprise makes any current appraisal of it impossible. For example, IRCAM’s Brahms website documents the work of more than two thousand living composers, so that, if we assume each of them to be producing an hour of music each year, one would have to spend six hours a day listening to new pieces, each just once, in order to keep up. In that respect alone the situation has changed drastically since 1981.

In addition to writing scholarly books and articles, you’ve written many liner notes for recordings and your program notes for the Miller Theatre at Columbia University won you an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award last year. Is it different writing for the broader audience?

I think any difference comes essentially from the topic, the function and the genre. A book is different from a review or a program note. A brief introduction to music since Debussy is different from an essay of similar length on the work of Alexander Goehr. A program note has a job to do: to encourage and inform but not direct the listener’s experience. A dictionary entry is a different thing. And so on. Beyond that, I work on the principle that if I can understand what I write (and generally I can), then so can anyone with an adult level of literacy.

You are kind enough to mention this award — the first I have received for writing about music. There is an irony attached, maybe more than one. I’ve been writing program notes for forty years and by now must have done several thousand, on music from the ars subtilior to works by composers now in their thirties. Just once do I write on something by a rock musician (Lou Reed) and I get a prize.

Your most recent novel, Let Me Tell You, lets Ophelia from Shakespeare’s Hamlet tell her story in her own words—literally. The novel is made up of words taken only from Ophelia’s speeches, which you remaster in varied ways. How do your musical and fictional writing relate to one another?

Certainly my writing in all fields has been influenced by all the music I’ve heard — perhaps most obviously, I’d like to think, in matters of rhythm and phrasing, but also where questions of form and technique are concerned. The guiding idea in Let Me Tell You — that of using a limited repertory of elements (in this case the 480-odd words spoken by Ophelia in the Shakespeare play) — has parallels in Cage, Messiaen and Boulez. What also appeals to me in their work, and in that of Ligeti or Berio, is the use of a highly formal device to put together something that sounds immediate, unconstrained. And because one of the words Ophelia has is “music,” I was able to say things about that.

This is the first in a regular series of interviews with Grove Music contributors. Grove Music Online has been the leading online resource for music research since its inception in 2001, a compendium of music scholarship offering the full texts of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition (2001), The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992), and The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, 2nd edition (2002), as well as numerous subsequent updates and emendations. Including more than 50,000 signed articles and 30,000 biographies contributed by over 6,000 scholars from around the world, Grove Music Online is the authority on all aspects of music.

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