Subject v object

Writing style guides will tell you not to hedge. The argument, broadly true, runs that uncertainty and ambivalence make for writing that is stylistically weak. As a music writer, however – an ‘aural journalist’, even – what one is writing about is ontologically uncertain and ambivalent. One doesn’t encounter music in the same way as one encounters the pavement beneath one’s feet: the experience of music is all about ‘seeming’ and ‘appearing to’. I strongly believe that music is, in the truest sense, subjective. The difference between ‘X’s music is [adjective]’ and ‘X’s music seems [adjective]’ is huge. One is punchier, no doubt, but it’s not the one that captures the essence of what a musical experience is. In fact, it isn’t interested in music as an experience at all but as an external, objective given. Editing one into the other changes the nature of what it is that one is reporting on: the musical work as an objective phenomenon, or the subjective experience that the experience of that musical work engenders.

But within the language of empiricist English this is a difficult distinction to make without resorting to a lot of philosophical back story that many would find offputting or even controversial. It’s a long-winded way to say simply that you are changing the focus of your writing from what you thought last night’s concert was to what it did. In the end I hedge my editorial approach and turn out something that is either stylistically stronger but not quite what I want to talk about, or clunkier but more precise.

This must be a problem that all music writers have to deal with. Any pointers for who seems (ha!) particularly adept at handling it?

2 thoughts on “Subject v object

  1. Very good points – maybe one could go even further and consider the possibility that a very unambiguous, punchy, verdict on a piece, when disseminated reasonably widely, can almost ‘become’ the piece? Meaning by this that a singular concept becomes an ideal against which a piece (and its performances) is held up?

    Or: for me often the strongest music resists appropriation in the form of language (or visual images, or whatever); the same is true of one’s response to it (or maybe this is saying the same thing?). Such music provides an experience which is simply, in this sense, unique. Yet, for the purposes of maximum publicity – in the case of music which people are likely to read about before they hear it (if they hear it at all) – an opposite system of valorisation can apply: the music which does best *is* that which can be communicated to others in words most clearly, without hedging? And this can mean that musical uncertainty and ambivalence (or at least the production of music that is likely to be perceived as such) also come to be seen as signs of weakness?

  2. “the possibility that a very unambiguous, punchy, verdict on a piece, when disseminated reasonably widely, can almost ‘become’ the piece?”

    History shows that this can be the case, but I think it also shows the (inexhaustible?) capacity for the very best pieces to resist such verdicts over time. Part of the job of a good critic is to try to hear and articulate those alternatives (or at least dismantle the established verdicts), and again history shows that that does happen. The singular verdict isn’t inevitable.

    I’m not sure about your second point. It may apply in some cases, but there is also room for the ambiguous to reach widespread appreciation without widespread and universal ‘understanding’. The careers of many successful pop artists (Radiohead, Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys, Madonna) seem based on such a premise premise, I’d say. Reducing ambivalence and uncertainty may be one marketing strategy, but it’s not necessarily the best one in all cases (and is therefore not inevitable either).

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