2014: What Is "Critical" About Contemporary Music Criticism? On Knowing and Not Knowing in Nicholas Szczepanik, Owen Pallett, and PC Music

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What was music criticism in 2014? Or, more precisely, what was “critical” about it? How exactly is offering a critique different from, say, regurgitating a press release or clicking “like” on Facebook? In other words, just how critical is contemporary music criticism, and why, in the end, does it matter?

Out of all the reviews, features, comments, blogposts, tweets, and discussion boards — all the endless, interminable text — that comprised the collective conversation about music in 2014, two moments stood out to us as especially symptomatic of where things currently stand on these questions. The first almost certainly passed you by, trivial, a non-issue in the vast data-sea of music discourse, but no less telling for it. The second you may have noticed, because for a few brief weeks in March, it was everywhere.

It’s with these two moments that we want to begin. From there, we’ll move on, in the final part of the essay, to consider how they might speak to one of 2014’s most talked about phenomenons: the dramatic rise of London-based label PC Music.

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In February, Nicholas Szczepanik released his ninth solo album on Desire Path Recordings. The album’s gently pulsing drone struck a chord, so to speak, and received extremely favorable reviews. As it turned out, though, both the record’s title — Not Knowing — and its cover art — a found photograph of an unknown little girl and the even more unknown shadow of the photographer — proved strangely prophetic.

Most reviewers mentioned the influence of French composer Éliane Radigue, to whom the piece is dedicated. Most found it moving: “romantic,” “intense,” “entrancing,” “haunting” (TMT), “a mesmerizing and beautifully formed accomplishment.” Most paid their respects to the piece’s expressive and structural center, the period between the 12- and 29-minute marks when an orchestral theme slowly emerges through the drone. Over at A Closer Listen: “once the melody enters, everything else is soon abandoned, leaving you to sink deeply into a state of complete calm.” As Dusted put it: “the music opens like a flower, offers up just the briefest vision of something personal and momentous, and then closes again.”

And yet only one of the 20 reviews listed on Desire Path’s website noticed that this orchestral sample was taken from British composer Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations: that it is in fact the 9th variation’s famous “Nimrod” theme.

Our aim here, as should become clearer below, is by no means to condemn these reviews: our ultimate call is to open up avenues for criticism, not shut them down. Each of these reviews makes its own interesting arguments about the album and was able to do so with or without a reference to Elgar. But no review can say everything, and what we want to do here is look a bit closer at what is not said.

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2014 was a big year for Owen Pallett. In January, he was nominated for an Oscar for his work with Win Butler on the score of Her. In May, he released his fourth solo album, In Conflict. And in the intervening period, he somehow found the time to pen a series of pieces for Slate in which he applied “music theory” — by which he meant the kind of harmonic analysis taught in a conventional Western “classical” music education — to a series of recent pop smashes: Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

Why did [“Teenage Dream”] go to No. 1? Let’s start by talking about the ingenuity of the harmonic content. This song is all about suspension — not in the voice-leading 4-3 sense, but in the emotional sense, which listeners often associate with “exhilaration,” being on the road, being on a roller coaster, travel. This sense of suspension is created simply, by denying the listener any I chords. There is not a single I chord in the song. Laymen, the I chord (“one chord”) is the chord that the key is in. For example, a song is in G but there are no G-chords. Other examples of this, in hit singles: Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and Stardust’s “Music Sounds Better With You;” almost-examples include Earth Wind and Fire’s “In September” which has an I chord but only passing and in inversion; same with Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”

The series quickly went viral, picking up some 40,000 Facebook “likes” between them. Most of the major sites blogged about it. Pitchfork made a podcast.

As impressive as Pallett’s analysis was, however, it was clear that his heart wasn’t really in it, that — despite appearances — these pieces weren’t being presented as a form of music criticism worth celebrating.

Image from “Ecstatic Melodic Copulation,” Pallett’s analysis of “Get Lucky”

Each of the articles was laden with apologies: “My bet is that it’ll be boring, but I’m going to do my best not to bore you!” And sure enough, by June, Pallett was claiming in an interview with Wondering Sound that “the Slate pieces were meant to be an absurd reflection on what music writing would be like if the writers were preoccupied with music theory. They weren’t meant to be ironic or sarcastic but lovingly absurd.”

Rather than defending the use of music theory in music criticism, Pallett was in fact disavowing it. Interviewer: “You’re obviously a highly trained musician yourself but how important do you think theory is to know for a… critic? Pallett: “My whole point with those pieces is that it’s not necessary for critics to know it.” Interviewer: “What do you want from music criticism, if not music theory?” Pallett: “I want a description, a human response to what is happening.”

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What can these two examples tell us about the state of music criticism in the present moment? What do they have in common, despite their differences? And to what extent are these commonalities representative of broader trends in the current critical landscape?

What we want to suggest is that both examples work according to a similar logic — silently assumed in the critical reception of the Szczepanik, but made explicit by Pallett — and that this logic is both critically unsatisfying and extremely persistent, a regular counterpart to the retro-historicism we explored in the first essay in this series.

The logic comprises two related steps. First, a certain lack of engagement on the critic’s part — a kind of not knowing — in both cases of a relatively objective, structural feature of the piece of music in question. Second, the celebration of this not knowing in favor of a more personal, evocative, “human response” in its place.

So with the Szczepanik, rather than confront the possible meaning or significance of the artist’s choice of sample (whether or not they know exactly what is being sampled) and address how that might impact our understanding of and relationship with the work, we get a flurry of adjectives. The music is “romantic,” “mesmerizing,” “intense,” and the unknown orchestral sample is an opening onto something “personal and momentous.”

This is precisely the kind of critical engagement Pallett is calling for. For Pallett, music is something that happens to you, and the role of the critic is to convey what happens, to “describe” this deeply subjective, ostensibly “human” experience. Knowledge is for artists, Pallett is saying. What matters for listeners are feelings.

Knowledge is for artists, Pallett is saying. What matters for listeners are feelings.

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To be clear, we’re not suggesting that Szczenapik’s reviewers ought to have recognized the Elgar sample or that either “music theory” or what Adorno would have called a “structural” knowledge of a work are integral to the critical process. This is not an argument for the emancipatory potential of a classical music education.

At the same time, however, we do think that the tendency to celebrate a personal and sentimental knowledge of contemporary music as a way of refusing other forms of engagement is a real problem. And to the extent that it is bound up with a form of anti-elitism associated with the debunking of the distinction between “high” and “low” art, on the one hand, and the de-professionalization of music criticism, on the other, it’s a tendency that at least needs interrogating.

In other words, music criticism may not need a classical education, but musical works really do have a certain objectivity or materiality to them, and that’s often worth knowing. Not all knowledge is elitist. In fact, we’d like to suggest that it’s precisely the critic’s responsibility to know, even if (and because) that knowledge has certain necessary limits.

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Let’s look again at Szczepanik.

The Enigma Variations were first performed in 1899 in London. To accompany and frame the performance, Elgar had provided an unusual note in the program explaining his choice of title. Each of the piece’s 14 variations, he explained, comprised a musical “sketch” of one of his friends. And tying together each of these variations was a single theme — the so-called “enigma” — which, rather than being simply “played,” was merely hinted at in each part of the work. Indeed, the composer was adamant that this theme should remain hidden: heard, perhaps, but nevertheless withheld in a certain way, mysterious, enigmatic. “The Enigma I will not explain,” he wrote. “So the principal Theme never appears […] the chief character is never on the stage.”1

Elgar’s intentional staging of the secret of the Enigma has provoked decades of speculation by listeners and scholars. “Solutions” have included encoded references to popular songs (“Auld Lang Syne,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “God Save the Queen’); to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven; to a verse from Corinthians; and even to the mathematical constant pi. During his lifetime, Elgar refused to divulge the answer, so we may never know. And perhaps, in the end, that is the point. If Elgar’s Enigma Variations teaches us anything, it’s that musical knowledge can never be complete, that every attempt to know must also confront its limits in another field of not knowing.

All this is there in Szczepanik’s Not Knowing, the title of which now seems that much more apposite and deliberate. It’s as if, by quoting Elgar, Szczepanik is attempting to invoke all this history, to draw on the Enigma Variations’s rhetorical weight, its accrued meaning, and its conceptual problematic at the same time as he, like Elgar, refuses explicitly to name them.

In this respect, it matters too that Szczepanik chose the “Nimrod” theme specifically. Not Knowing was dedicated to the French composer Éliane Radigue and, in particular, to her 2000 composition “L’ile re-sonante,” which, Szczepanik wrote on his Bandcamp page, helped him “get through a necessarily rough patch of what we tend to call life.”

If the theme is struggle, then “Nimrod” is perfect for it. Originally written for Augustus Jaegar, a particularly close friend of Elgar’s and his publisher at Novello & Co, the theme is often played these days on its own at funerals and memorial services, and since 1930, it’s been played at the National Ceremony for Remembrance Day in Britain, which commemorates the end of the First World War. To contemporary ears, in other words, “Nimrod” sounds like mourning and memorialization. It is about loss and the fallibility of memory, even in the face of the absolute demand not to forget.

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