How can you assess an album (and why should you bother)? [Part II]

In part one of this post, I outlined the beginnings of a formalist method for assessing the value of a record. By examining the form of a piece of music music, so my argument went, it is possible to divine an aesthetic judgement of the work. And provided you could strip away all extraneous factors that might otherwise bias your judgement (personal biography, class origins, previous listening experience, the variables of conditions of reception, and so on and so forth) you could perfectly expect this judgement to be both aesthetic and universal. That post ended with the admission that this approach only takes us part of the way on our quest to judge a record, and the reason for this shortcoming is that our newfound aesthetic judgement can only tell us about the quality of the work rather than it's value as a whole. That is to say, it can only tell us whether or not the piece in question is well crafted, or, alternatively, well formed.

It's easy to see how this gets us into trouble: Candle in the Wind, Jesus Christ Superstar, the latest James Blunt album, and the collected works of The Dave Matthews Band could all be said to be 'well formed' when in fact they are, as I'm sure you'll agree, (and here I employ some specialist academic language) 'bloody awful'. By the same token the voice of Bob Dylan, the 'lo-fi', the 'art brut', and the entire punk catalogue would be dismissed by a strict formalist as nothing more that amateur tomfoolery, and I'm equally sure we can all agree that they are (to again resort to technical terminology) 'awesome'. The real question here is one of value.

It's all well and good assessing whether something is 'well crafted' or if it displays 'technical finesse', but when we say that we actually like something there's a whole different process going on; we're not making an aesthetic judgement, we're making a value judgement.

Now at this point it seems we're returning to the 'personal' factors I tried so hard to dismiss in the first post, as the assigning of value to a work of music is often cited as the result of individual personal taste. Aesthetic theorist Carl Dahlhaus dismisses this idea of individual taste as “not at all individual but rather a reflex of group norms” and insists that instead of rationality appearing as a secondary factor in a judgement it ought to be the foundation of it. Whilst being keen not to cause offence or seem elitist, he turns to the old topic of 'listener education' that I'm sure has hounded any music fan trying to win an argument in a pub:

“The factual judgements underlying the "group norms" are not equally founded.  A listener capable of doing justice to a Beethoven symphony is generally equipped to cope with the musical issues of a pop tune, but the reverse is not true. Arrogance of the initiated must not be defended, but that nobody has the right to blame musical illiterates for being illiterate does not change the fact that illiteracy provides a weak foundation for aesthetic judgements.”

For me personally, this has a ring of truth to it, but the bigger picture is considerably more nuanced. The kind of informed judgement Dahlhaus is championing above is part of but one of the several different approaches to 'value': those that can be identified as 'Functional', 'Aesthetic' and 'Historical'.

Of these three, Functional Value is perhaps the easiest to comprehend. Prior to the latter half of the eighteenth century and the advent of the concert hall, music had various distinct functions in addition to the common one of providing objects for aesthetic contemplation. For this 'functional music', the aim was to be the exemplar of a type; “an exemplar which reaches perfection when it projects the marks of the type clearly and purely” (to quote philosophical-musicologist Peter Kivy). If one sees a piece of music as functional, then it is a relatively easy step to place a value on that music according to how well it fulfils its function. Take, for instance, the example of dance music: it can be enjoyed and appreciated not merely in terms of its formal properties but also for how well adapted it is for the dances it is meant to accompany. And this is not a concept that died out in the eighteenth century – some could say it is alive and well today. While I meant for the example of dance music given above to be in reference only to the dances of the eighteenth century, the statement could well be applied to the dance music found in clubs today. In fact, I'd argue that such music can only be judged in functional terms, as in my eyes it holds no aesthetic value whatsoever. In real terms, however, I would say that objective functional value has been relegated to the domain of music for films and advertisements, which really are the last bastions of purely functional music in the modern age.

So what, then, of Aesthetic Value? The nineteenth century was the “epoch of aesthetics,” where the factors that rendered music 'art' were exactly the opposite of those concerning functional music; individuality and originality. Dahlhaus tells us that aesthetic judgement is “a pronouncement about the participation or non-participation of a musical work in the idea of the beautiful,” but yet again, however, the situation is confused. In this case there are two conflicting approaches to judging the aesthetics – that is to say, the 'beauty' – of a piece of music. On one hand we have the conservative Schenker and his search for an Ursatz, and on the other we have the composer Schumann and the 'dilettante' school of musical reviewers.

Schenker, who I mentioned briefly in part one, saw himself as the guardian against the disintegrating tendencies of the twentieth century and his approach was to interlace formalist theory and analysis with aesthetic judgements, much as our initial formalist approach taught us. In his eyes, works admired as 'masterworks' must contain an Ursatz, (a kind of musical 'through-line') and his application of this theory was sweeping and unilateral; if, as in works by Reger and Stravinsky, no Ursatz was to be found then he was quick to issue an aesthetic verdict. The other approach was one that looked contemptuously on ideas of form and technique - the “mechanics of music” as Schumann called them – and felt they should not be displayed but rather concealed.Writers of the time strived to maintain the appearance of 'dilettantism'; even composers such as Berlioz, Schumann and Hugo Wolf hid their knowledge of music when writing reviews, as if speaking of one's métier were tactless.

We've already seen the flaws with Schenker's approach when it's applied to modern pop music, so what then can we take from the dilettantes? Sadly, very little; divorced from any technical or formalist analyses and rational judgement as they are, we find ourselves returning full-circle to the very ideas of 'personal taste' that we were railing against not five paragraphs previously.

But there is yet one more facet of value that we have yet to look at; Historical Value. Prevalent in the musical criticism of the twentieth century, historical judgement sees a composition as a document of a stage in the development of compositional methods and musical thought and in contrast to the dilettantes of the previous epoch, aesthetic judgement changed into a technological one. If formal value can be said to be found in the concept of the 'appropriate', and aesthetic value in the 'beautiful', then historical value is determined by the concept of the 'attuned' or the 'authentic'. A judgement by historical criteria would be a judgement on how fully a particular work is an expression of “what the hour calls for historically and philosophically,” but to apply these sorts of judgements to modern albums sounds very much like relying on that most amorphous and elusive of concepts in popular music discourse: 'cool' (if, admittedly, couched in somewhat more grandiose language).

So here, at the last, we find ourselves ultimately – and, alas, perhaps inevitably – railing vainly into the gulf that separates the worlds of 'classical' and 'pop' music. In a sphere where the currents of fashion and 'historical appropriateness' run so shallow and fast, how can one justifiably stand still and judge a piece of pop music? If this is the kind of value judgement we are reduced to – defined by social factors far more than by formal ones – then we hardly needed to have bothered with any analysis in the first place. All we seem to have shown is that these social judgements have a rational foundation – or, at the very least least, a manifestation – in the formal characteristics of musical works. It can, I'm sure, be useful to attempt to apply some sort of formalist analysis of modern albums, but only as a single facet in an approach that includes, and indeed is ultimately reliant on, personal biases and (partly-)irrational opinions. In short, when I review albums in the future you can almost certainly expect to hear the same baseless judgements as I've always relied on, but we can rest easy in the knowledge that that is all anyone can hope to offer.

Select bibliography:

  • Benjamin, W., (1969), The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Illuminations, trans. Zohn, H., New York: Schocken Books.
  • Dahlhaus, C., (1983), Analysis and Value Judgement, trans. Levarie, S., New York: Pendragon.
  • Goodman, N., (1976), Languages of Art: An Approach to a theory of Symbols, 2nd ed., New York: Hackett.
  • Griffiths, D., (2004), OK Computer, London: Continuum International.
  • Kivy, P., (2002), Introduction to a Philosophy of Music, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Leaf, D., (1990), [CD booklet] Pet Sounds, Los Angeles: Capitol.
  • Zak, A. J., (2001), The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records, Berkeley: University of California Press.

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