Friday, October 23, 2009

Hey, You Don't Like Orchestral?

I don't usually read The Onion A.V. Club's music reviews, but I'll click through to their write-ups for artists I recognize (still pretty low in number). So I read through Chris Martins' review of a couple of instrumental releases from Sufjan Stevens (yeah, what's he been up to?) and tripped over his judgment on The BQE that "[the] music has little appeal to those who don’t already listen to classical".

To me this comes perilously close in tone to some phraseology once deployed on the satirical side of the Onion house.

Meanwhile, whatever else you can say about BQE, you can't claim as Martins seems to that its merits are somehow impenetrable to anyone except for hardened classical-listening veterans. (The A.V. Club site has a sidebar feature on its album reviews now that lets you listen to each track of most of them once, and possibly more if you're willing to delete the cookies from your browser, given an account you can set up for free with a dummy email address. Maybe it steals a little bit of your soul every time; maybe they'll try to "monetize" it eventually and it will go away; for now it's really useful for evaluating the music after you read about it.) It's hard for me to imagine orchestral music that would be more accessible to non-classical listeners than Stevens' stuff. "Classical" and "pop" are crummy categories to try to use in any corner case, but even with a couple movements of restrained electronic music I'd characterize BQE as light orchestra music -- like indie-pop Ferde Grofé. It seems to me no harder to make sense of than one of Nobuo Uematsu's later Final Fantasy soundtracks, or for that matter Gordon Jenkins' instrumental backing for Frank Sinatra's take on "It Was a Very Good Year".

If anything, being cozy with classical music will probably work against you liking the album rather than for it. It grew on me as it went on, but it's short on large-scale development and thoughtful orchestration -- two parameters that became important to me pretty early along the classical-listening path -- and sounds pretty foursquare overall. (The triplet figure that keeps hitching up the "Sleeping Invader" movement, for example, is likable at first but never varies, which becomes monotonous over four-plus minutes.) Charming, though (assuming you can like Sufjan Stevens at all, which means walking that razor's edge that separates the insufferably quirky-soulful from the sufferably quirky-soulful) -- I've mentioned before that light classical fare was my hook into the heavier stuff and I'd like to see this type of work put into orchestras' regular rotations. Its place, though, is on the accessible outer rim of classical; if you dislike it for what it is, fine, but to dismiss it as a niche product in a review is to fail to explain, or to own up to, what actually leaves you cold about the music. And that undoes the reason for having the review in the first place.

From another angle, maybe I just shouldn't let myself be baited on Friday afternoon into writing sniffy, overlong responses about classical music appreciation by offhand comments in random album reviews. Happy Weekend!


Blogger Pete said...

Yeah that was a pretty shitty review. I used to be a pretty hardcore AV Club devotee, but my interest in their interests has been on the wain as of late (as much as the site's taste in general still skews close to my own).

I was pretty... hmm... nonplussed by the BQE piece. Definitely not for "classical" music elitists. Sounds a lot like his other music, really. But, given the "lushness"of the "orchestrating," the twee qualities were a bit overwhelming.

Good meta-review, though, Nate. I enjoyed this post a lot.

10/26/2009 3:49 PM  

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