Yesterday Charles Rosen used the NYRblog platform on the Web site for The New York Review of Books to take an innovative approach to reviewing a concert through which the reader could share in brief excerpts of the reviewer’s listening experiences. The concert in question was a recital given in honor of the 103rd birthday of Elliott Carter at the 92nd Street Y in New York. The text review was illustrated by four audio excerpts from the program, ranging in duration from 42 seconds (from “Hiyoku,” a composition for two clarinets) to one minute and four seconds (from A Sunbeam’s Architecture a song cycle on poems by e. e. cummings). These excerpts were made possible because the 92nd Street Y has opened an account on SoundCloud, a Web service that enables the sharing of audio files in a manner similar to the YouTube approach to video.
Embedded in Rosen’s review was a player listing the excerpts (along with “Intro” and “Outro” announcements, very much in the style one would expect from National Public Radio). Thus, as one read his descriptions in text, one could then listen to the corresponding excerpts for a concrete sample of what Rosen had been trying to describe. Furthermore, one could focus on specific portions of the example, using the mouse to specify where to start playing by clicking on a graph providing a rough approximation of the change in amplitude over time. (Readers of my Rehearsal Studio blog know that I have experimented with such displays as an aid for analysis based on the listening experience, rather than the notes printed on the score pages.)
This was a particularly valuable approach to take to Carter’s music. The fact is that the Carter repertoire is not performed very much. One reason is that preparing such a performance is a challenging prospect. Much of that challenge, however, comes from the fact that there are so few opportunities to listen to Carter’s music that most performers have to think through what they are going to do from scratch. In other words both performers and listeners are caught in the vicious circle that there are so few opportunities to listen to Carter’s music because there are so few opportunities to listen to Carter’s music. True, there are many recordings that both would-be listeners and performers can consult; but, for music this challenging, those recordings run the risk of fostering both confusion and discouragement.
Thus, in his own small way, Rosen has tried to break free of the bonds of these challenges. He never tries to deny or simplify the complexity of Carter’s music, but he is a sincere advocate for the rewards that come to those willing to accept that complexity and take on the rich opportunities for sensemaking that it offers. This is the stance that Rosen took in his text, and the text definitely benefitted from the addition of actual excerpts of performance.
Furthermore, Rosen concluded by citing another performance of a different Carter song cycle, this one based on the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot, given at Alice Tully Hall a few days after the 92nd Street Y recital. This was supplemented with the MP3 file of an excerpt and an embedded Yahoo! WebPlayer. In this case, unfortunately, there was no information about the source of the audio file; but Rosen’s point was to call attention to differences in sonority between the cummings setting and that of Eliot.
There is nothing new about including music examples in a blog post. Most blog authoring systems are designed to encourage hypermedia authoring, and there are plenty of blog authors who have responded productively to that encouragement. However, Rosen has chosen to respond in a manner that tries to address the perspective of the listener in conjunction with the perspective of the performer. We are not overwhelmed by score pages showing the sophistication of Carter’s approach to overlaying multiple tempos. Rather, we are given are few tastes of the visceral implications of this composer’s many cerebral pursuits. This is unlikely to simplify the act of listening to Carter’s music; but, if it whets the curiosity of a few performers, it may help to break that vicious cycle that deprives us of more opportunities to get to know this music.