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Shielding One's Self from Significant Criticism

Posted by Ben on March 3, 2012 at 11:20 PM

       I recently began to write an orchestral piece and had a lot of ideas for beginnings and directions to take it. As I tried multiple ideas,  I began to think about how I start writing most pieces, and I realized that I generally have an instinct towards fun and upbeat music. 

       I thought about why I have this tendency, and I realized that writing zany and light-hearted music is a way to shield myself from significant criticism and "hide" behind the playfulness. Writing silly pieces does this effectively for two reasons. First, if someone were to criticize the music, it would not be particularly hard-hitting because I could simply pass it off by thinking, "Well, this was just me having fun. It's not like you are criticizing anything extremely significant." An equivalent statement could probably not be made had I written a more serious piece. Second, I generally find that most people are quicker to criticize serious works of art than light-hearted or funny ones. It seems that many people (I can admit that I fall into this trap at times as well) feel pretentious making very harsh criticisms about something that is just trying to be fun. Additionally, many people (again, myself included) usually feel that the effort of trying to do something fun is laudable, so they will possibly be more lenient on a fun work than they would on a more serious work. This is why it seems to me that people are almost always extremely complimentary about any classical music that is written for children or that tries to be comedic. Who wants to be the type of person who insults a composer who writes something fun for kids or who tries to get people laughing? Though I am fixating on music, I think the same point could be made about all works of art. I think you could even make the same case about personalities in general. 

       Though being funny and light-hearted is one way of "hiding", I think there are many other ways of doing it as well. I think a lot of contemporary classical music hides in some sense. The most common way that classical composers do this is through writing music that is incomprehensibly complicated. Though I could be wrong, I think part of the reason why composers are motivated to write extremely dissonant and complex music is that they want the audience to just assume that the work is brilliant and they are too naive and simple-minded to understand it. In this sense, the composer is guilt-tripping the listener into liking their works rather than doing so by establishing an emotional connection, which in my opinion is far more difficult and risky. Another way that contemporary classical composers (and a few pop and rock people) hide is by using a ton of special effects and experimental ideas, going for originality in the most extreme sense of the word. In these cases, the resulting pieces are so different than any other existing pieces that it is difficult to even know how to evaluate them, so it would be harder to criticize them in any significant way. Thus, in the same way that composers can write light-hearted or humorous pieces to shield themselves from criticism, composers can go to the opposite extreme and write music that is so abstract that the listener has no significant basis on which to criticize it.  To be completely honest, I could even buy into the argument that music on the whole is a form of hiding, and other art forms are more personal, though a massive amount of people would probably scream in disagreement if confronted with that notion. So, I could be wrong.

        Importantly, hiding is not a bad thing. It is obviously not necessary that every work of art provide a direct emotional path to the artist. If that were the case, then one could argue that autobiographies are objectively better than fictitious books. Also, as I mentioned before, having fun is great and is part of life, so there is no reason why art should not reflect that. Nonetheless, it is for the reasons outlined above that I have a particular admiration for works of art that "go for it" and put the artist's identity on display, placing them in a somewhat vulnerable position. Something seems really bold about J.D. Salinger writing "The Catcher in the Rye" or Ned Rorem writing many simple yet gorgeous songs when everyone around him was writing serial music. 

        That being said, I chose to make the orchestral piece fun and light-hearted anyway! 

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