Are you intimidated by listening to classical music because you feel that you don’t know enough about it? Now you can listen happily to any type of music with the aid of Literary Criticism. The first helpful technique is called New Criticism. It argues: the only thing important about a piece of art is the piece itself. Example: if you’re listening to Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, the only thing that is important is the music coming out of your stereo speakers. Nothing else. Bach’s intentions of how you should feel when listening to the piece are not important. The politics of 1730’s Germany have nothing to do with what you’re listening to. The career of the conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt is irrelevant. The pieces of music on which Bach drew to create the Christmas Oratorio are also irrelevant. New Criticism rejects all meaning superimposed by history or context. New Criticism focuses on a single work of art… period. A New Critic sits in his/her chair, lowers the tone arm onto a vinyl, and listens. They focus on the form, the content, and the flow of a composition. Now, any piece of music is yours... all yours in the moment you listen to it.
Once you feel comfortable with New Criticism, you can move on to Reader Response theory. This is super fun. It focuses solely on the reader, or in this case: the listener. Reader Response holds important the listener’s reactions to the work. It recognizes the reader/listener as the most important part of the piece of art. The song cannot exist or be beautiful without the listener. The listener completes the arts meaning through his/her interpretation. Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard Sgt. Pepper. Anyone could certainly explain how they felt when they listened to Boston’s More Than A Feeling for the first time, the pinball machines chinking in the background. And their experience builds and becomes it’s own performance art when they hear it for the 50th time. Can a person remember the first time they heard it? They can remember the memory of it, that is for sure. The mind draws on all the experiences and relations of the earlier times of hearing More Than A Feeling as one shot pool in a dim bar in New York or Seattle, the smell of hand rolled tobacco coming from the next room. The psychology of the listener is the focus. The music is important because the listener is important.
Armed with these two opposing, but complementary theories, we’re now able to come up to any album, put it on our turntable, and fully make it our own. Once you feel that you have taken possession of your album, then you can enjoy the bonus of revisiting all the issues that these critics were reacting against. For example, from start to finish, let’s imagine you listen to Bob Dylan’s Desire. The first time (you as the New Critic) are simply blown away by the entire album, especially the first song: Hurricane.´ You enjoy the drum fills, you love the driving guitar, you love the most powerful voice in popular music. Then as time goes on and you listen to it more and more, you (now as the Reader Response critic) realize that your memories of this song are almost as powerful as the song itself. Culture seeps in. You are intertwined with the smooth Matthew McConaughey as he strolls into a bar in the movie Dazed & Confused. You realize that this song is built of your understanding of the song, your relations and memories. When you put this song on, it brings you back to a certain place.
Now, finally, after all this, if you feel like it, you can go back to what the Russian and American university professors were reacting so strongly against during their analysis of art: historical context. It is not that they had any sinister plot to erase history, but it just got in the way of allowing a student a clean first analysis. You can now take your time, and figure this out on your own terms. You can find out what is behind the song Hurricane by Bob Dylan. You can learn how Rubin Carter, a professional middleweight boxer, was wrongly accused for a triple homicide. You hear the story of Rubin, Dylan’s critique of society, and rock. Now, go ahead, put on Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Enjoy the 14th section with the clarinet. Pour yourself a Scotch or a nice cup of tea as the needle drops. You can figure out the history and context later. -GHA