Yet another quote from David Foster Wallace about Academic Prose that applies equally well to Academic Music

…the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own résumé.  In other words, it is when a scholar’s vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly).  The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak (“revenue enhancement,” “downsizing,” “proactive resource-allocation restructuring”) that it’s tempting to think AE’s real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.

DFW, “Authority and American Usage” from Consider the Lobster


[Addendum: I do realize that the quote, the music, and the overall angsty anti-Modernist zeitgeist of this post are very 1990’s, but whatever — it still rings true, and as much as the situation may have changed, one must be ever vigilant.]

One Comment

Eric L

Hey William, I arrived here via your Sandow post. Curious as to what the clip is from? I actually don’t think this is the most egregious example one can come up with. I kind of like it (but hard to really make a final judgment from a few seconds):) My least favorite (and absolute pet peeve) is music that flutters around directionless, with some lovely meandering flutter-tongue flute and gestures that seemingly come in and out for no reason. Or the ridiculous brass swells in orchestral music that everyone seems to loooove these days in their music. The brass chords in this at least have a sort of interesting rhythmic patter. This isn’t remotely close to that bad.

In any case, point taken. And I agree there’s a tremendous amount of modernist crap out there posing as music. With that said, I’m not ready to disavow all modernist music. The lovely diatonic-ky chord that emerges out of the massed texture about 2-3 minutes into Ligeti’s Atmospheres is cathartic for me…on the level of the best moments in Bach or Sigur Ros. I think there are lots of gems out there. And I think used correctly, certain modernist gestures can be extremely dramatic and emotional.

But this is a longer discussion all together.

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