Describing the indescribable: how people talk about new music

Hewett, I. (2019) Describing the indescribable: how people talk about new music. In: Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group Conference, 11-12 July 2019, Kings College, London. (Unpublished)


Describing and evaluating aesthetic objects or events which stand outside familiar genre and stylistic boundaries presents a special problem. It’s not simply the difficulty of “effing the ineffable”, of finding exactly the right term or terms to capture the nature of the subjective experience, which is after all a familiar problem in criticism. It’s more that in the contemporary arts, the intelligible link between description and evaluation we take to exist in familiar critical terms such as “graceful” and “grand” has become dysfunctional. This is shown in the frequent use of such terms as “twisted” and “perverted” in film and fiction criticism, as terms of approbation. Clearly the link here between the named quality and the associated evaluation must work in a different way. One can observe an analogous phenomenon in critical writing and in everyday discourse around contemporary art music, where novel terms such as “immersive” and “hypnotic” have spread like wildfire in recent years. Calling on recent work in ethics and aesthetics on the nature of “thick” and “thin” terms, which tries to explicate exactly how the functions of description and evaluation are differently combined in different sorts of term, this paper will offer an explication of the way these two functions are related in a number of terms now commonly used to describe the experience of listening to contemporary music. In doing so, the author hopes to shed a little light on the changing nature of avant-garde or “cutting-edge” musical experiences, as revealed in the terms listeners now use to talk about them.

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