Formalism in Music and Literary Criticism

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Guess which Blue Note LP…?

I studied literature in college before pursing a graduate career in comparative literature. We learned to adopt formalist theory while evaluating various texts: poetry, novels, and short stories. It meant gleaning all possible meaning from the texts themselves without referencing an author’s life or any biographical details. By contrast, the so-called “Romanticist” approach took its cues from authors’ lives and personal experiences. These schools of thought were later superseded by a literary and philosophical article published, “The Intentional Fallacy,” which countered that a work of art’s meaning could not be gathered from a creator’s intentions. Accordingly, only the work itself could stand testament to its own success and merit.

This didn’t always sit well with me. How can you separate, say, Ernest Hemingway’s World War wounds from his early works? Formalism dictates that you would have to, but knowing of his personal traumas only serves to illuminate works for me like “Big Two-Hearted River,” a 1925 short story. Or what about the abject despair suffered by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky whilst composing his final Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, the Pathétique?

You may be wondering how I apply any of this critical theory to music. Labels often send me one-sheet profiles of artists along with their new works. But when auditioning new music, I actually make a point of not referring to these before giving an album its first listen, so that my listening expectations and/or experience won’t be in any way influenced. For instance, it shouldn’t matter that a sax player’s biggest influence was Sonny Rollins or John Coltrane—you should be able to discern things like this simply by listening. After the initial listen, I then always go back and read the biographical stuff. I feel this helps me to remain objective rather than being swayed by someone else’s rhetoric used to describe the music.

As a broadcaster, I suppose that I am (again) donning the formalist hat. If I like a new piece of music, I, of course, make a point of going back to read about it in order to impart the info to listeners. But the initial test is always music only.

Tom Schnabel's Rhythm Planet