I Am Stumped by This Music Review


In the LA Times today, classical music critic Mark Swed reviewed Yuja Wang’s performance of Scriabin’s Sixth Sonata. He says Wang played it for “beauty and thrills”:

But she also raced through the sonata, treating it as something to be so fully mastered that it might lose its power to corrupt the spirit with its huge portions of musical decadence.

I love this. Not just because I don’t understand a word of it. That’s to be expected since I know essentially nothing about music. I love it because I can’t even conceive of how someone might come up with that particular string of words to describe a musical experience. Where did they come from? What was going through Swed’s mind when he put them down on paper? Did this thought occur to him naturally, or did he have to work hard on that sentence to make it express the way he felt? And did he really feel that the tempo of Wang’s performance was somehow motivated by a desire to cut through the sonata’s “power to corrupt the spirit”?

I have no idea. It’s like reading Ulysses. Or perhaps a description of a cricket test. The words are demonstrably in English, and the syntax makes sense, but nothing else does.

Anyway, you can probably tell by now that I’m having trouble coming up with anything to write about today, so at this point I’m just blathering. But I sat down on the sofa with the newspaper a few minutes ago and then Domino jumped onto my lap. I didn’t want to toss her off right away, so I gave her a few minutes of snoozing by reading the whole entertainment section,1 including Swed’s review. And it just stonkered me, especially the sentence above. But let’s give this post a veneer of seriousness anyway by turning it into a teachable moment. For those of you who know music better than me (a lot better, hopefully), read the review and discuss in comments. What should I have taken away from it?

1Nickel version: Jack Nelson was a great reporter; Lil Wayne’s new album has a few good moments; the architecture of the new Perot museum in Dallas is “cynical”; American Idol needs some changes to reverse its declining fortunes; and next year’s Oscars telecast will be on March 2.

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