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Reception History

and Music Criticism

Overview of Research Issues
• “Reception” (whether of music or any other
artistic phenomenon) is: “a term applied both
to the history of social responses to art, and
to an aesthetic that privileges those
(Samson, Jim. 2001 "Reception." Grove Music Online. 28
Oct. 2018.

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– Social history and sociology of music
• What repertoires thrive in a particular period,
place, and demographic, and how and why do
they do so?
• What does societal response to particular
music(s) tell us about a culture or societal
group as a whole?

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Who does the “reception”?
– Audiences (in public or private contexts)
– Professional critics (in journals, newspapers, etc.)
– Musicians (in programming, teaching, etc.)
– Scholars (in writing and public speaking)
– Artistic institutions: opera houses, concert halls,
cafes, libraries, museums (in programming, etc.)
– Commercial enterprises: record companies, radio
stations, publishing houses, etc. (in their business

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What happens in “reception”?
• The listener (individually or collectively)
establishes a relationship to a piece of
music, and assigns it meaning and
– This is an important process, because it
suggests that meaning and value do not
live entirely (or at all?) in the piece of music
itself, or at least that the listener is a
participant in establishing the meaning and
value of music.
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• In your experiences, do you think it is
important to know what the “reception” by
listeners of a piece you write or perform is?
Why might this be important?
Or why not?

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In Practice…
• We usually think of “reception” as the
domain of music criticism.
• But music criticism is not monolithic:
there are many kinds: from the most
exclusive and learned, to the most
popularized and casual.

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Case: Ornette Coleman
• In his early L.A. years, “wherever he tried to
introduce some of his more personal and
innovative ideas, he met with hostility, both
from audiences and from musicians.” Later,
“his recording Free Jazz (Atl., 1960) for
double jazz quartet … was undoubtedly the
single most important influence on avant-
garde jazz in the ensuing decade.” (Grove
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The reception of Free Jazz
• What was the contemporary reception
of Coleman’s album Free Jazz, and
what can this reception history tell us
about music, jazz, performance,
audiences, etc., in the 1960s?

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Writing a Reception History
• How do we write a reception history of
Free Jazz in the 1960s? We can look at
– Coleman’s own testimony about the
reception of his music
– The testimony of his collaborators
– The testimony of managers, record
company execs, recording engineers, etc.
– Documented audience responses to the
music (e.g., concert video)

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Writing a Reception History
• But perhaps the most commonly consulted
evidence about the reception of music is its
contemporary criticism (usually recorded in
published form, but also as oral testimony)
– We don’t read historical criticism so much to
understand the musical work as to understand its
relationship to the culture that it inhabits.
– Reception history is less about value judgements
than about how and why value judgements are
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Selected Jazz Research
• Rutgers University Library Institute of
Jazz Studies
• The Center for Jazz Studies (Columbia
University) (https://jazz.columbia.edu/ )
– The Jazz Review
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