“Boulez founded a centre for musical research in the bowels of the Centre Pompidou … a laboratory at the furthest frontiers of mixing computers with instruments that made him the most important person in the life of international contemporary music.” (The Guardian, September 22, 2011.)
“May I modestly propose that John Philip Sousa is America’s truly important composer.” (The New York Times, July 5, 2007.)
“The Chicago Symphony Orchestra has released details of its 12-concert festival … celebrating the music of Russia’s most important composer of the 20th century, Dmitri Shostakovich.” (Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1999.)
I’d ask what these three excerpts have in common – but I expect you’ve already figured it out: they all contain the word “important.”
Is there a more pretentious yet vapid word in the English language? Its meaning is at best imprecise and at worst non-existent – yet it’s often trucked out by critics who wish to declare (rather than argue) that some composer or composition is exceptionally worthy in some ineffable way.
Sometimes the word seems to imply an unassailable consensus: we all know that Shostakovich was Russia’s most important 20th century composer, right? To suggest otherwise would be pretty stupid. And sometimes it can be used to elevate the stature of a composer whose reputation could use some elevating. Just slap the label “important” on Sousa, and The Liberty Bell already starts to sound grander. And when it’s applied to a high modernist like Boulez, its subtext glows like a neon sign: this is a composer whose greatness you should acknowledge, whether you like his music or not.
Moreover, I suspect that the use of the word “important” is also intended to make the writer sound “important” too, by establishing him/her as an arbiter and conveyor of that glorious thing called importance. In my opinion, all it does is make the writer sound as vain and insubstantial as the Great and Powerful Oz.
Of course it’s not just critics: publicists and concert managers are fond of “important.” Many program-annotators find it a useful crutch – and there are more than a few musicologists who can’t get through a day without it. The publicists and concert managers are perhaps to be excused: it’s part and parcel of their trade to indulge in puffery. That’s what they’re paid to do. But surely the rest of us could do better, if only we tried.
So here’s my advice to writers struggling to shake the “important” habit. Every time you type the word, pause to ask yourself what, exactly, you are trying to say. Then delete it, and write some words that are clear, precise and endowed with genuine insight.
It’s nice to be important – but it’s more important to be meaningful.
© Colin Eatock 2011