Friday, December 23, 2005

Music Criticism II: Elements of Constructive Criticism

Since I have bemoaned errant music criticism for nigh onto thirty years now (And it is only the bad stuff that sets me off), I have also very speciffically defined for myself what I think valid criticism is.

First of all, criticism should be fair. I will not insist upon objectivism, because pure objectivity is impossible where human beings are involved, but simple fairness does not seem like too much to ask. Beyond that, some subjectivity is certainly necessary, and even a good thing: If a reader get's to know a critic's likes and dislikes - and finds himself in agreement most of the time - then that reader will have found someone whose opinion can be trusted to reflect his tastes. Obviously, this would be a happy state of affairs for both parties. This is the ideal goal of the critic/reader relationship.

There is simply no way to list all of the aspects of fairness, and anyone with a good conscience ought to be able to be guided internally in this. A few things do seem worth mentioning, however. Fairness demands that the circumstances of a particular performance or recording be taken into account. If the critic is attending the premiere of a new work that has ambitious elements complicating the execution and presentation, there should be some allowances made. It would be inappropriate to compare such a first performance to the well polished staging of an old chestnut that everybody is familiar with. Occasional "things that go bump" - which will obviously be corrected with subsequent performances - should not be harped on needlessly: Just mention them and move on, keeping them in the proper perspective.

Fairness also demands that varying tastes be recognized and accounted for: Just because the peculiar cravings of the critic have not been fully satisfied does not mean that others may not completely enjoy a particular work or performance. That is not to say the critic shouldn't point out his likes and dislikes, but to invalidate a performance or recording entirely based on taste seems a bit harsh. A simple, "This is not to my taste, but if you like so-and-so, you may also enjoy this..." would suffice (And you'd be performing your intended service to the community).

Allied with fairness is kindness. If a critic simply wants a soapbox to spew bile from, it seems to me that a personal blog that readers don't pay to access would be the appropriate format for that (I really don't mind withering criticism from bloggers, as there ought to be a place to vent like that: I do it too sometimes, and I certainly enjoy reading a well-written rant), and not a periodical that readers are paying for, and furthermore accessing to get useful information.

Meanness from critics who are not also practicing musicians is particularly inappropriate and irksome: No non-musician can ever possibly relate to - or comprehend on any level - the deeply quiet bravery that it takes to be a performer or composer. Musicians are my heros because I know what it's like to expose oneself to an audience and present creations that depict the deepest, unutterable truth of one's soul. A ranting critic seems like an insignificant buzzing gnat compared to the men and women whom I've met who perform and write music (Even the ones whose music I don't personally care for... Especially the ones whose music I don't care for, because plenty of people don't care for mine!).

Then, there are the dreaded comparisons: We all love and hate to make them, and we all know why they are useful and useless when it comes to music. But, to inform lay readers and musicians alike, comparisons are a necessity. Just do the reader the service of making them appropriate and useful, as far as is possible. I've lost track of the bizarre and silly comparos I've read over the years: If you think it's terribly clever, it will probably leave the layman scratching his head... and the musician shaking his.

Suggestions: By all means, make them! Is there anything more tedious than a critic who goes on for paragraph after paragraph running a subject into the dust without ever offering anything in the area of ideas that could help? When I read such reviews, I am left to conclude that the reviewer is simply bereft of any CONSTRUCTIVE ideas of any kind. Most of the greatest learning moments in my life have started out something like, "You know what might help here?" If the critic really wants to participate in the art of music - versus just shouting through a bullhorn on the sidelines - then he must offer something to the art in terms of ideas which can be put into effect. Not only do I have no problem with this idea, but I'd welcome it: I'm not performing for myself out there, and if I get a good suggestion that I think will increase the audiences enjoyment, I'll certainly entertain that idea gladly.

I could go on and on about this I suppose, but I'm actually taking away from some practice time I need to get to. Perhaps a simple example would help.

There is no doubt but that Marcia looks like a million dollars here - and just a few of those gowns would probably cost you that - but she really doesn't have the decoltage to pull of anything so low-cut. And yes, every hair is in place, and several hours of work most certainly went into the makeup, but the overall effect is too "fancy-schmancy" for my taste. If high-zoot arm-ornaments are your style, there's no doubt that she would break necks with some of the head-turners out there, but you may want to ask yourself where such a "need" for arm-ornaments comes from. I really think she would look better with a slightly higher cut dress and a more windblown 'doo. I must compliment the total absence of any glittery-baubles in the jewlry department though.

Now, that's what I'm talking about!


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