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January 29, 2011

Criticizing the critics at length (or because of it)

Earlier this week, the Washington Post carried two reviews of a concert of contemporary classical music by the Verge Ensemble at the National Gallery of Art in DC. The Post's staff critic, Anne Midgette, was not one of the reviewers, and she took to her blog at midweek with this: 

Due to a clerical error, two critics reviewed the concert for the Washington Post.

One of the premises of this blog is that there are a lot of different ways to look at a concert, and the more voices join in the discussion, the better. So I couldn't pass up the opportunity to post two contrasting reviews of the same event: Charles T. Downey's in the newspaper, and Cecelia Porter's on the blog, after the jump.

These two pieces present two different approaches, even two different ways of writing a view. You be the critic: what are the pros and cons of each? And would anybody like to add his or her own views of what sounds like an intriguing concert?

That was invitation enough for composer Alexandra Gardner who wrote in NewMusicBox:

as a composer, I find reviews like both of these to be wildy frustrating. Who wants to read an adjective-filled rundown of the program? Of course some description is necessary, but when there is no real viewpoint (whatever it may be) offered or commentary on issues such as audience reaction, performer interaction, or how the different compositions did or did not hold up against one another--this program was extremely varied, so did the pieces work together?--the whole endeavor seems futile.

Gardner asserted some factual quibbles, but the main complaint was that the reviews offered little in the way of judgment or insight, and therefore were of little use to readers. The comments after Gardner's complaint were even harsher, and 
Downey jumped in (twice) to his own defense, detailing the difficulties of trying to write a meaningful review in 250 words. A space issue, in other words.

Back in 2003 when he started his ArtsJournal blog, music critic Kyle Gann wrote one of the best explanations I've seen about what space constraint can do to a critic's ability to write nuanced or even coherent arguments. He called it the "censorship of word count":

When I started at the Village Voice in 1986, my column was 950 words long (though I could get a luxurious 1700 by asking in advance). It shrank to 900 words, then 750, and lately 650. When you've got only 650 words in which to express the distilled experience of a lifetime, you start writing in shorthand. Opinions and principles that are not your central focus get squeezed into a sentence, and then lose a couple more words in editing. So if you've spent a lifetime going back and forth about the music of Elliott Carter, charmed by some pieces and bored by others, and after much analysis, listening, and soul-searching deciding that he's got his strengths but is not the Great American Master he's cracked up to be - and you're referring to him in a 650-word article that is not about Elliott Carter - all that accumulated wisdom gets boiled down to: "Carter's music isn't memorable." Because you've got four words to spare. 

Tragically, you can get used to writing this way.

So back to the Post reviews. If 250 words is all there are, then what should be the point of them? Downey argues that by the time you get the "basics" done -- the who/what/when/where -- there's not enough left over for the whys or wherefores. There are many general editors who would say the "facts" of the event are essential when you're writing for a general audience. But are they? Are 250 words of "facts" at all fun to read? Illuminating? Interesting? And why are the whys and wherefores at the bottom of the list?

In this day of information overload, it would seem that if you just wanted the facts of a performance or performer you could go online and get them. Shouldn't the real value of the critic be to offer insight that you can't find elsewhere? Maybe Kyle's right and you can't be meaningfully insightful with only 250 words. But the "facts" version of reviewing ain't so interesting either. 
January 29, 2011 1:34 PM | | Comments (1)


Having had more experience writing 250-word reviews than most, albeit not in classical music, I'd observe that whatever possibility there is of saying something in that space--which in my opinion is real, though obviously not if you want to say something about Elliott Carter and the review concerns someone else--is greatly enhanced by assuming a reader with a tolerance for cognitive dissonance. This seldom means ignoring just-the-facts. It means picking and choosing among them. Which is, of course, anathema to most general editors.

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