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March 23, 2011

When A Reviewer Becomes The Reviewed....

"What's it like to be reviewed, after slinging so many opinions yourself?"
I've been getting that question a lot lately. Since the January release of a CD of my original music, Into the Ojala, I've had occasion to see arts journalism from a slightly different perspective - as a subject.

It's been eye-opening to read people whose byline says "critic" but whose actual writing includes very little critical thinking or argument. (I know, I should not have been surprised by this....) Likewise, there's plenty to learn from being on the other end of a Q&A session - watch how a journalist gets tangled up phrasing a fairly straightforward question, and you begin to appreciate the importance of clarity on both sides of the interview dynamic.

When I began making music in a serious way again, I didn't expect to attract media attention - or have any reason to court it. Only after we'd finished recording did several of my accomplices begin to talk, in strong terms, about sharing publicly what we'd done. They argued that we'd hit on (I'd say "lucked into") an unusual sound, one that had some obvious touchstones but also stood apart. The guitarist, who produced the recording, thought that the tunes might enchant people who have little use for jazz. These comments helped me overcome the inevitable fear about going public and presenting myself in this different light.

Once I was convinced and on board, the next steps seemed to stretch out like a row of dominos in front of us. If we believe in the music enough to post it to a website, shouldn't we also print up CDs? And if we're in it to that degree, shouldn't we try to spread the word about it, kick up some publicity? And so on. Each step was a different learning experience - first about the small industry that feeds on independent artists (somebody gets paid to print up all those gig posters), and then about the commitment necessary to shepherd a work from the recording studio to the program director's desk at a radio station. As journalists we are besieged with new releases every day, and it can be difficult to remember that each of them traveled up a formidable mountain to reach us. Consider just how wide the gulf is between the producer of some work of art (a self-published ebook, a collection of songs, a film) and the media gatekeepers who can determine a project's fate in the marketplace: Most artists devote significant energy to even the slightest details involved in presenting their work. Most critics are so inundated with material it is unrealistic to expect that attention will be paid to those details - indeed, it's unwise to expect anything beyond cursory consideration. The refrain is familiar: Too much information. I'd argue that it's healthy for a critic to experience this phenomenon from the other side, as that of a creator. I'm not saying that alone would change a critic's approach, just that it might expand his or her awareness of the difficulties and challenges involved in bringing a creation to the public.

Now, the little "campaign" for our endeavor has wrapped up. We sold some CDs and more digital downloads. The music was discussed in local weeklies and on public radio in Philly; the HuffPo folks sent some email questions and asked me to respond, which I did despite my reservations about that particular business model and the "editorial" it has wrought. There was nice press in advance of a record release show, which sold out; there were no reviews of the show. This surprised me, knowing how my media brethren love to be on hand for a potential train wreck.

I have yet to synthesize the experience into a coherent narrative. But I have been collecting some random thoughts, which are below. Fwiw, I mention specific pieces not to vent or settle scores, but in the interest of sharing what I encountered. I've always believed it's possible to learn from negative reviews, and I certainly hoped to gain insight that way with my own endeavor, from the pieces about it that most would describe as "unflattering." Alas, no dice: In several cases, I was just the daily special for the snark tank.

The Internet journalism world is lazy. There are plenty of chances to promote your artistic output on the Internet, provided you're willing to do the lion's share of the work involved in actually executing the coverage. The most obvious time-intensive example of this is the "email Q&A interview," which offers the chance to respond in depth, and compose ostensibly thoughtful answers at a leisurely pace. What surprised me was the lack of follow-up: In the course of doing a half-dozen of these, I'm sure I scrawled some inscrutable stuff, and made some assertions that an alert journalist would have called out for further scrutiny. No such challenges came back, and to my mind, that made the coverage less rich, lacking some crucial dimension. I wonder if this marks me as officially "old school"?

People who call themselves music critics might not have knowledge of basic music terms. We take it for granted that critics will have working understanding of the terms of art - someone pronouncing on a painting should, at a minimum, know the materials used. For some reason, that doesn't always happen in music. The mostly dismissive review of Moon Hotel Lounge Project in Downbeat, once the "paper of record" for jazz, makes mention of a "tempo detour" midway through my tune "Seed The Future." Unfortunately for critic Bob Gendron, the tempo stays the same throughout the piece; there's a section where the instrumentation and texture changes, but the underlying pulse remains steady throughout. Reading that fairly obvious gaffe, I found myself not trusting this scribe's overall appraisal of the work as a "sleepy listen." Why should this person be trusted if he's throwing around fundamental building-block terms with such obvious disregard?

It's apparently easier to discuss an unusual career move than it is to describe what's happening inside the work itself. I love a good story, and I'm all for context - and I was gratified to read some coverage of Into the Ojala that included enthusiastic appraisals of my work as a critic, and also the book I did (1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die). In several cases, though, the "critic changes teams" theme became the entire story, with virtually no discussion of the work itself. One review, from the Buffalo News, is essentially a riff on the notes I wrote for the website that explain the origin of the project. Of course it's fair game to seize upon those notes, and to be honest I expected a degree of ridicule about them. But to devote an entire review to that line of thinking, without ever offering the reader a description of what the music sounds like, exactly what does that accomplish? 

Reading clips like that one prompted some reflection on my own work as a critic: Do I often lean too much on the supplied materials, on the "story" as it is offered up by a publicist? To a degree, that's inevitable, especially with a high-profile artist. I think, though, that it's important to strive for some original insight to balance that out. This doesn't have to be a superlong essay, just a passage or two that anticipates the reader's question about what happens inside the work - how it sounds, the emotional landscape it strives for, etc. It can be enormously challenging to write those kinds of descriptions, but often it's that kind of writing that sparks curiosity in readers. Related observation: There's nothing wrong with drawing connections between a current work and its antecedents. The world turns on influences and inspirations - in one sense, art is a protracted conversation between present-day creators and those who have come blazing trails before. Even though my influences as a composer are fairly obvious - and in the promotional material I talk explicitly about Antonio Carlos Jobim, one patron saint - very few of the reviews of the album connected my music to any touchstone at all. Sure, sometimes critics are guilty of overdoing it with endless citations of obscure influences, but when deployed properly, those citations can help enrich understanding about a work, particularly when it's from an unknown entity.

March 23, 2011 9:01 AM | | Comments (1)


Hi Tom - as a composer and now-former critic, I've tried to stay open to the idea that I might learn something from a negative review, but it's never happened. I can criticize my own pieces better, and more sharply and accurately, than I've ever seen anyone else do it. I might occasionally get an insightful comment on some young composer's blog. But we don't taken criticism seriously enough, we don't train critics, we don't teach critics the gravity of their responsibilities, and as a result you can thank your lucky stars if you get a positive imbecilic review instead of a negative imbecilic review - but the review will be imbecilic regardless. It's not only the *internet* journalism world that's lazy. When I started out as a critic, I avidly read other critics to learn the tricks of the trade, and all I learned was that I could get away with far less thoughtfulness and far worse writing than I was already employing, so I quit reading. It's too bad, it's a great and crucial profession, undeveloped.

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