Happy New Year [it's not Epiphany yet so I'm still in there].
Yes, it's been a long time since I've written a longer article but I thought it might be a lot more use to put my thoughts down in this format rather than surging them out piecemeal on Twitter. Twitter, incidentally is where this all happened: Seb Scotney from London Jazz posted this:
First review I've seen of the new @porticoquartet CD. "Underwhelming" / "lack of consistency" says @catherinezmarks culture-capital-blog.com/2011/12/23/cd-...
Putting aside the issues with sharing negativity on the Internet, I went to the review to read it. I'd already been doing a fair bit of thinking about writing about music: Graham Collier's book does that to you; Nat Birchall and I had had a good chat about it on Wednesday; and I had ranted about bad creative music journalism previously. So when I saw the sentence
I've always described Portico Quartet to others as being the jazz version of Radiohead
it triggered a little switch. So here are the points that occurred to me in response: I'll expand here.
I want to point out that I really appreciate fans talking about the music. It's really important, and it's not what I'm getting at here - it's journalism that I'm examining. I'd also like to point out that I don't think Catherine Marks is an example of bad creative music journalism: it was just that first sentence that was a trigger point.
Can this be the year when creative music is described/critiqued on its own terms and not lazily compared to other groups?
This of course relates to the above sentence, but also to several years of reviews in most of the papers about music. Note, I'm not saying "don't compare": the word lazily is there for a reason, and it connects with my later points.
Will this be the year that jazz and improvised music is written about without some idiot using poor music theory to denigrate it?
This relates to my earlier rant and the Ring Modulator "review" of the Threadgill gig; as well as some newer blogs with quite simply woeful examples of using misapplied music theory to beat up on artistry.
Music theory is exactly that: theory. Unless you're absolutely certain you understand everything that's happening in the music on a technical level, then it's probably best to leave it alone. Or just ask—this relates to my eighth point.
Are we going to have people talking about the feeling of the room at a gig: or just the insides of their heads?
To me, this is perhaps one of the most upsetting things about some reviews. The whole room/hall can enjoy and love a gig, but because the reviewer doesn't like it, a group gets a bad review. I'm not saying that the reviewer's opinions shouldn't stand: but there needs to be recognition that that person was clearly in a minority. There are groups I cannot stand: but I'm clearly in a minority, and I owe it to myself as an individual to be able to state the difference between my feelings and everybody else's.
The music I and the people I know [and like] deals with individual AND collective communication through sound. We all only have to listen.
And listening is the thing. Not understanding necessarily: you don't have to understand something to like it. You just have to experience it and be open to the experience and youself. Do I like it? Will I like it later? Have I given it/myself the time to appreciate it? This should be a moot point. But I feel it is not.
There are always gloriously talented people in the room. But the word "virtuoso" and its derivatives are usually misapplied.
A bugbear of mine, and something I'd like to have a discussion about more widely. It's a devil of a word, but the core definition of a virtuoso is someone with remarkable artistic skill. It's the word artistic that is important here. Artistic does not mean the same as technical—thus being able to play fast lines on your instrument does not make you a virtuoso. Being artistic requires skill AND taste; so a virtuoso will have both these attributes in abundance. And that is not a lot of people [myself included - and I have been called a virtuoso—kindly, but erroneously—at least twice].
But technical skill? Not necessarily. We're talking about is music—the craft/art of creating sounds through a framework of time that can elicit emotional responses in a listener. If the musician shows awe-inspiring skill in doing that and a wide cross-section of people feel the same awe, that musician might be a virtuoso.
If you're going to talk about the gig, talk about the gig. But if you want to write and critique the ART, then write in an artful way.
I'd like to link this with
Great musicians spend the time to develop a language full of meaning within context. Journalistic critique should do the same.
Because they ARE different modes of talking. If you just ask me about a gig I heard, I'd just say straight out if I liked it or not. And I'd write, "hey! heard this the other day; sounded amazing!" But if I was writing a review of a band I'd make damned sure I knew where they were coming from [even if they were references I was unaware of] and could express how that music made me feel. And if I couldn't, or it made me feel nothing, I just wouldn't bother.
Journalistic critique is a craft: it is more than just "talking about the gig". It requires work; and some writers need to realise whether they can offer critique or just their own opinions.
Writing about a living musician's work is now easier than before. You can now just ask them by e-mail, or messaging, or over the Internet.
And this does happen—but there are cases where it does not. If the person is alive, you could just ask—and as musicians we need to be more open/honest about helping with reviews of our work, because reviewers help spread our work in a way that might not be accessible to us otherwise: through various media and recommendations. I personally think musicians need to write more - but maybe that requires another posting.
There's no need to write about an artist with no knowledge or context.
And if you think I'm being unreasonable, just think of the arts reviews that you've read. Is there knowledge? context? high writing skill? Once again, journalistic critique is a craft: it is more than just "talking about the gig".
I realise entirely that people who write reviews do so because they are fans of the music.
But there is a fulcrum; and when the lever tips towards "critic" or "journalist" then there has to be standards. Choosing to put your opinion out there carries a responsibility. And that responsibility is not just to the reader of the review, but a personal one. Intelligence shines through writing. Are you presenting yourself the way you want to be seen?
There's a comments box below—let's talk about it!