Critic – one who engages often professionally in the analysis, evaluation, or appreciation of works of art or artistic performances

The debate about the value of music criticism and those who write it is not new. In the digital age, the music itself has not changed, but the technologies through which we discuss, transmit and share it have changed immeasurably.

The internet has had an extraordinary, largely democratising effect on music criticism and writing about music in general. Such writing is no longer confined only to the mainstream media (MSM) and specialist journals, and the rise of the blogger and independent reviewer/critic has opened up the world of opinion-making and debate like never before, creating a vast and lively forum for the exchange of views. In addition, the internet provides access to an enormous range of music and information, and for the critic – whether paid by a newspaper or journal, working independently, or an unpaid blogger – there is scope to do more research and write better because of the wealth of resources available online.

The internet has also challenged many traditional ideas about writing and journalism. Space is no longer an issue and longform writing has become popular in online reviews and blogs, whereas a music review in a newspaper may be limited to just 500 words or less. In addition, as publishers’ budgets are squeezed, niche subjects like classical music are often the first areas to be cut; today newspapers employ fewer or no in-house music critics, the work now being farmed out to freelancers, while only the “premier division” of concerts and artists merit attention in the mainstream media. Independent writers and bloggers, meanwhile, can plug the gaps in the coverage of music.

This has led to a fair degree of protectiveness amongst professional (i.e. paid) critics who feel that the blogosphere and the rise of the “citizen critic” or amateur pundit is partly responsible for the slow death of traditional print journalism. Some also feel that bloggers and independent reviewers have no place in the ranks of “qualified”/professional/specialist/”proper” journalists because they lack appropriate experience or specialist knowledge, and that the writing of these individuals has little value compared to a review or critique in a newspaper or journal. This kind of gatekeeping is interesting, though not surprising. Feeling threatened by the rise of the blogger – a dangerous interloper in the field who can challenge the established norms of professional music criticism and reviewing – professional journalists are on the defensive.

Yet a number of excellent blogs are written by individuals who have studied music and who have wide knowledge; they are “amateurs” only by dint of the fact that they don’t get paid to write. It should also be noted at this point that some highly respected music journalists are also bloggers – perhaps most notably Alex Ross (USA) – who offer invaluable viewpoints and opinions.

Professional journalists also pride themselves on their “total immersion” in their specialist field:

Every day as a professional critic I’m talking with artists, attending concerts, listening analytically to recordings, writing concert program notes, and getting on planes to hear what’s interesting beyond my native shores, and the sheer weight of context that brings to every review can’t be equalled by someone with a non-musical day job…… Furthermore, technical knowledge is a vital ingredient towards painting the picture for a reader who wasn’t there……when artists themselves have spent their lives training to the highest technical standards, they deserve critics who are similarly trained and who properly understand what they’re doing. I’m actually yet to meet an artist who wants to be reviewed by a non-professional

Criticism Reviewed, Charlotte Gardner

 

Professional music critics have always been regarded as specialised/expert journalists and for many years were (and in some cases still are) the gatekeepers of the artform because their opinions could affect the success, or otherwise, of an artist or recording. Thus, music critics have a significant role in assessing and defining “quality”. Critics are important in creating marketing momentum around a certain artist, concert or CD to attract the attention of potential audiences/buyers. One of the criticisms regularly levelled at independent reviewers and bloggers is that they are “cheerleaders” for certain artists, and that this unprofessional bias/favouritism means they lack objectivity in their criticism. In fact, there is plenty of cheerleading in professional journalism, and MSM critics regularly coalesce around certain artists who are “flavour of the month”, “one to watch” or “a rising star”. This is great news for the marketing people and PRs who can maximise the attention paid to their clients while also picking up flattering quotes about them from reviews to be shared in press releases and other promotional material. More than ever criticism, whether in print journalism or online, is seen as a powerful publicity tool. And the artists themselves are not immune to this; while many may have embraced new media and platforms such as Instagram to self-promote and recognise the importance of trusted independent writers and bloggers as “influencers”, many more still set much store by critical coverage and will include favourable quotes from respected or established MSM critics and reviews in their biographies and websites as positive endorsements of their activities.

Let’s face it: no self-respecting musician would include a quote from a blogger in their publicity

a music journalist

What do critics do?

Describing performances is at the heart of the critic’s craft, yet music is one of the most difficult artforms to write about, not only because it resists description in words but also because it is recreated at every performance. This is also the reason why concerts should be critiqued, for a review acts as a commentary on and a record of an event, placing a concert in some kind of context (a composer anniversary or premiere, for example). Reviews record and explain the reviewer’s opinion (simply writing “I liked it” is not sufficient!), but this should not be at the expense of ad hominem comments on the performers nor seek to tell the performers how to do their job. The critic’s job is to find a balance between objectivity and subjectivity (i.e. personal taste) in order to offer a well-balanced review. A critic should not evaluate a performance or a piece of music simply in terms of “good” or “bad,” but rather guide the reader to appreciate how the music can be understood and to perhaps encourage them to find out more about the music/composer/performers. Done well, such writing should be a pleasure to read with the intention of bringing the reader closer to the artform and perhaps encouraging further or deeper engagement with it.

Criticism and reviews also act as a guide for trends, artists to look out for, debuts and premieres, CDs to hear, identifying or spotlighting new talent, or rediscovering old talent. A critic’s job is to persuade people that what they are paying attention to is worth that attention. Critics can also offer commentary on wider issues within the industry beyond the concert stage – for example, equality and diversity, salaries and fees, musicians’ working conditions, abuse of power – or challenge long-held traditions (e.g. applauding between movements), perceived norms or stereotypes.

Writers on classical music are ambassadors for potential new audiences and listeners, and anyone who writes about classical music, from a tweet to a long-form article, is part of a much bigger conversation about the artform, and as such their views and input matter.

In conclusion, I would assert that yes, we do still need music critics, for all the reasons outlined above. There are good critics and bad ones, and whether they happen to be paid or unpaid, or writing in print, in managed review sites or on independent blogs doesn’t really matter. What matters is that their writing is intelligent, insightful and entertaining because quality writing, whatever its source, prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity.

 

 

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own—spoken in a language too deep for words.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And while I can’t speak to dancing or architecture, this cliché sums up the problem of using words to describe what is fundamentally an experience, not a concept. Whether listener or performer, we enter into the world of the notes and receive and respond to the music through the lens of personal experience and understanding. And, because everyone’s experience and taste is different, how does a writer capture in words the sensation of sinking one’s hands into the piano keys, or the eerie magic of “one mind” that occurs when musicians perform together?

Write what you know. It’s another accurate cliché. As a lifelong pianist, I know music. I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others. As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love to Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt. I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music.

Show, don’t tell. A writer’s cliché. If I tell the reader that Cassie and her boyfriend Eric, had a good performance of a Bach double concerto, it’s dull boring. Showing makes it tactile. It makes it real. It makes it matter.

In the second movement, Cassie stopped being aware of any reality beyond the music. The competition, the judges, her hair, her dress—none of it existed. The notes defined her universe. And as she and Eric passed the sensuous lines back and forth, she dissolved into them. She was the piano, and the piano was her. She was Eric, Eric was her. And Bach was what held everything together. There were no mental pictures and no stories. Just the music, and Eric, and the piano, which seemed to grow out of her fingertips.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Make me care, I used to tell my piano students. Don’t just press the notes. No matter how beautifully you phrase a line, if you don’t have anything interesting to say, you’re just speaking phonetic music. Writing requires the same because readers deserve entry into all aspects of the moment, not just a description. In both art forms, if the notes or the words don’t communicate something beyond themselves, everything comes out flat and lifeless.

Another quote: the visible is the invisible written down. As musicians and writers, we use what’s concrete (notes, words) to point to intangibles: love, joy, loss, hope, and a myriad of other human emotions. It’s an internal landscape we all share, and because of this common ground, music—and writing about music—is about bringing the listener or reader into a new world through our shared emotional doorways. We don’t need to know why a piece of music moves us to tears, or how a paragraph conjures up an entire world. We experience it. We feel Cassie’s struggle with an unfamiliar piano and we know her belief that somehow she can communicate with her deceased parents through the notes of Liszt’s Sposalizio.

Taking a deep breath, she put her hands on the keys, closed her eyes a second, and then played the opening lines. The muted upper register hampered her attempt to get a bell-like tone in her first right-hand arpeggio section. She tried to play through it, thinking of each note as being wrapped in thick velvet. Perhaps the clarity was there, at the center of all that velvet? What the piano took away from the upper register it gave back in the middle; when Cassie started what she always thought of as the prayer-like section—the one where she sensed she needed to breathe the notes rather than just play them—the velvet tone gave the notes a warmth she had never before been able to achieve on any other piano. The sounds matched the one she had been hearing in her mind, and the magic of reality matching the ideal was so strong that she could feel the hair on her arms bristling. Normal life fell away, and for those breathless moments she sensed that the notes were getting through and that somehow, someone was on the other side, hearing all the love and loss she poured into each pitch.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is, ultimately, writing about humanity because that’s where power of the best music and literature resides. The form—the architecture—only points to the bedrock truths we all share. We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.


rhonda2bheadshot2bpianoRhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  

Rhonda Rizzo earned her undergraduate degree from Walla Walla University and her Master’s degree from Boston University.

Guest post by Rhonda Rizzo

In the caress of notes, Cassie knew nothing of fire, death, loss, or fear, just love plucked from Bach’s hands, to Eric’s, to her own—spoken in a language too deep for words.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. And while I can’t speak to dancing or architecture, this cliché sums up the problem of using words to describe what is fundamentally an experience, not a concept. Whether listener or performer, we enter into the world of the notes and receive and respond to the music through the lens of personal experience and understanding. And, because everyone’s experience and taste is different, how does a writer capture in words the sensation of sinking one’s hands into the piano keys, or the eerie magic of “one mind” that occurs when musicians perform together?

Write what you know. It’s another accurate cliché. As a lifelong pianist, I know music. I know the experience of making music, and of listening deeply to others. As a writer, I know my character, Cassie, and how she falls in love to Bach and allows herself to grieve through the music of Rachmaninoff and Liszt. I write the common ground between what I know, what Cassie knows, and the human truths that connect all of this to music.

Show, don’t tell. A writer’s cliché. If I tell the reader that Cassie and her boyfriend Eric, had a good performance of a Bach double concerto, it’s dull boring. Showing makes it tactile. It makes it real. It makes it matter.

In the second movement, Cassie stopped being aware of any reality beyond the music. The competition, the judges, her hair, her dress—none of it existed. The notes defined her universe. And as she and Eric passed the sensuous lines back and forth, she dissolved into them. She was the piano, and the piano was her. She was Eric, Eric was her. And Bach was what held everything together. There were no mental pictures and no stories. Just the music, and Eric, and the piano, which seemed to grow out of her fingertips.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Make me care, I used to tell my piano students. Don’t just press the notes. No matter how beautifully you phrase a line, if you don’t have anything interesting to say, you’re just speaking phonetic music. Writing requires the same because readers deserve entry into all aspects of the moment, not just a description. In both art forms, if the notes or the words don’t communicate something beyond themselves, everything comes out flat and lifeless.

Another quote: the visible is the invisible written down. As musicians and writers, we use what’s concrete (notes, words) to point to intangibles: love, joy, loss, hope, and a myriad of other human emotions. It’s an internal landscape we all share, and because of this common ground, music—and writing about music—is about bringing the listener or reader into a new world through our shared emotional doorways. We don’t need to know why a piece of music moves us to tears, or how a paragraph conjures up an entire world. We experience it. We feel Cassie’s struggle with an unfamiliar piano and we know her belief that somehow she can communicate with her deceased parents through the notes of Liszt’s Sposalizio.

Taking a deep breath, she put her hands on the keys, closed her eyes a second, and then played the opening lines. The muted upper register hampered her attempt to get a bell-like tone in her first right-hand arpeggio section. She tried to play through it, thinking of each note as being wrapped in thick velvet. Perhaps the clarity was there, at the center of all that velvet? What the piano took away from the upper register it gave back in the middle; when Cassie started what she always thought of as the prayer-like section—the one where she sensed she needed to breathe the notes rather than just play them—the velvet tone gave the notes a warmth she had never before been able to achieve on any other piano. The sounds matched the one she had been hearing in her mind, and the magic of reality matching the ideal was so strong that she could feel the hair on her arms bristling. Normal life fell away, and for those breathless moments she sensed that the notes were getting through and that somehow, someone was on the other side, hearing all the love and loss she poured into each pitch.

—excerpt, The Waco Variations

Writing about music is, ultimately, writing about humanity because that’s where power of the best music and literature resides. The form—the architecture—only points to the bedrock truths we all share. We love, we grieve, we celebrate, we mourn, and we seek (and sometimes find) meaning in the most unexpected places.


rhonda2bheadshot2bpianoRhonda (Ringering) Rizzo is the author of The Waco Variations. She has crafted a career as a performing and recording pianist and a writer. A specialist in music that borrows from both classical and jazz traditions, Rizzo has released four CDs, Made in America, Oregon Impressions: the Piano Music of Dave Deason, 2 to Tango: Music for Piano Duet, and A Spin on It.  As both a soloist and a collaborative artist, her performances include several allclassical.org live international radio broadcasts, Water Music Festival, Central Oregon Symphony, Oregon Chamber Players, Aladdin Theatre, Coaster Theatre, Ernst Bloch Music Festival, Bloedel Reserve, Newport Performing Arts Center, Skamania Performing Arts Series. In addition to her work as half of the Rizzo/Wheeler Duo, with pianist Molly Wheeler (www.rizzowheelerduo.com), Rizzo records and writes about the music of living composers on her blog, www.nodeadguys.com

Her numerous articles have appeared in national and international music magazines, including American Music Teacher, Clavier, Piano & Keyboard, and Flute Talk. Her novel, The Waco Variations, was released in the summer of 2018 and can be found on www.amazon.com.  

Rhonda Rizzo earned her undergraduate degree from Walla Walla University and her Master’s degree from Boston University.

Part of a recent BBC Radio 3 Music Matters discussion on writing about classical music, for which I was a contributor, focused on the work of Ernest Newman, a music critic and writer on classical music from an earlier age. I admit I had not heard of Ernest Newman before I received a copy of the new critical biography which I read in preparation for the programme, and the book revealed a number of interesting parallels in writing about music in Newman’s time (the first half of the twentieth century) and today. With the seemingly all-pervasive influence and impact of the internet, one might think that Newman’s approach would have no relevance to writers on classical music today, so it was surprising, and also rather reassuring, to find some common themes.

53b14af573aa8_ernest_newmanErnest Newman, described by Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians as “the most celebrated British music critic in the first half of the 20th century“, left an indelible mark on musical criticism in a career spanning more than 70 years. His four-volume Life of Richard Wagner is regarded as his crowning achievement, but he also wrote many other influential books and wide-ranging essays and of course concert reviews, and was a noted broadcaster. He also had strong views on how classical music and opera should be presented to audiences, and was a keen advocate of music making outside the metropolis, finding ways to bring classical music to a wider audience, music education and broadening the repertoire and ethos of festivals such as the Proms.

At the end of the nineteenth century writers such as Matthew Arnold and Anthony Trollope advocated an approach to literary criticism which was more detached and “sincere, simple, flexible, ardent, ever-widening in its knowledge” (Arnold, ‘The function of criticism at the present time’), and which should not be a platform for promoting personal agendas. Ernest Newman favoured a similar approach in music criticism, one which was founded on intellectual objectivity in contrast to the more subjective approach of other critics, such as Neville Cardus, and which might rescue the profession from accusations of bias, favouritism, anti-intellectualism and poorly-crafted writing.

…truly, there is much to be done in musical criticism; and the main necessity at present seems to be to clear away the obscurities from the subject, and to get critics to see the difficulties that lie in the very nature of criticism in general, and of musical criticism in particular

(Newman, ‘The Difficulties of Musical Criticism’, NQMR, November 1894)

Rather than inform the public for the “thousandth time that Paderewski played or Albani sang this, that or other concert in London“, Newman urged music critics to aspire to more ‘poetical criticism’, to avoid clichés and subjectivity, and to “lift the discussion of the art to a higher plane“. He suggested that music critics should write with intellectual rigour, erudition, clarity, intelligence and detachment. He felt a good music critic should be intimate with the music in order to write about it intelligently and objectively, such experience drawn from repeated listenings and/or detailed knowledge of the score. Newman also disliked personal bias, dilettanteism and impressionistic writing or overly “purple prose” in music criticism, regarding this as the realm of the hack journalist or ill-informed writer who uses extravagant word-smithing or “overwriting” to mask a lack of genuine knowledge. He urged writers to be transparent, and not to hide behind anonymity or a nom de plume to disparage performers or make personal attacks on them, nor should they patronise nor talk down to audiences. In short, he demanded that music critics write well.

Throughout his long career, Newman was, whether he liked it or not, part of a clique of  noted writers, critics and professional journalists whose opinions and reviews were respected by readers, concert promoters and even some musicians, and who were regarded by many as the ultimate arbiters of quality or good taste. Until fairly recently, reviews and articles by journalists and “professional” critics in broadsheet newspapers and specialist music magazines were still regarded as the last word in “proper” criticism. What these people reviewed represented what was valued in culture, and professional critics were regarded as the curators of culture and champions of talent. This attitude still prevails today, to some extent and despite the influence of the internet and the rise of the online reviewer/blogger, with some musicians, festivals and arts organisations setting great store by a five-star review in a leading broadsheet newspaper such as The Guardian or The Times over and above a longer, favourable and possibly more detailed write up on a blog or online reviews site.

Changing times for print media

In the age of the internet, where we find ourselves today, the music itself has not changed, but the technologies through which we discuss, transmit and share it have changed immeasurably.

For newspapers, the need to justify their existence to those who finance them has become a major preoccupation in the internet age, when free-to-access articles and content has become the norm. As newspaper sales decline, so print media must chase more and more “clicks” via their websites – click-throughs to articles and of course (and importantly) to advertising.  To make space for content which the editors and content managers believe their readers demand, arts coverage in newspapers has been squeezed to such an extent that only the “premier division” of concerts and artists merit attention in the mainstream media.

In the 1960s, when I was born, mainstream print publications took the arts seriously, covering and promoting exceptional contemporary talents across all styles of music. Thus did Thelonious Monk wind up on the cover of TIME magazine, for example. When I began covering music for a chain newspaper around 2000, stories were prioritized by the prior name recognition of the subject. Art/discovery stories were subordinate to celebrity news at a systemic level. Industry metrics (chart position and concert ticket sales) became a staple of music “news.” In the age of measured clicks the always-on focus grouping has institutionalized the echo chamber of pop music, stultifying and discouraging meaningful engagement with art music. 

– Craig Havighurst, The Devaluation of Music

Despite this, many readers, musicians, arts organisations, and venues still seem to regard newspaper reviews as more important/informed/accurate than a review on a blog or an online reviews site. A recent exchange on Twitter between a blogging friend of mine and a mainstream music journalist reminded me rather uncomfortably of this view, in this instance perpetuated by the journalist in question, who stated that “Quoting a blogger would……look a little desperate“, and thus inferring that because one is writing for a reputable magazine one’s opinion is somehow “better” or more valuable. It was a shame, but no surprise, to encounter such entrenched views when, fundamentally, we all exist in the same ecosystem of writing about music. I think this rather defensive attitude comes in part from the anxiety shared by many print journalists that their publications and jobs are in decline. A friend of mine, who used to work for a leading glossy magazine, said to me once “People like you [bloggers] are destroying our industry!“, and recent activity would seem to support this view: in January 2018 The Guardian moves to a smaller tabloid format, to save money, while the Birmingham Post, a respected regional newspaper where Ernest Newman cut his teeth as a music writer, has scrapped its classical music budget. Selected events will continue to be reviewed for the paper, but the reviewers will not be paid.

Bloggers and the “democritisation” of music criticism

Into this vacuum stepped independent bloggers and online review sites, and so a greater fluidity and democritisation in writing about high art and culture has developed. On one hand, this is a good thing: readers and potential concert-goers/listeners now have a far greater choice of reading matter and points of view to explore, and writers on classical music are impelled to consider what readers want from these different types of writing. Bloggers can be well-informed and articulate writers, and freed from the constraints of a 500-word (or less) newspaper review and/or a focus on premier league concerts and artists, bloggers can offer long-form or more personal writing and reviews of more diverse/non-mainstream music making, shifting the focus from the capital and the big metropolitan/prestigious concert halls to regional festivals and opera, music societies, young artist platforms, and even semi-professional and amateur music making. For this reason, bloggers have a significant place in writing about music today – they can help to keep culture in the forefront of the collective imagination, and as such their writing/contribution should not be disregarded. (I should add here that some bloggers are also professional (i.e. paid) writers/journalists – the most notably example being Alex Ross – who use the platform of a blog to provide extra or different content and offer “added value” for their readers.)

Such variety comes at a price, sadly, and alongside excellent, high-quality, intelligent, well-researched, and carefully edited writing, there also exists writing of questionable quality or value, by bloggers and professional writers – the kind of ill-judged, unintelligible, ill-informed, self-indulgent or sycophantic purple prose which would probably appall Ernest Newman.

The best of times, the worst of times

The difficulty is, as I see it and based on my experiences as a blogger (first on food and latterly on classical music) and a concert reviewer, is that many of us who blog have to learn and hone our craft in public through each post we publish. Of course professional writers do this too, to some extent, but they do so knowing that their writing is subject to copy-editing and the “house-style” (and ethos) of the publication for whom they write. Editors (apparently) ensure impartiality and objectivity in the reviews they commission, but as Chris Tookey says in his interesting book ‘Better Criticism’, newspaper critics should also “be wary not to be used by their editors as character assassins“, and should not seek to tell the artist how to do his or her job, or think they are somehow “better” than the artists they are reviewing (a rather nasty piece in The Spectator, a review of one of pianist Maurizio Pollini’s recent London concerts, comes to mind here).

Many bloggers are “untrained”, at least in the eyes of the professional journalist who may have had an apprenticeship with a newspaper or magazine; equally many of us who write blogs do have the requisite credentials (I’ve worked in academic publishing; another blogging colleague of mine is a professor of music at a leading London university and a published author, and I know a number of bloggers who are also professional musicians or music journalists/writers). But to maintain quality in one’s writing, the serious independent blogger, liberated from the constraints of a publisher’s “house style” and the sharp eye and red pen of a copy-editor, must be an assiduous self-editor and proof-reader, and be prepared do the necessary research to ensure accuracy and objectivity in what one writes.

Another criticism levelled at bloggers is that we are simply biased “cheerleaders” or fanboys/girls for certain artists, ensembles and composers, and as a consequence we lack objectivity or insight in our writing. This is true up to a point – a blogging friend of mine, who is a keen and very regular concert/opera-goer, writes by his own admission from the point of view of the “punter”, the audience member, and tends to write up concerts for which he has chosen to purchase tickets and enjoyed. But as someone who also writes for a living, his blog articles are intelligent, fair and well-argued – i.e. he can explain why he likes/dislikes a concert or opera performance. But why shouldn’t we celebrate the artists we like and admire? I think this accusation also misses the point of why many of us choose to blog – to share our passion for classical music. And an ability to write in a way which is both well-informed and accessible to fellow concert-goers is very appealing for some readers. I have also come across cheerleading articles in the mainstream press, celebrating whichever artist, orchestra or conductor is “flavour of the month”. (For the record, to preserve my own impartiality and objectivity, I do not review concerts/CDs by friends (except in very exceptional circumstances) and I don’t take payment for my reviews.)

Write – and write well

Considering some of the values espoused by Ernest Newman, I feel the role of critics and reviewers, whether professional writers, “citizen journalists” or bloggers is, first and foremost, to record the event, offering an objective overview of what happened in the concert. Since concert reviews nearly always report on a one-off event that happened in the past, the purpose of a review is to place the concert in some kind of context (a composer anniversary, for example). Additionally, reviews should record and explain the reviewer’s opinion (simply writing “I liked it” is not sufficient!), but this should not be at the expense of ad hominem comments on the performers. Reviews serve another important purpose too: whatever the source of the writing, good constructive criticism can encourage and publicise new talent or rediscover old talent. Above all, I believe we should all be on the same side, that of the music, and we should always endeavour to write well.

Like Newman in his time, I believe we need intelligent, well-informed and well-written music criticism – in the blogosphere and in the mainstream media. Such writing prevents mediocrity and dumbing down, and gives people like me a benchmark against which to measure my own writing, and, I hope, encourages variety, authenticity and objectivity while also retaining my personal, independent voice, on this site and in my writing for other organisations.

Good critics and their readers are exactly the opposite of the passive consumers that many in positions of power and influence would like us to become.

– Chris Tookey (Let’s hear it for good, honest critics)

Writers on classical music, wherever their writing is published and read, are ambassadors to potential new audience members and listeners, and anyone who writes about classical music, from a tweet to a long-form article, is part of a much bigger conversation about the artform – as such their view and input matters.

The internet has made this bigger conversation possible and more accessible like never before.


Further reading

Some examples of suspect ‘purple prose’ – here and here

Criticism needs to change, it’s not fit for purpose in the 21st century – article in The Stage (no paywall, but requires log in to read)

Critics are important – even in the blogosphere

The Devaluation of Music

Time for papers to review the dying art of the critic

Can a concert review be an act of love?

Some music blogs I regularly read and recommend

Thoroughly Good

Boulezian

Corymbus

Susan Tomes

Specs

The critic Paul Driver and music writer and teacher Frances Wilson (author of The Cross-Eyed Pianist blog) discuss the role of music criticism today, as a new biography of Ernest Newman, the most celebrated critic in early 20th-century Britain, comes out. 

BBC Radio 3 Music Matters, Saturday 23 September at 12.15pm 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b095py6c

music-into-words-logo

The second Music into Words live event took place at Morley College, London, on Sunday 12th February 2017. This event built on the success and popularity of the project’s launch event, held last year in Senate House, UCL. This year we had two panels of speakers covering a wide range of subjects from engaging audiences through well-written programme notes and pre-concert presentations (Katy Hamilton) to how we “curate” sound (Kate Romano), the use of jargon in academic writing (Ian Pace) and why music critics and reviewers seem to take a rather London-centric/celebrity approach to reviewing concerts (Tom Hammond). With lively panel and audience discussions, sensitively chaired by Simon Brackenborough, the event proved stimulating and thought-provoking. It was also a chance to connect with people whom I and other participants had previously only “met” online. We were also delighted to have concert pianist Peter Donohoe as our special guest, together with Neil Fisher, Deputy Arts Editor of The Times, who both made insightful and intelligent comments about the responsibilities of reviewers and music critics, and the difficulties of deciding which concerts should be covered in the mainstream press.

To appreciate the wide range of discussion that took place at the event, and the parallel online discussion via Twitter, please see this Storify compilation

My friend and blogging colleague (we met via the blogosphere and Twitter!) Adrian Ainsworth, who blogs as Specs, has written an excellent summary of the event and each speaker’s contribution, together with his own presentation  – you can read it here

Meanwhile, I would like to thank all the panellists – Adrian, Tom, Katy, Leah Broad, Kate, Ian, Neil and Peter – for their very interesting and varied contributions to the event. Plans are already underway for a future event and the organisers welcome suggestions for speakers and subjects to be covered.

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Music Into Words was created by a quartet of writers and bloggers and aims to bring together all kinds of writers about classical music – journalists, musicians, academics, bloggers and music lovers – to share their perspectives and discuss common issues in a positive, inclusive and friendly environment.

” a fantastic panel…a brilliant agenda, raising really vital issues”

– Tom Service (BBC Radio 3 & The Guardian)