Lapsed Composer and Curmudgeonly Critic Reveals All About the Reviewing Racket!

boxes filled with CDs

I’m a lapsed composer hovering at the fringes of new music. I don’t compose much, but I review and critique CDs of new music. It’s easier to find time for critical listening than for pencil pushing. It is slightly vicarious, but I get to keep an ear on what’s going on, even though commercial releases are different than the concert hall scene.

By day I earn my living working in high tech for a global technology company. New music listening is squeezed in at every opportunity. My co-workers think my stacks of discs are quaint and wonder why I don’t invest in an mp3 player, but they don’t realize that each week I devour fresh content. It’s not worth the time to create lossless CD conversions.

Everything the mailbag brings is spun at least twice. However, I can’t and therefore don’t review everything. I sort and prioritize. If it makes a good first impression or it aligns with my interests, it will likely be covered. Something poorly executed or recorded will fall to the bottom of the pile. I try not to be subjective on the initial pass. I crave new discoveries, and very often something set aside one day becomes compelling a few weeks later.

While I have no formal tutelage in “How to review new music CDs,” there are a few guiding principles I follow. Someone wiser than me shared them back when I began to spend more time in Word than Finale:

1)      Always be factually accurate

2)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to educate an unfamiliar reader

3)      Whenever possible, gently attempt to inform the composer/performer

Having the luxury of being a principal at my own shop, lafolia.com, I don’t work under deadlines and can babble about any topic that interests me, not just new releases but old recordings, obscure composers, stuff heard on the radio, or pictures from a recent trip. I’ve built up solid relationships with a diverse group of labels, publicists, performers, and ensembles over the years. I like to think this quirkiness is what sustains our readers.

There will always be some new music I will never cover and sometimes I feel conflicted about this. I always wish I could cover more releases, but there is only so much time. And even if I were able to produce words for everything that passes my way, there would then be a fair amount of neutral or negative criticism, which I think would do a disservice. I believe I’m not alone in working like this—in fact, I see it as a duty to be predominantly positive, especially when covering the obscure.

It’s not uncommon for reviewers to be handed assignments. Staffers might cover a genre or composer they know nothing about. Here’s where you might notice a reviewer sticking to rule #1, offering irrelevant trivia about the restaurant across the street from where the recording was made or regurgitating program notes. You want your post-downtown minimalist piano suite critiqued by someone who’s heard of La Monte Young, not a medieval chorister. Of course there are wonderful write-ups from reviewers who have stepped outside of their comfort zones and made discoveries, but such instances are becoming rarer in the everything-is-on-YouTube era.

Let me share some examples of what might fall to the bottom of my personal well:

  • Orchestral pieces which were clearly written on a synthesizer and scored using a paint-by-numbers technique
  • Noisy or dimly recorded live performances (unless they have historical merit)
  • Pieces where the composer doesn’t recognize the limits of their material (perhaps doesn’t develop it enough, or conversely doesn’t know when to let it alone)

I don’t sort the mail by likes and dislikes. I don’t have categories I detest or composers I hate. (Would I admit it, if I did?) I am actually more inclined to listen to someone’s second release especially if I didn’t click with their first. Of course my tastes can probably be inferred by reading what I’ve written (especially now that I’ve divulged the prioritizing aspect). A release titled Lachenmann pours Sciarrino coffee while Xenakis and Ferrari look on will probably migrate towards the top of the pile.

Because I don’t cover everything and I subjectively prioritize what I do, someone might suggest I should get out of the way. There’s a tacit understanding that I ought to say something about everything which I’m handed. Whether I inquire after a release or receive it unsolicited, there is always the assumption that it is for “consideration.” It’s not come up explicitly that the press release bandwagon would evaporate if I were overtly sour, but I have had some sources dry up when I wasn’t timely, whether or not I was eventually enthusiastic.

Nowadays, I don’t think speedy verdicts are necessary, except to create buzz for an initial launch. On the internet, things stick. Anyone doing a web search can find critical information, whether it coincided with the street date or was penned months, even years later. Widely spaced mentions in the press are often good indicators of music’s endurance.

New music, as diverse and percolating as it is, maintains a thin niche. Every day we’re told classical music, our close cousin, is on the wane, or that it died just last week. We want to attract new ears, be appealing to new audiences, and not alienate potential fans. Publicity hounds prefer positive and timely tweets. We’re drowning under an avalanche of good press. We’re a supportive and encouraging community.

But is too much positivism bad? I remember a professor at college who could be relied upon for the same peppy post-concert verdict. He loved everything, to the point that his consistent post-performance adulation became disingenuous, and some of us reused his catchphrase as a snide greeting. It was clear his opinion had minimal value. We don’t want empty voices in our community, yet we walk a fine line between supporting one another and ensuring that we’re raising the bar.

I would like to write more negative reviews (and employ rules #2 and #3 above). There’s the myth that they are fun to write, but I am simply not that clever. In my experience, a pan takes as much effort as gushing words, but the writing isn’t as satisfying. I could take pains to be fair, to draw upon experience, and wherever possible, educate. But I really don’t want to spend time on something which simply isn’t worth the trouble. It’s rewarding to write about good and interesting things. It wastes effort to be neutral or negative.

If I were to craft a scathing review, would it have any effect? I don’t think I have that power. I would honestly feel bad if I hurt someone’s chances for funding or derailed future opportunities. But then again, the true creators among us always pick themselves up and start again. Do negative reviews matter as much given how easy it is to set up one’s own soapbox? Do we expect a more critical stance from established journalism? Do you expect the Gray Lady to err on the side of meanness?

If you start to think about it, there really ought to be more negative press out there. We have all attended poorly prepared performances and have heard completely forgettable pieces. To compensate for the major labels’ disinterest in new music, countless vanity projects have sprung up. There are fewer barriers to self-publication and so it follows that the standard of quality would slip. Proportionally we ought to see more negativity, but in the interest of time and sanity, I think the critical legion is trying just to keep up with the good stuff.

Now and again, I have let neutral or negative reviews leave the house. I’m sure there’s a reader out there who thinks everything I’ve posted is evasive or dismissive, just as I worry that I’ve offended everyone at least once. Subjectivity is always a consideration, but if I think a piece or release is miscued, and the composer or performer is established enough to withstand some needle marks, then I’m more inclined to express negativity.

I frequently forage through Fanfare and American Record Guide and might find a non-stellar review of a contemporary release. I can often tell whether I might actually enjoy a disc because someone else disliked it. I have sought out and covered at least one Xenakis release because of this. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to restore the balance of the universe, but mostly it’s about countering a review where it’s evident that the critic has no clue about the composer and his music, very likely the result of an ill-fitting assignment.

Admittedly, no one actually bestowed upon me the ability to be a new music critic. Such is the greatness of the internet: anyone can hang out a shingle. I believe I am putting my experience to good and objective use. I’ve put forth some of the thoughts I think all critics wrestle with but don’t openly discuss, and invite your comments. For now, I need to get back to my listening. I really do want to review more CDs.

***

photo of Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell

Grant Chu Covell is the Managing Editor for LaFolia.com and tweets at @lafoliaed. He works in the Boston area for a global technology company that made hardware which Xenakis and Babbitt both used. Covell is also a composer of electroacoustic and instrumental music that has been performed in the U.S. and abroad; some of his electronic works have been commercially released on the Canadian Electroacoustic Community’s Presence III, The Door Project from the International Computer Music Association, and a 2012 disc also featuring music by Kazumi Umeda.

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