My First Negative Review

Last week I was the recipient of my first negative review! I hesitate to write about this because I don’t wish to create any public drama with the reviewer in question, but it did stir up some unexpected thoughts that I think are worth talking about.

Some facts about the review:

  • The negativity was not limited to my piece, and extended to most of the concert.
  • Much of the negativity was perceived to be unfair and inaccurate by others in attendance.
  • Musically speaking, very little in fact was said about my piece.
  • There was a technical, non-musical issue that extended the intermission of the concert beyond any reasonable expectation. (I’m embarrassed to say that this technical issue was basically my fault.) This was mentioned in the review, and may have colored the rest of it.
  • The reviewer is a highly credentialed composer.
  • Despite this, there were many typos, grammatical mistakes, and factual errors in the review when it was first posted, though most of them have been quietly corrected by now.

 
So, in essence, as negative reviews go it was a pretty tepid one. Easier to ignore, perhaps, than an insightful, detailed, and accurate bad review. Still, I was surprised at how angry and upset I was when I first read it, and how long it took me to calm down about it. In short, as much as I thought I was prepared for this inevitable moment, I wasn’t.

Part of this unpreparedness, I think, is because conventional wisdom about how to react to reviews is often contradictory. We’ll often hear that it’s best to ignore all reviews, and just concentrate on the work at hand. But wait, isn’t willful ignorance of your audience a bad thing? Opinions are similarly confused on what a negative review actually means in this profession. On the one hand, a negative review can be a positive meta-indicator that you’ve “made it” big enough to attract someone’s disdain or ire. On the other hand, in an environment where fledgling careers are fragile, a single negative review could have a disproportionate effect on your livelihood.

In the end, what helped most was posting the review to Facebook and reading my friends’ snarky/supportive comments in response. (I guess Facebook is good for something.) I’d like to think that under normal circumstances I can take criticism to heart, but when that criticism is neither constructive nor perceptive, sometimes it is best to simply dismiss it. As basic as this advice is, it’s just about the only wisdom I have to pass on to other composers who find themselves in the same situation.

17 thoughts on “My First Negative Review

  1. Justin Capps

    Well, Isaac,

    Congratulations! I’ve not yet reached these lofty entrails of our profession, and I am in no rush to find myself in the same unpleasant position.

    The one question I have is in response to the following:

    “We’ll often hear that it’s best to ignore all reviews, and just concentrate on the work at hand. But wait, isn’t willful ignorance of your audience a bad thing?”

    Are critics your audience? I’m sure that they’re people, too. But maybe it is best for one’s ego to ignore the critics, whichever way their winds may blow.

    Cheers,

    Justin

    Reply
  2. Bill Doerrfeld

    Well written and important points Isaac. When a reviewer doesn’t take the time to pay attention to grammar and spelling or messes up on facts—as I have seen in some other reviews (including reviews of my music)—it’s a pretty clear sign that their perspective isn’t worth much irrespective of their credentials. Credentials sometimes make people lazy.

    Thanks for sharing. I’m now off to your Facebook to try and find the review in question! :)

    Reply
  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I prefer negative reviews (and I’ve had my share of them) … nothing better to get me to look at a composition critically and decide if the brickbats were deserved. Positive reviews are nice for the promotional packet, but they’re unhelpful.

    Reply
  4. Matt Marks

    I’ve had a few epic bad reviews; they can be pretty distressing. It’s also tough to know how much you should take from them. The reviews – good and bad – that are the most useful are the ones where you feel the reviewer really took the energy to give the piece a fair chance. A thorough review that’s more negative than positive can be very useful, even if you don’t plan on changing anything in your work.

    I had a recent bad review that was just a full frontal assault and utter dismissal of a piece of mine. Didn’t make me feel that bad, it was more just annoying that the review didn’t give it a fair chance, but I’m getting used to it. :)

    P.S. I read your “negative” review. Wasn’t that thoughtful, or that bad really. But it’s frustrating when a reviewer doesn’t really have anything to say, but ends up saying it anyway.

    Reply
  5. Kyle Gann

    The paradigm by which our system of music reviewing makes sense is that of the big orchestra concert or Broadway show, well-funded by corporate interests, which is then reviewed by a phalanx of critics from different papers, informing the public by their varying viewpoints whether the show is worth the money spent on it, and counteracting the influence of paid publicity. In almost all other circumstances our current practice of reviewing concerts is meaningless, and merely provides opportunities for mischief. Except in the above circumstances, I don’t think a negative review has any effect at all; I’ve never heard of anyone’s career suffering from one. Smart readers tend to be as skeptical of the reviewer as of the composer. The one thing critics can do for the individual composer concert, if they have a large-enough word count to say anything intelligent (1000-word minimum) is provide context about the music and tell where it fits into the present scene, as Alex Ross has room to do and does, and as I tried to do for years in the Voice. Of course, to do that you have to know a tremendous amount about the context of current composition, which very few reviewers do (composer-critics not necessarily excepted). As Virgil Thomson advised, there is no need to state one’s opinion, since the evaluation will be evident in the choice of words. I’ve written articles which so exactly described the music’s apparent intent that the reviewee took it as favorable and thanked me, when I was intending rather the opposite.

    There is a program I’ve seen in Russia, in which aspiring music critics take courses in aesthetics, in 19th-century reception history, in trends in the other arts, in writing style, so that they can talk about music intelligently from multiple dimensions. We do none of that here, and leave it to arrogant and opportunistic amateurs, which is a shame, because I consider music criticism a potentially noble field, but one that we let drag itself through the gutter unsupervised. In short, what I take from your article is, you had a piece played this week, after which nothing of importance happened.

    Reply
    1. Mark N. Grant

      Kyle, you and I are both composers and critics, and I know you know that Virgil Thomson was a great proponent of hiring composers as music critics. Composers, in my view, (I stated so in my book about music criticism) generally make the best music critics, because they understand the game from the inside, and are the best antidote to the arrogant and opportunistic amateurs.(By “the game” I don’t mean the politics, I mean the banausic mechanics of creation.) Thomson’s criticisms for the New York Herald Tribune were so musically penetrating that his reviews today read as though in a different universe from those of the journeymen of the critical fraternity of his time. That’s not to say that there aren’t some excellent music critics who are not composers or lapsed composers, but even most of these are well-trained or one-time professional musicians.

      Reply
      1. Kyle Gann

        Mark, it’s of course true that many of the best-remembered critics have been composers, and didn’t mean to deny it. (I said “not *necessarily* excepted.”) What I’m really taking exception to here is the widely-assumed function and format of reviewing, which even a talented music-writer can’t always overcome: the three-paragraph review intended to give thumbs-up-or-down to a concert not covered elsewhere. (The greatest alternative film critic I ever read got promoted to a job writing tiny reviews at a big NYC newspaper and ceased to be interesting.) As I partly quoted Virgil above, “Music criticism may not be necessary; it is certainly inefficient; but it is the only antidote we have to paid publicity.” When it really *is* an antidote it’s a good thing, but more often it is merely a chance for a musician to get his moment of snark in exchange for drawing attention to the adjacent advertising. Virgil was a writer of memorable, quotable, lapidary prose that is still resonant today. Henry Cowell tried his hand at reviewing, and was not very distinguished at it. Without sufficient wordspace, a commitment to context, a frame of reference in all the various ways music can be misunderstood, and a pithy writing style, music criticism isn’t worth much, and you don’t automatically get all those things when they hand you your B.Mus in composition.

        Reply
        1. Juhani Nuorvala

          I would be curious to hear what Lou Harrison, whom Thomson hired, was like as a critic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of his reviews.

          Reply
  6. Paul H. Muller

    FWIW I have both reviewed and been reviewed. When writing a review I take notes and then try to put everything down as soon as possible after the concert is over to keep my impressions fresh. There is no excuse for typos and factual errors, but I can see how it might happen in the context of a tight deadline.

    Perhaps my most informative review was the one that never happened – an on-line reviewer passed on one of my CD releases, but sent a note explaining why. I was a bit put off at first – and I agree it is surprising how vulnerable you feel at that moment – but the more I read his explanation the more I felt I could benefit from it.

    In the end you realize that everyone is entitled to an opinion and that is what you are seeking with a review. Take what you can from it and move on.

    Reply
  7. Mischa Salkind-Pearl

    I’ve had a handful of reviews so far, most negative. The worst was for a piece on a short program. My piece was by far the longest, but out of a fairly lengthy review, mine only earned a single sentence.

    Ironically, I didn’t disagree with the reviewer’s assessment of what my piece did; I just considered the traits mentioned to be good ones! I suppose it’s a sign that I was able to communicate my ideas clearly?

    Reply
  8. Phil Fried

    “I’ve never heard of anyone’s career suffering from one…”

    Well Kyle, now you have. After my negative review in the New Yorker, I haven’t been performed in New York since.

    Reply
    1. Kyle Gann

      Post hoc, ergo propter hoc? Well, I haven’t been performed in Philly since my negative review in the Inquirer, and so if I never am again I’ll tell you you were right. Somebody reading this must be involved in programming concert series': do you guys really weed out people who’ve had negative reviews?

      Reply
      1. Phil Fried

        Oh Kyle how you suffer.

        Naturally much depends on how a composer operates. Many of us are immune to public opinion because we can rely on professional opinion and a professional audience. Quid pro quo anyone? For some failure is not a problem because simply getting a performance is the point. Anyway every “rule” has its exceptions. I always knew I was an exceptional composer, yet, perhaps, I had something else in mind.

        As to the how and why some composers are excluded from concert programs (or why we only attend certain concerts featuring certain composers)that particular question can’t really be pawned off on to others.

        Reply
  9. Dean Rosenthal

    Harsh reviews can really blow apart your self-esteem. Oddly, great reviews don’t glow for that long, it seems: you always want to get to the next step and just are happy that someone somewhere enjoyed what you did.

    Reply
  10. Scott

    Also, as someone who lives and works in places other than the big cities, I’d add that the situation is getting worse and worse in the smaller cities and rural areas… not because reviewers are “bad” per se, but because the papers can afford to hire fewer and fewer writers.

    For instance, my first terrible review was about an experimental music theatre piece that was an extended duet for operatic soprano and Deaf actor, and was about communication breakdowns and such… the reviewer was a theatre critic who’d been put on the entire arts beat, and in comparing it to American Musical Theatre, found it difficult and confusing. Well, um, yeah! Indeed it is thorny and strange compared to that. Okay. So?

    Reply
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