Up the Downstair

Being a weeklie podcaste from Madison, Wisconsin featuring several remarkable curiosities therein occurring being a compendium of live music from divers artistes

Reviewer Under Pressure

January 22nd, 2010

reviewer notepad Reviewer Under Pressure

This week’s Isthmus, Madison’s alternative weekly newspaper, carried an installment of its “Tell All” advice column entitled “We deserve better” in which one Gustav Mauler is critical of Lindsay Christians, the fine arts reporter for 77Square, the entertainment/culture division of our daily newspaper conglomerate. In short, Herr Mauler doesn’t like Christians’ classical music reviews: “In place of informed, perceptive analysis, Christians provides nonsensical metaphors and fuzzy impressions.”

Ms. Christians gives her rebuttal here. In it, she defends herself by saying: 1) “I dispute the idea that a newspaper, online or otherwise, is the place for extensive analysis.”; 2) “I’m not writing for classical music experts.”; and 3) music reviews are not “authoritative” as Herr Mauler would have it.

This isn’t the first time Christians has been taken to task for her review of a high culture spectacle. Before this, it was over her review of a production of Faust.I feel Christians’ pain. I’m a reviewer myself, not only here, but also at the Green Man Review where I spill forth my opinions on music, books, and audio dramas. I know exactly what it’s like to be out of one’s depth, such as when I attempt to give my thoughts on Nordic folk music, a genre with which I have only a passing familiarity. So I sympathize with her.

On the other hand, I also have some agreement with Gustav. Christians is wrong to conflate authoritativeness with “some kind of ‘final word’” and then deny that music reviews should be either. Speaking with authority needn’t imply that one’s words are the whole story with nothing more to be added. Instead, it implies that the words of the speaker or writer are born of familiarity and experience. I personally can’t fault Gustav for wanting to read reviews written by someone who has attended performances of the music at hand by multiple orchestras conducted by multiple conductors with various soloists over the course of years of studious listening who brings all of this experience to bear on any given Madison Symphony Orchestra performance.

I think Christians is also wrong in saying, “I dispute the idea that a newspaper, online or otherwise, is the place for extensive analysis”. Not so much for the comment itself but for implying that extensive analysis is what her critic was after. Gustav is probably more interested in reading reviews such as this one from the New York Times. Here’s an excerpt:

Not that this Schoenberg work is particularly difficult once you get into it. The variations form makes for a clear structure, which Schoenberg fills with wildly varied and colorful orchestration, surprising twists and even tinges of humor. He also offers a melodic hook beyond the elusive tone rows, a theme historically used to represent and honor Bach (B flat, A, C, B natural, or in German nomenclature, B, A, C, H), stated in the Introduction and developed into a vast fantasy in the Finale.

Either A) this doesn’t count as “extensive analysis” or B) Christians doesn’t think it has a place in the New York Times. Personally, I don’t think this is “extensive analysis” but it is certainly something more than some casual reflection. Furthermore, a newspaper is a fine place for such a review.

One doesn’t have to be one of Christians’ “music experts” to get something out of this review but it certainly requires a familiarity with Western art music. Parts of it won’t make much sense unless you have some passing knowledge of Arnold Schoenberg’s innovations with tonality. But you don’t have to be a music expert. When the reviewer wrote the first sentence about the work not being particularly difficult, he knew that most of his readership would at least know that much of Schoenberg’s music has a reputation for being difficult listening. Extensive knowledge of atonality is not required.

Gustav has a point: not everyone who reads the newspaper needs their hand held through everything. There are, in fact, listeners out there who would like to read a review which assumes that the reader has a base of knowledge about the subject already similar to how universities generally assume that incoming students have a base of knowledge from high school that can be built upon. I mean, do pop music critics ever feel the need to explicitly say that The Beach Boys made surf music?

It is clear that Gustav’s expectations are not being met and are not in the sights of Lindsay Christians and/or her superiors at the paper. It has been my experience that classical music reviews have their own style. I have always assumed that those who read them do so, not out of passing fancy, but because of a love of the music. These people are familiar with the Basic Repertoire and perhaps beyond it. In other words, I have always assumed that the expectations of those who read classical music reviews go beyond the casual newspaper reader.

Just as each type of music has its own set of conventions, so too does reviewing. When reading Gustav’s complaint, I couldn’t help but think that Christians writes her classical music reviews in a way that is expected from those of popular music. Descriptions such as he “pulled phrases out of his instrument like strands of yarn” are all the rage for pop music but aren’t the material from which classical reviews are sewn. From my limited experience as a writer of reviews and my fairly extensive experience as a reader of them, it seems to me that editors of pop music reviews can’t get enough metaphors, alliteration, or flowery language.

John Noyd’s column at Maximum Ink, Slipped Discs, is either this idea taken to the extreme or an epic parody. Witness the line “Ticklish, rippling innocuous concoctions topped with whimsy and wisdom” the likes of which is the norm for him. I will have to ask John about this next time I see him. For my own part, it seems that my reviews which contain an abundance of things like “the song resembles a rave at a Middle Eastern abattoir” are the ones singled out for praise.

Christians was right when she wrote “If you send eight critics to a single show, you will get eight completely different impressions of that performance” but that doesn’t mean that all eight impressions lead to reviews that are equally good, valid, or worthwhile. I personally hope she keeps it up because I like her writing in the various areas she covers and she will only learn more and become a better writer/reviewer as she gains more experience. It’s too bad that Capital Newspapers is either not interested in or cannot afford to retain someone like Jacob Stockinger to act as a mentor to Christians. Instead the company, for whatever reason, has gone the route of populating its newsroom with jack-of-all-trades which works perfectly well for some things but also means that other areas suffer.

Related posts:

  1. Reviewing the Reviewer
  2. The Hidden Musicians
  3. Non-Credit Music Courses at the UW

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