Writing & Reading About Music

A Reflection


2012-11-17 — Original posting (on Blogger)
2014-11-08 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-09 — Brushed up for better readability


Outline


A Twitter Query — Initial Response

Writing about Music — Twitter conversation

I recently responded to a Twitter inquiry by Malan Wilkinson (@pianistcentral). Malan is running a blog where she is posting interviews with a large number of international pianists and composers:The link in my reply pointed to the list of contents of my music reviews. After sending off my response, I started thinking about the subject a little more. I realized that the few words above can hardly be an adequate response. So, here we go:

My Full, Personal Response:


The Reader or Listener Perspective:

Objectivity in Judging Music?

First and foremost: there isn’t such a thing as “objective” judgement / rating in classical music, for many reasons:

  • How people listen to music, how music “works on them” is extremely manifold. The same is true for what specifically they like about music, which kind of music they like, which type of musical expression “goes straight to their heart”, causes them to get goose bumps. And of course, what the don’t like. All this is so different between individuals — and yet hardly understood, if at all.
  • You can’t really presume that you will or will not agree with what an arbitrary commenter states about a given piece of music. It does not matter whether that’s in a local or even a big newspaper, in a book, on the radio, an amazon.com sales comment or ad, in a YouTube or amazon.com discussion, in a forum, etc.
  • Things mays be better if you (believe to) know a specific commenter. For example, you follow a commenter’s recommendation, and you find yourself in agreement with that person’s opinion. With this, there may be a higher “success rate” when following future recommendations by that person.
  • However, that person’s taste and preferences — as well as your own — may change with time. Ever so often I find myself astonished about what kind of interpretation I was listening to (and enjoying) 40 years ago!

Objectivity and Music?

On top of all this, there is hardly anything “objective” about music (maybe with the exception of some newer compositions / types of music, some recent composers, electronic music), for numerous reasons:

Notation Issues

  • Musical notation is not scientific, incomplete, hence inherently inaccurate. One example: up to the classical period there was essentially no distinction between a binding slur and a phrasing slur.
  • The meaning of specific notational details has changed over the years, e.g.: how to play ornaments, acciaccaturas, etc., what specific annotations (punctuations, rhythmic notations, etc.) mean.
  • There are books from baroque & classic times on how notation is / was to be interpreted. However, I don’t think we know which of the composers knew about these books, and whether they followed these conventions.
  • Some composers were sloppy with their musical notation. Their handwriting may be close to unreadable. Also, in the process of publishing a composition, often a heap of corrections are added in draft prints, often contradicting other versions.
  • In addition, editors have often felt the need to add their own “corrections”, merely adding to the confusion. A composer may or may not have communicated those verbally, who knows?
  • Finally, a composer may have changed his mind once or several times in the editing process.

Overall, digging out the composer’s intent may be hard, if not impossible!

Instruments / Instrumentation

  • Even if we knew exactly how a piece was played originally: there aren’t many original period instruments around. Where they exist, they may have changed in their sound and articulation characteristics over the years. If replicas are used, these can be an approximation to period instruments at best.
  • Playing classical music on modern instruments alters the characteristics of the sound and may require adaptations in the articulation, if not even a radically different interpretation.

Objectivity and Notation

The one area where we appear to have “objective” / accurate playing instructions is with the tempo in classic, romantic and later music, where (and if) composers wrote down metronome numbers (ignoring errors, of course). But even there: whether something “feels” slow or fast very much depends on the circumstances, the acoustics, the instrument(s), etc., and so an artist may feel a need to deviate from the notation depending on the circumstances, on a case-by-case basis.

Music Reception in History / The “Original Impression”

It is largely impossible to reconstruct the impression that a given composition has made on the listener around the time of its creation. Our perception of baroque and classical music is obscured by the performing tradition that evolved over the 19th and 20th century;

Music Reception and Pre-Conditioning

Last, but not least, how we receive music depends on our “pre-conditioning”, our mood, our education, etc.; even when listening to a concert side-by-side, two concert-goers may end up with vastly different ratings / opinions etc.


Expert Opinions

There’s another, tricky issue here: beware of experts!!! Sure, we expect people who write about music to have a fair degree of musical education, to be reasonably familiar with the music they write about, etc., but…

Musicologists

If the writer is a musicologist, that should ensure some foundation to comments about musical interpretation (instrumentation, articulation, ornamentation, the history of interpretation and perception, etc.). Nevertheless, the writer is a human being with opinions, preferences, (some!) taste.

Such writing can be very informative. However, to some degree, one should still take it as the writer’s view, rather than “absolute truth”. Also musicologists may or may not specialize and hence may not be familiar with musical performance in a given setting (e.g., HIP [historically informed playing] vs. non-HIP, harpsichord vs. modern piano, etc.). A reviewer may lack knowledge about the intricacies of an entire class of musical instruments (e.g., keyboard vs. string vs. flue instruments);

Musicians

If the writer / commenter is an artist (or strongly liaised to an artist!), I expect them to have a lot of knowledge about their instrument(s), but they probably have less knowledge about other (classes of) instruments (compared to our expectations towards a musicologist, for example).

More importantly: while as a layman I’m free to change my taste / preferences, and/or to adapt to a variety of styles and practices (e.g., HIP vs. non-HIP), that’s not that easy for an artist, as artists typically work hard on finding a personal interpretation. For a good, convincing performance we expect the artist to “stand behind” his interpretation — very likely to a degree that makes it hard for him/her to understand, maybe appreciate and accept other points-of-view.

Artists are likely to be biased towards their own interpretation (I would call this “professional bias” — déformation professionelle). In general, that’s a desirable and positive feature, but if artists are involved in discussing music that does not fall into their personal scope, this may turn against them.

Flawed / Biased Opinions

Some examples of “flawed combinations”:

Piano vs. Fortepiano

A pianist playing modern concert grands commenting on performances on the fortepiano, and vice versa. There are rather few examples of artists playing both instruments, or making the transition from one to the other. Ingrid Haebler, Ronald Brautigam come to mind, but I haven’t heard these particular artists commenting about others;

Piano vs. Harpsichord

“Worse” even: pianists commenting on harpsichord performances, and vice versa. Both are likely not to be very helpful. Walter Gieseking’s “Gezirpe und Gerassel” — chirping and rattling — in a remark about [Wanda Landowska’s] harpsichord playing, or — the other way around — Gustav Leonhardt’s very pronounced and outspoken opinion about playing Bach on the modern piano come to mind.

Mechanical vs. Electro-Pneumatic Organs

When talking to an organist who has been working and living with an electro-pneumatic organ with romantic disposition, one cannot always expect sensible comments on (performances on) mechanical (let alone historic) organs with baroque disposition — let alone organs with baroque tuning. The same holds true the other way around.

Artists Commenting on Artists?

Finally, keep in mind that an artist may be careful / wary about possibly hurting the feelings of friends / fellow musicians by making bad comments. Some — local or even global — artists’ communities may be small worlds!

Conclusions

With all this I don’t mean to discredit musical interpretation or music literature / commenting, at least not in general. It’s just that you should keep the above points in mind, if you want to avoid disappointment. With respect to musical comments: it is of great help if you (try to) get to know a given commenter. Learn about his biography, background & education. By finding out as much as possible about his/her opinions / preferences / taste, etc., you may be able to judge how trustworthy a commenter is, how likely you will agree with his/her comments.

The fact that a critique or a comment is printed in a newspaper does not make it any more meaningful. It does not necessarily imply that you would share that opinion, had you been present or listening to the same performance. You should still take this as a (more or less competent) subjective rating!


Comments on Amazon.com or Similar Places

On a related topic: don’t jump to conclusions when reading comments (bad or enthusiastic) on amazon.com — rather try locating as many other comments by the same person as possible! If you are young: some commenters on amazon.com or other forums appear to be elder / retired. People with sufficient time at hand to pursue commenting as hobby. These may have grown up with performances and interpretations in the 50s / 60s of the last century. No insult intended here — after all, I’ll be retired myself in not too many years! Therefore, you may find their comments to be (close to) meaningless for your own musical perception. Especially if you prefer historically informed playing!

I won’t discuss YouTube comments in terms of quality, content & value, other than by stating that in general these are classes below amazon.com comments. I have long stopped reading them. The main reasons why these are such low-level, if not often disgusting, is due to the much wider (and younger) audience. Note that there is typically no moderation. Plus, comments can be delivered anonymously. Also, comments often seem to reflect spontaneous reactions rather than well-founded thoughts & considerations.


Reading Concert Reviews

Keep in mind that writing concert reviews can be a stressful task! The reviewer needs to (rather: should) overcome personal predispositions, and then (s)he hears the music once — and thereafter the newspaper may expect to see input very soon after the concert! Hence:

Beware of reviews with tons of “filler information”, such as anecdotal information about compositions. This may even have been written beforehand! Also, beware of “flowery” language trying to cover the lack of a personal opinion / judgement. In other words: when reading such reviews, try stripping off all the “surrounding noise verbiage”, stuff that does not relate to the actual performance. Focus on the interpretation, ignore verbiage about the artist’s dress! Then, (if there is anything left!) try to see which statements relate to the actual performance.

Remarks about the composition are certainly appropriate if the pieces played are not commonly known. And when you have drilled down to the real content, you still should keep in mind all the points made above about subjective vs. “objective” comments, i.e., facts vs. opinions!


Radio Reviews & Comparisons

To finish this section, let me mention two “special audio review sites”:

BBC Radio 3 / Building a Library

BBC Radio 3 is running a weekly show “CD Review“, and within that, a feature Building a Library” (BAL): here, an expert is reviewing typically a vast number of recordings of a given piece — within about an hour. From the related, but independent public forum I take that the experts have good, or at least reasonable credibility.

The expert is presenting snippets of the recordings that he discusses (at least those which (s)he approves of). However, by and large you need to trust the reviewer, because all you hear are small (presumably typical) samples of the recordings under discussion. Plus, if you are new to this you don’t have a good feel for how much your own findings might be in line with those of the reviewer. But it’s worthwhile listening — if you have a chance (live streaming available, thereafter you can stream for 7 more days, podcasts are available in the U.K. only). I’m not sure whether these reviews are always done as “blind comparisons”.

Swiss Radio / “Diskothek im Zwei”

Swiss Radio (SRF) is running a weekly show “Diskothek im Zwei” that is different from “Building a Library”. Here, two experts (musicologists or musicians / artists) are doing a blind comparison of typically 5 or 6 recordings of a piece. these are pre-selected by a moderator.

The good thing about this is that the comparison is blind. So, the experts may be artists, but they typically don’t hesitate to trash recordings, not knowing whether the artists affected are famous, or even colleagues. The listener can follow all music that the reviewers listen to, so the competition is open and clear (unlike BAL, where the listener only gets to hear key segments from a small fraction of the recordings being reviewed). With this, the listener gets a chance to make his/her own judgement.

There are Downsides, too!

  • The number of recordings under review is rather small.
  • The moderator makes a pre-selection and decides on the order of the recordings.
  • The selection of the segments to compare is not without influence on the outcome of the “competition”. The selection of the snippets is done by the moderator, not the experts.
  • The moderator may exert a certain influence on the outcome. This may happen through suggestive questions, or by appropriate sorting of the recordings, etc.
  • The selection of experts is sometimes questionable. I have heard pianists inappropriately commenting on harpsichord performances, and the like. Plus, the selection of the experts (by the moderator, presumably) may involve a certain prejudice on the outcome.
  • This show lasts close to two hours. After the first round, the reviewers need to eliminate typically two recordings (for time reasons). The eliminate another one in the second round, leaving two for the final round. Sometimes this is to the disadvantage of recordings that are particularly weak in the first segment / round.

The Writer’s / Commenter’s Perspective:

For the musical writer / commenter, the conclusions from the above should be obvious:

  • In order for your reviews / comments to have any value to the reader, you need to establish credibility. This can be obtained through a history of past comments / publications by you for the user to look up. Without that, my recommendation would be to give as much (relevant) biographic and educational information as possible, such that readers get to know you better. Not with every review, of course, but in a place that is accessible by the audience.
  • In order to avoid misunderstandings and disappointment on the side of the reader, it helps if you are open about your personal preferences, knowledge and specialities.
  • Do not pretend to be objective or “in possession of the absolute truth”. Keep in mind (and remind the reader) that all music writing is subjective (see above). Pretending otherwise will only upset and disappoint your readers.
  • I don’t think that presenting comments as your personal opinion deprecates your review. Just give some justification for your comments!

Composer’s or Musician’s Biographies

Writing a composer’s or an artist’s biography can (and maybe should) be scientific & accurate (unless you are writing a fiction novel about a composer or artist, which is a genre that I personally don’t rate very high). Similarly, giving the historic context or biographic background for a specific composition, mentioning the history of its interpretation and reception over time, should be seen as a scientific task — often a difficult / demanding one. It requires access to literature, doing research in archives, and the like. That’s not what I was writing about in the section above.

What Readers Presumably Don’t Want to Read

As a reader of a concert or a concert or CD review, I don’t want to read about a composer’s biography, unless this is of immediate importance to the music. I also don’t want to read a detailed analysis of the composition(s). I can find all this in books or on the Web.

Even less so I want to read a flowery description of the music played. That’s always subjective, may reflect one’s mood while listening. It may be meaningless, if not misleading to other listeners.

What Readers Might Be Interested In

What do people want to read in a concert review? I think that those who did attend the concert would like to see a confirmation of their own findings, or a second or alternative opinion on the qualities (and maybe shortcomings) in a concert, and — this may sound trivial — those who did not attend want to read what they missed, or maybe a confirmation why it’s OK that they missed or decided not to attend a particular performance.

CD reviews are different from concert reviews. Here, readers want to know whether it’s worth purchasing a particular CD, s recording of a particular composition, or recordings with a particular artist. In my experience, CD reviews are typically easier on the author than concert reviews. However, they are subject to the same credibility / trustworthiness principles as concert reviews.

There are some traps, I guess. A newspaper may pay you by the word, and you may make a (partial) living from writing music reviews. In this case, the temptation must be there to indulge in flowery, exuberant descriptions of a composer’s or an artist’s biography. This may earn you the money you are looking for. But it may also drive (some) readers nuts, or at least lose their attention & interest. Please still try to resist the temptation to impress the reader with meaningless, nice-sounding verbiage…


Conclusions for the Listener & Reader:

  • Be open, don’t get hooked to one interpretation, style, period, artist or genre;
  • If you are looking for help in selecting music or a recording of a given piece of music, get to know the reviewer(s) before giving any trust to what they are writing;
  • Read reviews, but read them with a grain of salt: read them critically. Try ignoring any flowery, but meaningless verbiage.
  • Remember that taste, as well as how music works on us is individual and subjective.
  • What really matters in music (unless you want to be a musicologist) is what gives you the most pleasure & satisfaction. What matters is what you like!
  • Let the music talk to you, not the reviewers or commenters in a public forum!

Needless to say: this all is merely my personal, subjective opinion!



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