19 July 2016

Critical Contrasts

A comment sent in response to a recent post compares my review of a concert with that of another critic.  It suggests that anyone reading both “would be left clueless as to who to believe. The two reviews are as different as night and day! Indeed, I was wondering if both men even attended the same concert!”

Every single music critic will be familiar with those phrases; they are stock-in-trade of the critics’ critics, people who shy away from voicing original opinions but are eager to take pot-shots at those who do.  (And it is a habit which has become ever more prevalent with the easy retreat into anonymity for those populating the internet and social media platforms.) They reveal a widely-held misunderstanding of the function of published criticism.

But common as such comments are, they still deserve a response, and they demand that the critic takes time to revisit the original piece in the light of that of his colleague.  I am a great fan of the duet critique; where two critics review the same thing independently and then have their reviews published side-by-side.  We do it a lot in the record review arena, but logistics prevent it happening too often in the live music field; which is a shame, for it is enlightening for the public, performers and critics alike.  I have hugely enjoyed reading my colleague’s piece in preparing this response; and you can judge for yourself  by reading mine (“Shakespeare comes to Singapore”) and following this link; http://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/a-night-of-chopin-and-shakespeare

Critics fulfil a dual function; that of a reporter, reporting on a specific event, and that of commentator, expressing an informed personal opinion about the event.  Since both of us make it clear we are reporting the same thing and the details in both published pieces are identical, I cannot for a moment accept any hint that anyone could be “clueless as to who to believe”.  We both stated a fact and the facts tallied.  End of story!

But what of that second function? 

Of course the reviews are “as different as night and day”; they were written by two very different people from different backgrounds and with different perceptions of what they hear and see.  To put it at its most basic; I might see a certain car in the street and say, “Look at the red Ferrari with the leopard-skin seat covers.  What a hideous thing.  Why waste money on something so useless and impracticable.  I’d never have one of those in a million years?” The other reviewer might see the same car and say “Wow!  Look at that red Ferrari with the leopard-skin seat covers. What a fantastic thing.  I wish I had enough money to splash out on one of those!  I’d buy one tomorrow!”  We are both identifying the same car and both of us have valid opinions of it. Neither is right or wrong; they are just different (as different, if you like, as “night and day”). At no point could anybody be under the impression that we are looking at different cars; we are simply looking at the same car through different eyes, those eyes flavoured by different backgrounds, experiences, attitudes and cultural perceptions.

What made the old, much lamented, Top Gear so eminently watchable was the fact the three car critics so often had radically opposing views of the same thing.  I don’t recall anyone suggesting that Clarkson, May and Hammond were looking at different cars when they voiced conflicting opinions, or that only one of them could possibly be telling the truth.  So why do people insist on responding so differently to music critics.  We are all in the same business and, while some of us prefer music to cars and vice versa, ultimately, the job of the critic remains the same; to report what exists and to comment on it.

Until such time as people can grasp the notion that music criticism is not a scientific analysis with a simple black and white result but a complex series of informed opinions which can never have an ultimate truth, we will continue to receive the comments that “we must have been attending different concerts”.  We ask all our readers to respect that we as critics are voicing personal opinions, albeit opinions governed by knowledge, understanding and due consideration, and whether or not individual readers happen to agree or disagree with us is of monumental unimportance.

As a footnote, I can see no point of disagreement whatsoever between the two reviews which prompted my correspondent.  I can see that one of us highlighted elements the other ignored, and that the other drew attention to facets of the performance the other one chose to omit, but read together they indicate rather more agreement than is customary in the music critical fraternity.

1 comment:

  1. Critics who live in the same glass house don't throw rocks. I must have touched a nerve or maybe snapped it, to provoke an actual entire column devoted to the defense of music reviews in Singapore. But relax, no one really reads reviews anyway. These are just page fillers in national newspapers. Nothing more.