13 March 2018

Music Critic Abuse

A light hearted discussion among critics about the uninvited use of diminutives of people’s names led to some recollections of rude names we have all been called as a consequence of our professional activities.  It was summed up by one of our number suggesting that “it is a hard life being a critic”, to which, I am sure, we all sagely agreed.

But is it?

True, finding outlets for criticism which are respected, read and (most importantly) reimbursed is just about impossible.  Most of my critical work today is submitted to the public free-of-charge, and I only continue to do it to try and hold back the tide of ill-informed, partisan and barely-literate ramblings from those who submit “customer reviews” or congratulate their friends and heroes on YouTube.  Yet I eagerly jump at every chance to submit a piece of critical commentary when even the tiniest amount of cash is on offer.  Why on earth would I do that if it was such “a hard life”? 

All critics seem to have a story or two about being called rude names, about being accused of not knowing what they are talking about, and about their supreme ignorance in the field in which they purport to have some specialist knowledge.  Yet, when I think back over 40 years as a professional music critic, I can recall just three artists who have spewed invective over me for a review I have written, one where an artist certainly should have done, and one bizarre occasion where an entire band spewed voluminous hate mail at me for a review I did not write on a concert I did not attend. 

Of course, such invective from those who were not directly involved is commonplace – people hate it when you prick the bubble of their particular inflated opinions – and has only become more widespread (and vicious) with the growth of social media outlets with their scope for spreading anonymous anti-social poison.  I, like all critics, ignore such things as the incoherent ramblings of the criminally insane; unless, of course, the writers have the guts and intelligence to append their real names and contact details to their comments.  This, though, is not something unique to critics; anyone who utters an opinion in the public domain opens themselves up to the violence of the anonymous imbeciles whose lives revolve around spreading hatred.

Mostly, the critic receives nothing but praise and respect from artists, even when the critic has done little to deserve it.  The relationship between critic and artist is necessarily fragile, but I have to say in my experience, artists make it easy by being so generous in their acceptance of a critic’s opinions, even when those opinions seem to contradict the artist’s own.  What makes being a critic so worthwhile is that generosity of spirit and willingness to engage in constructive dialogue which the vast majority of artists possess.  Perhaps where that relationship has turned sour is as much the critic’s fault as the artist’s.  Let me give the three examples in my experience; you can decide why the relationship broke down.  (I thought long and hard about whether to name names; but in the end, since two of them are still alive, I decided to spare blushes all round and call them A, B and C.)

Stanley Sadie - editor of Musical Times
A is a hugely popular and successful composer of choral music.  Back in the 1980s when I was writing for The Musical Times I reviewed a collection of his pieces and suggested that, while they were attractive and eminently practical, there was a tendency for A to resort to stylized formulae rather than risk adventurousness or genuine originality.  My editor (the late Stanley Sadie) showed me the response that was sent to him as a personal letter from A.   It heaped abuse on me (“Who is this person?”, “I’ve never heard of him”, “He does not know what he is talking about”, “Unless you get rid of him I will instruct my publishers not to submit anything to your so-called publication”…you get the gist), but Stanley thought it terribly amusing and took no further action.  I have often reviewed A’s work since, nearly always positively, and have never had any further correspondence from him.

Christopher Pollard -
Gramophone editor
B is an organist who, in the early years of CD, produced such a flurry of CDs that one seemed to land on my desk every month.  I liked them all, but once in the pages of Gramophone I suggested that, with so much varied repertory being recorded at such a phenomenal rate, B was “at risk of falling into the routine” and of “allowing the desire to record outweigh the quality of the music being recorded”.  I never said it did; I merely said that one felt that such problems were a hair’s breadth away.  My lovely editor back then, Christopher Pollard, passed on to me a letter submitted from B for my comments.  B had written that he was so appalled and offended that he had seriously considered suicide.  My impertinent response was that it was nice to think that my review “almost had a beneficial effect on the organ world”.  Luckily this correspondence remained private at the time.

The Western Mail offices in Cardiff in the 1970s
C was a hugely popular and famous jazz drummer who appeared alongside a local Welsh band in the late 1970s when I was a general arts reporter for the Western Mail.  I was sent down from Cardiff to Swansea to review the gig and in my piece I suggested that, in order to highlight C’s contribution, the amplification was such that, coupled with his own extremely enthusiastic drumming style, we heard C and just about nothing else.  And more than that, one continued to hear C’s drumming resounding in the ear drums for several hours after leaving the venue.  This ignited a response from C’s agent (C having long since returned to the US) which pointed out that I “knew nothing about jazz” and demanding a public apology and retraction.  Large numbers of irate C fans also wrote in, and I was called into the editor’s office, then occupied by a giant of man called. Duncan Gardner.  He offered me a drink and, on hearing that I was contemplating moving to North Wales to take up a part-time job as Sub-Organist at Bangor Cathedral, encouraged me to take it telling me that, “just because you have kicked up a small hornet’s nest, you don’t need to think that you are God’s gift to journalism”, but then offered me a promotion to Senior Arts Correspondent in North Wales (actually the ONLY arts person with the paper based in North Wales – and I ended up more as a general journalist there).  The brouhaha over C eventually died down, but to this day have tended to fight shy of jazz reviewing not because I don’t like it – in fact jazz is my favourite means of musical relaxation – but because, as the C issue showed, jazz aficionados seem to know intimate details of every jazz figure since the genre began, and I feel very much out of my depth in specialist discussions on jazz.  (Someone recently observed that while, in the classical music world, people have become obsessed by juvenility, child prodigies and a total lack of experience and previous exposure, in jazz, respect is not earned by practitioners until they have been in the business for decades and can point to a lifetime of experience in building their present level of musical ability.)

I probably was too inexperienced to offer views which would be seriously accepted by A, I was probably too involved in the organ world to be seen as impartial by B, and I was obviously far too young and not grounded enough in the world of jazz to have the respect of C’s agent.

Arvo Part in more elevated company than mine
Luckily Arvo Pärt probably never read the piece I wrote in Organist’s Review that suggested he was a “fraud” and was simply trying to fool us all with his “silly Pari Intervallo”; and if he had, I suspect he was then far too elevated (in every sense of the world) even to deign to comment on the one critical opinion I regret having committed to print more than any other. 

But I have often wondered what prompted just about every member of a Singapore wind band, and their conductor, to shower me with hate mail (some of it threatening physical violence, and all of it unstinting in its abusive content) after I wrote in this blog some comments about an (unnamed) wind band I had seen in Hong Kong which performed bad music very badly indeed under an extremely bad conductor.  I can only assume that the cap I had created for the Hong Kong group fitted the Singaporeans so well they naturally assumed it was for them; apparently they had given a concert in Singapore at around the same time as I had attended the one in Hong Kong.  I have, however, made a personal vow never to review a performance by any wind band anywhere in the world – just to be on the safe side.

It’s not a hard life being a critic, but it is an eternally entertaining and absorbing one.

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