07 February 2019

You Don't Know What You're Talking About

Reports have reached me that a visiting conductor, whose schedule was sufficiently free to allow him to spend a few days here relaxing after his gig, saw a review I had written on his concert and commented “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about”.  He is not unique!  I don’t suppose any review I have ever written has not elicited that response from at least one person.  Indeed, if any critic exists who has not heard those words uttered in response to one of their reviews, that person must be either very deaf or write such innocuous and bland drivel that nobody ever bothers to read it.  Being accused of not knowing what we are talking about is not so much an occupational hazard as a fact of daily life.  Indeed, so common is that accusation, that we never think of responding; after all, we all know that the phrase “he doesn’t know what he’s talking about” is really shorthand for “his opinion differs from mine, and as mine is the only valid opinion, it follows that his is wrong and therefore he is ignorant”; and put like that, nobody will give credence to such a statement.

Last night I attended a fabulous Chinese New Year party with a phenomenal range of really interesting guests.  We had nothing in common other than our friendship with the host, and as a result the conversation was amazingly wide-ranging, centring mostly on our natural inquisitiveness with other people’s occupations.  I had an intriguing and highly illuminating conversation with the Cuban ambassador about a country which, for much of my lifetime, has been the subject of suspicion and fear (I made a tactless joke about this being the Year of the Pig, which will mean nothing to those of us who weren’t alive in 1961), I reminisced about my honeymoon in Sri Lanka at the height of the civil war with a retired Sri Lankan businessman, and had a mouth-watering discussion on where to find the best spices in Singapore with an Indian husband-and-wife who have lived in Singapore for well over 60 years.  And when the spotlight fell on my occupation, we had a long and interesting chat about critics and how critics are treated by those about whom they write.  There seemed a consensus that fairness and honesty were more important than praise and platitude, and the fact that some musicians do not like fairness and honesty seemed genuinely to surprise the non-musical fellow-guests.

Sadly, for some musicians (our visiting conductor included, apparently), “fairness and honesty” is synonymous with “not knowing what you are talking about”?  It is not only amateur musicians who are terrified of fairness and honesty and belittle it by suggesting that it is an expression of ignorance.

Some years ago I gave a talk on music criticism at a London music school.  I dug out my script and found that I had begun with these words: “It is an unfortunate fact that the word ‘criticism’ has negative connotations.  Dictionaries define it as a word meaning ‘to indicate the faults of (someone or something) in a disapproving way’. This negativity implied by the term ‘music critic’ has led to much misunderstanding of the critic’s true function.  The critic is more rightly described as an ‘assessor’, providing a valued commentary on a musical activity, which is supported by knowledge, understanding, awareness and an instinctive personal response”. 

That being the case, it is quite legitimate to accuse a critic of not knowing what he or she is talking about in some key areas.  There may be gaps in the critic’s knowledge and flaws in their awareness.  Indeed, especially when working under the extreme pressure of deadlines, mistakes are made, and I am worse than many for making basic errors (all of which are avidly pointed out by my readership).  But is making a mistake of fact tantamount to not knowing what one is talking about?  The stories are legion about critics who have reviewed concerts without ever turning up (one I knew in London, regularly used to tune into the live relays on the BBC rather than go to the effort of turning up to the concert venue in person – he was found out when the live relay broke down and a pre-recorded concert broadcast in its stead), and in my early days reviewing productions by the Welsh National Opera, I usually had to leave before the end in order to meet my 10.45pm deadline (which involved dictating copy off the cuff down the line using a public telephone).  That immediately leaves the critic open to wholly justified accusations of not knowing what was really going on at the event.  These instances, however, are not what is meant by those who accuse us of not knowing what we’re talking about. 

The review which sparked the visiting conductor’s recourse to that tired old cliché, contained just a handful of statements of fact, all of which were derived from either what he had said on stage (he proved to be quite loquacious from the rostrum) or what the orchestra had printed in its programme booklet – and as a matter of course I had double-checked with these before writing my review.  On top of that, I had so much time between the end of the concert and the deadline, that I even had time to snatch a bite to eat and drink before heading off to write my review.  So in those areas where knowledge was revealed, I am 100% certain that there was no failing on my part. I stand by every word I wrote as being absolutely and irrefutably correct.

So that leaves my assessment of the performance – a personal opinion supported by decades of experience in attending live concerts and my wide-ranging knowledge of music and music practices honed over almost five decades in the music business as performer and observer.  And that can be the only area where I seem to be accused of not knowing what I’m talking about.  Yet it is my opinion: nobody on this earth can utter an opinion without knowing what they are talking about.  Nobody has greater knowledge of one’s own opinions than oneself!  Agreement or disagreement with someone’s opinion does not legitimise or illegitimise it.  To describe someone’s opinion as invalid is as clear a sign of ignorance and stupidity as you could get.

We live in an age where, thanks to the proliferation of social media channels, everyone can broadcast opinions which, hitherto, they were only able to internalise.  Seeing what you and others think neatly presented on an illuminated screen as if sanctioned by some higher authority leads people to the belief that their opinions suddenly have become more valid and, therefore, are invested with more authority.  Hence personal opinions have become unassailable facts which accept no opposition.  A generation is coming to terms with the fact that their cherished opinions are actually not shared by others.  We critics have known that all our lives, and proudly stand by the irrefutable fact that we know what we are talking about.  That’s why we say it.

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