by DAVID LIEBMAN
For an artist in any field, the entire notion of being judged is daunting. Depending upon a variety of circumstances and one’s personality, it is never easy to be criticized and invariably it is wonderful to be praised. After all we are all human beings with sensitivities. True, as Miles Davis remarked to me, one can make it a practice to ignore all reviews. On the other hand, I recall an interview with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy in which thy responded to the critics who labeled their music angry and negative. (To me, that is incredulous since Trane’s music was among the most spiritual I ever encountered!) And then there is the statement by Gene Lees: “All criticism is self justification!”
To be honest, I do feel that there can be something of value to be learned from a serious expert commenting on my work. One of the primary functions of art is communication and you can never be sure how the work is perceived “out there”. I have had reviews which did shed interesting light on some aspect and it has at times been illuminating as well as humbling. In any case, the whole subject of reviewing art raises timeless questions beyond one’s personal feelings, including the effect upon one’s career and the crucial problem as to whom is qualified to pass judgment.
THE CRITIC’S FUNCTION
The function of the critic became necessary as soon as civilization passed beyond the communal stage and not everyone was present at the same time for performance, be it ritual, celebration, oratory, etc. The general public needs information about events happening elsewhere in order to prioritize their leisure time. More importantly, elucidation about what to expect can heighten the layman’s appreciation of a performance, especially in an unfamiliar language, be it abstract painting, modern theater, jazz, etc. Being human means having opinions and therefore expressing one’s taste in mundane matters as to which cereal to buy to more important issues such as choosing one’s friends. It is virtually impossible to be 100% objective, try as you can. Even a skilled historian purportedly relaying incontestable facts about a past event, shades the presentation merely by deciding on which points to present or omit.
Though it may seem obvious, a critic should make it clear that (s)he is expressing a personal opinion. It might be helpful to state one’s own biases as objectively as possible, at least somewhere in the review. For example, I am not a great fan of a certain kind of approaches articulation by some saxophonists. Equally, I don’t enjoy an entire school of thinking in relation to tone on the horn. On the other hand, I love the use of space in an improviser’s lines, as well as admiring drummers who play an interactive rather than merely supportive role, and so on. It is only being fair to reveal one’s prejudices as clearly as possible.
It is a cliché that you cannot account for taste. What is pretty to one listener may be annoying to another. So the question remains: ”Why should I trust your opinion(referring to the critic) more than another?” Is it because some magazine hired you as a so-called expert? How do we sort this opinion/taste-objective/subjective dilemma out?
REVIEW VS. CRITIQUE
To answer this question I will describe what I perceive as the difference between a review and a critique. Curiously, the word critique has as its root the concept of negative opinion as in criticism. When the writer’s opinion and taste is the focal point, this constitutes a critique. On the other hand, a review should be the dissemination of information with the desired intention being elucidation. The idea is that with this information, the listener is equipped to form his own opinion. The very act of review presupposes that the writer is recommending the work to be worthy of attention. In a review, there is no opportunity for negative opinion, because the gist of the writing should be objective information. In no case should a review turn personal. There is no purpose served when a reviewer negates an artist’s motives or personality. All that accomplishes is to reveal more about the writer than the subject. One’s ego shouldn’t become mixed with clear analysis.
A review should include some or all of the following aspects:
-An overview of the artist’s body of work with emphasis upon the recent past.
-Comment on how the work in question relates to the artist’s output.
-Insight into the technical and creative intricacies of the work with emphasis upon the artist’s concept. It might be helpful (time and space permitting) to question the artist directly or at least if notes are given, use them as source material. In other words, try to assert what the artist’s goals were.
-Any other relevant factors such as the other musician’s contributions, packaging, sound, etc.
-How or if the recording relates to the contemporary scene.
As a whole, the idea is for the writer to guide a reader through the work by highlighting various factors which shaped the piece in question. The challenge for the reviewer is to seriously consider the work and all its implications.
WHO SHOULD REVIEW
The stickiest question of all concerns who is qualified to write in the manner I have described. In many other fields of life including driving a taxi or even operating a crane, there are exams which supposedly have to be passed. But there is no test for being a reviewer or critic. I feel that the musicians themselves should be reviewers. The best qualified person is someone who understands the intricacies involved because probably they have encountered this in their own work or studies. Such a reviewer would serve the cause best by sticking more or less to his field of expertise. A musician who has primarily recorded in the fusion field should probably not attempt to review free jazz and visa versa.
It is the expertise in the area combined with time spent that to my mind qualifies a musician to be a reviewer. It is well known that to appreciate sophisticated art takes time and experience. My appreciation of some musicians has both gone up and down over the years, and in some cases these views are radically different that originally.
Of course, artists themselves are an opinionated lot. They have to be because part of the artistic process is the necessity to sharply define one’s likes and dislikes for purposes of self awareness. But I do think that a mature artist can be fairly objective and in any case his familiarity with the subject outweighs any prejudices which might be revealed. In the final result, each review has to be judged on its own merits.
Outside elements are always going to affect the reviewer’s job. Matters such as the demographics of a magazine or newspaper’s readership, space allowed, fee paid, etc. But if musicians would take the opportunity when it presents itself to seriously write about music, the listeners would be better served. In turn, this can only help the art form to survive. Finally, if the reviewer truly doesn’t like the work under review, (s)he should just pass. There is enough work available which can inspire the writer, rather than having to be negative. Finally, it is very important that musicians answer critics when they feel that they have been wrongly interpreted. This is the only way to stop perpetuating wrong information.