Critics: The Higher Calling

 music critic

LOCAL REVIEWERS OF LIVE PERFORMING ARTS—with a few truly professional exceptions—fall flat on their faces thanks (or no thanks) to a fundamental failure to grasp the essential demands of the job. Strangely, many of them find favor with some Monterey Bay Area publishers, but bring little training or discipline to the job.

Two weeks ago on this page, we carried a link to an op-ed in the New York Times by its Chief Music Critic, Anthony Tommasini, in which he underscored exactly what is wrong with today’s reviewers: they write about themselves instead of the subject at hand. Yet rather than using the opportunity to examine his craft, Tommasini—you guessed it—wrote about himself.

There are many ‘tricks of the trade’ when it comes to good writing. But let’s narrow it down. The first rule of a critic or reviewer is exactly the same as for news reporters: write an accurate description of what happened while answering the five required “W” questions—who, what, where, when, why? Narrow it further to adjectives and adverbs. According to the basic rules of grammar, these words modify nouns and verbs, respectively. But when it comes to criticism, their use must be descriptive of and specific to the event. All other adjectives and adverbs instead are only about the writer.

Of course adjectives and adverbs are inevitable; every writer uses them. But when a reviewer chooses non-specific ones, as some locals do notoriously, they cease to convey any sense other than the reviewer reviewing him- or herself. And beyond that facile threshold, the writing crosses into the realm of meaninglessness, an unquestioned and unexamined leap of faith. Words we too often see—‘interesting’, ‘beautiful’, ‘glorious’, ‘fabulous’, ‘exciting’, ‘treasure’—have no business in the critic’s vocabulary. Worse, they make a review useless.

So what makes a review useful? Many argue that it’s opinion, that a reviewer’s judgment influences the reader’s decision to go or not to go. Of course, that makes no sense when the event in question has already passed. If we rule out the ‘value’ of a review to the performer or presenter—itself a judgment call—then that leaves only the reader. In fact, all good journalists know that they are writing for the amusement or entertainment of just one reader. Within that ‘dialog’ the review either lives or dies.

It lives when the writer is able to shed new light on the topic at hand, either by narrowing in or broadening out to a fresh way of looking at it. Or, more important, putting the event into a larger context. How, for example, does local socially-inspired choreography look from the perspective of a worldview?

When a review instead gets mired down in a swamp of empty adjectives and adverbs, then the reader has to decide if the reviewer’s self-review offers any real value at all.

For me that’s bridge too far.

Scott MacClelland, Oct 17, 2017