In Praise Of Unfavorable Concert Reviews

by
Luis Fernando Amaya

Recording of Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra / Red Ink, Black Inkfor three female voices, microtonally tuned jarana (as a resonator) and electronics by Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble.

(IV) Music is a source of data that listeners interpret and judge according to their cognitive abilities, knowledge, and general expectations. The more developed these areas, the more easily listeners recognize not only the phenomenological multifacetedness of the musical experience, but also the connections between that very experience and their perception of reality. Music criticism thus has the power to emphasize the contradictory nature of music, which stems from a material reality that can be challenged through the music’s own internal formal means. Music criticism both describes how music is created and shares an interpretation—that of the critic—of what that music attempts to do beyond the conditions from which it emerged in the first place.
—from Joan Arnau Pàmies' “Seven remarks and a postscript on music criticism”

Unfavorable reviews as a potential for personal and professional growth

Since reading Jen Hill's review of a concert by Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble which featured the world premiere of my piece Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra / Red Ink, Black Ink, I have been feeling the need to address some thoughts with regards to concert reviews and their potential to generate dialogue, critical thinking, and public interest within a scene. In addition to this, I realize how these thoughts cannot escape their relation to identity politics, labor, power relations, and (the extremely loaded term of) ethics. Jen Hill's review was the rain (or storm) that watered the seeds of these thoughts and put them into motion, for which I am very thankful.

I am perhaps most grateful for the ways in which this review encouraged me to develop a vocabulary for talking about my work, particularly its relation to identity politics. Jen Hill located my piece in a tradition of fetishization and appropriation of female vocality, where I became complicit in the objectification of Quince’s three female singers and, in Hill’s words, made a “theatrical mess of an otherwise pleasant listening experience.” Without contextualization, Hill’s interpretation might be a fair one. But to discount my work as objectification, and objectification only, strikes me as deeply ironic, given that my explicit intention was to approach a very different side of veiling, both of and for identity construction. Perhaps the irony of Hill’s mishearing is only audible to me, the composer, who knows the various levels of content that the work carries and, also, perceives them from a very different cultural perspective. My piece is intended to address the complex meanings of veiling and obscuring the body—I believe obfuscations carry the potential to objectify and threaten, to hide and protect, to misrepresent and misunderstand, to confuse and (re)create identity. Hill fulfills the purpose of a critic by hearing it differently than I do—and without their review, I might never had had the platform for discussing its proliferate meanings.

 

Front cover of the score of Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra / Red Ink, Black Ink

Veiling, self-critique, identity politics, and nuance

The use of a veil is a heavily loaded action throughout many cultures (including Anglo-American culture). I would be curious to know if Jen’s critique of the veil would change after considering the aspects of the work that, to me, justify its use. First of all, it was never thought as a veil but rather as a screen where the shadows of the performers and the jarana[1] (used as a resonator) would be projected. This is related to the relation of the piece with my interpretation of the Huehuetlahtolli[2] texts (an excerpt was presented within the program note on the night of the concert), which addresses the concepts of translation and forgotten (silenced) voices. I also used the projection of the shadows to obscure the jarana in an attempt to avoid it becoming an exotic feature in the piece. And finally, the projected shadows served to blur the lines of race and socio-economic visual content of the singers, steering focus to the central idea of the piece: a mother speaking to her mestizo (racially and culturally mixed) offspring from a language and an epistemology forever lost.

The mother is not able to formulate even a word; the offspring (represented by the jarana as a mestizo object) cannot help but vibrate in an odd manner that they themselves cannot even fully understand. This is closely related to my questionings of Latin American identities and the way in which I personally experience these questions as someone who is alienated from an important part of my roots. What Hill calls “the veil”—what I call “the screen”—in this work does not only obscure the singers’ bodies and the jarana, but functions as a canvas for which the shadows of the performers are projected. Shadows which, in the words of René Pérez (“Residente”), “show you what light cannot reveal”[3]. Even though there are many levels of content in the piece (many of which are only available in the score through the front cover and various texts), there are many potential contradictions that can be addressed. Here are only a few of them:

  • What does the voice of a woman sound like? What does the shadow of a woman look like?
  • If the audience knows who the performers are, isn't it absurd to try to blur the lines of race and social status in order to make them something that is equally meaningful in both sides of a literal and figurativeborder[4]?
  • How can the composer expect the audience to engage with so many obscure levels of content (even after providing a program note)?
  • Is music the means to express all these concerns or should the composer recur to a different discipline like essay or literature writing?

What troubles me about Hill’s review is not so much its reduction of my piece, but what it represents for art criticism more generally. I see Hill’s review as part of a trend in contemporary art criticism (“new music” included) in which identity categories are wielded without nuance, either as a superficial nod toward diversity or as a means of dismissal. Identity politics as an attempt to complement one's own perception of someone else (taking into account gender, race, sexual orientation, place(s) and culture(s) of origin, etc.) can be a helpful tool as long as it does not become a practice of easy tag-placing. The many heterogeneous layers and gradations within any one person’s identity make self definition immensely difficult; eventually one will encounter major complications of over-simplification and/or generalization. Furthermore, the concepts of gender, race, sexual orientation, culture and so on are not monolithic, but rather fluid entities—constantly changing, with porous boundaries/borders and, ultimately, can be regarded as social constructions[5]. This is why—as my discussions with peers like Craig Davis Pinson, Joan Arnau Pàmies, and Miriam Piilonen always remind me—I believe nuance should be the expectation, not the exception. Nuance[6] ought to be prioritized in writing, in everyday conversations and in the ways in which we internalize the world. An appreciation and awareness for nuance can prevent unfair or incorrect generalizations.

What is required for a review to be deemed “nuanced,” and how can such nuance be measured? Should an unpaid reviewer (as Jen Hill was in this particular case) be asked to take different perspectives and implications into account and be able to put them into a discourse? Should a magazine publish a review that does not consider the complexities and subtleties of any given performance when that review is not being remunerated? Complexities of this type never escape the implications of labor, economics, and ethics, especially when a review can have a strong impact on other people's work.

Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble performing Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra / Red Ink, Black Ink at Constellation’s Frequency Series (February 2017). Photo: Rodrigo Orviz.

Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble performing Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra / Red Ink, Black Ink at Constellation’s Frequency Series (February 2017). Photo: Rodrigo Orviz.

 

Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble performing Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra / Red Ink, Black Ink at Constellation’s Frequency Series (February 2017). Photo: Rodrigo Orviz.

Relations of power and labor in a concert review

Pàmies: “(V) The critic can earn their legitimacy through the development of coherent arguments that examine the multiple dimensions embedded in the musical work—historical context, materials, general aesthetic attempt, process of creation, semiology, etcetera—and determine their contradictions.”

As composers and performers, we know there is an enormous amount of effort, time, thought, and sacrifice (in one word: labor) required to compose and/or perform a piece of music, especially when a work is composed in collaboration with performers. In instances like these, the work not only belongs to the composer but also to the performers. It can take performers and composers months or years—along with many artistic and economic struggles—to bring a piece to life. At the end of the day, most new music pieces end up being premiered in front of an audience of no more than two hundred people (and that is a very generous number).

How long does it take to write and publish a review on the internet where hundreds of millions of people may access it? Even if it is unrealistic to assume a review published in an online new music magazine like Cacophony would have hundreds of millions of readers, it is true that its reach goes far beyond a concert in terms of time, space, and availability. An unfavorable review can be the critical perspective that helps the addressed artists attain awareness of certain aspects they could improve. In order to do this in a manner that is fair with regards to the time, effort, and labor involved in the process of music-making, the reviewer should actively be self-critical with their own perception of the work, consider different perspectives, and elaborate on them. A helpful unfavorable review is an informed one that strives to be receptive to the work’s content before critiquing it. Such a review would highlight a work’s problematic contradictions, and consider the aspects that could be improved. As Ellen McSweeney states in her article “Can a concert review be an act of love?” (also written as a response to the review I am addressing):

Do research about the artists you’re covering, and assume their best intentions. Remember that real people, and real lives, will be impacted by your words. Ultimately, readers will come to trust and respect us [reviewers] because we’ve done our homework, laid our cards on the table, and shared something valuable from a place of empathy and generosity.

 

Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble (Kayleigh Butcher, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, Elizabeth Pierce), Olivia Block, Carol Genetti, and Luis Fernando Amaya after the concert. Photo: Catalina Rodríguez.

“tell me why i'm wrong!”

McSweeney: “Remember that real people, and real lives, will be impacted by your words.”

It is very clear to me that Jen Hill's intentions did not come out of an attempt to negatively impact anybody's image or work; they were only offering their point of view with regards to the concert. I do think, though, that Jen did not realize the power relations involved (those between a reviewer and a composer/performer and between a published written review and a work performed in a private concert) and the possible consequences of what they wrote as deeply as they could have. I advocate for the consideration and presentation of many perspectives into the discourse of review so as to avoid solipsistic depictions of an artwork, an artist, or a concert, and to provide readers with an opportunity to imagine more than just one side of the “story.” The writer should seek to do justice to the many implications (artistic, political, historical, etc.) of any given work of art, since there is never only one “correct” interpretation. I do not mean to stress that what Jen wrote was “wrong” (this word also has a purely negative connotation that does not seem fair to relate with their writing), but rather some of my greater concerns about art criticism that I see embodied in their review.

Nonetheless, I also write in order to thank Jen for the opportunities that their writing—despite (or because of) the features I find problematic about their review—brought to me and others, one of them being a motivation for obtaining deeper insight into the issues I discuss in this article.

I am very interested in any comments, impressions, and critiques of what I just wrote—please comment or send me an email at LFAmaya@u.northwestern.edu.

I want to especially acknowledge the help of Miriam Piilonen since the title was her suggestion and many of the points touched in the response were nurtured by her thoughts and writing. Without her involvement, this response would've been less nuanced and clear.

[1] An eight-stringed Mexican instrument originally from the Sotavento region of Veracruz, México, (through which we can trace the Indigenous, African, and European roots of several Mexican cultures). The instrument serves as a resonator of the singers’ voices. 
[2]The Huehuehtlahtolli (which can be roughly translated to “Sayings of the Elder”) are a group of texts that contain advices and wisdom that belong to the ancient Aztec culture. This knowledge was originally transmitted orally, but Spanish priests transcribed them, and in the process, censored and changed the name of their Gods to the Christian God. I address the loss of meaning through translation in the program note of my piece, which can be located at the end of this response.
[3]  “(La sombra) Te de lo que la luz no te revela” from the song “La Sombra” (The Shadow) by Residente ft. Bombino (“Residente.” Fusion Media Group, 2017)
[4] 
I am thinking of the veil as a border between the seen and the hidden, between the explicit and the unspoken. I am thinking of the border as an epistemic veil that may elicit many interpretations in, for example, the U.S. or in my home country, México.
[5] 
I do not mean to imply that these concepts are not real or lack any practical ramifications in real life. It is often argued that identities are generalized as a means towards achieving strategic essentialism. A group does not have one identity but rather a group of identities with shared features which come together in order to achieve common goals. It is important to bear in mind that these groups' identities are generalized but never monolithic. Placing different perspectives in dialogue is highly necessary even when a strategic generalization is set into motion.
[6]  
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “nuance” as: a subtle distinction or variation; a subtle quality to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value.) [Emphasis mine.] When I use this word, I am also making reference to the complexities of a concept, a work of art, or an experience.
 

Program note:

Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra / Red Ink, Black Ink

Y bien canta,
bien habla, 
bien conversa, 
bien responde, 
bien ruega; 
la palabra no es
algo que se compre. 

Huehuetlahtolli (de “Palabras de
exhortación con que una madre así
habla, así instruye a su hija”)

(And sing well,
speak well,
converse well,
respond well,
beg (pray) well;
word is not
something that can be brought.)

Huehuetlahtolli (from Words of
exhortation with which a mother thus
speaks, thus instructs her daughter)

Ancient voices—silenced and lost to perpetuity, they attempt to speak to their mestizo offspring which is at once theirs and others, being and not-being, center and margin, both and neither.

When I read the words Tinta Roja, Tinta Negra, I immediately relate them to the rhetorical figure that the ancient Aztecs are thought to had used to refer to their codexes, and therefore, to wisdom. Red Ink, Black Ink, the same words but in another language, resonate in my head as rhetorical figures for loss and profit within a capitalist economic context.

Even if these voices succeeded in formulating a word, we would never know exactly what they meant, what those words meant to them, from which dismissed epistemologies they come from, what their real message was. The only thing we can do is resonate with them, beautifully or horribly, and listen.

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