by Ellen McSweeney
Part I: A small squabble reveals the lay of the land
So. A little fracas has broken out in the Chicago new music family about a negative review published this week by Cacophony Magazine. The review, written by Jen Hill, is just 484 words long, but conveys a fairly negative impression of the double-bill shared by Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble and composer/performer Olivia Block on the Frequency Festival last month.
In this essay, I’d like to reflect not on the specifics of Jen’s review—I think they handled the criticisms admirably, and will continue to learn and grow in their critical practice. But I would like to share the rich tapestry of thoughts, feelings, and aspirations that this event brought up for me on the topic of music writing. I’m a creator, performer, and writer who cares deeply about developing a healthy ecosystem of music writing. And I’ve had my own share of ambivalence about concert reviews, ever since I started writing them five years ago.
Jen’s review inspired several rich threads of online discussion—some of which were specific to the review itself, while others reflected more generally on the state of music criticism. Some of the major inquiries included:
- What is the value of a negative concert review?
- Should Cacophony Magazine exercise more editorial control over reviews that it prints?
- How is a scrappy, volunteer-run publication supposed to marshal the resources for that kind of editorial control (if that’s even an aspiration of the Cacophony team)?
- What are a critic’s responsibilities to readers and artists? This includes questions of word count, tone, author expertise, and the self-disclosure of any critical biases or agenda.
- How is an unpaid critic supposed to set aside time to do their “job” well?
Simply by surveying some of the Facebook discussion around this issue, one can see that artists have had a wide range of bad experiences with critics and concert reviews—across many years and publications—including:
- Reviewers who are ignorant or hostile towards the music they’re covering
- Critics making excessive use of “art speak” or obscure academic jargon
- Massive critical errors, such as referring to a piece’s “gimmicky electronics” when the piece was entirely acoustic (!)
- Mean-spirited pieces that seem to delight in taking an artist down
- Bland, merely descriptive reviews that refuse to offer an opinion (and which, incidentally, don’t provide any pull-quotes for those pesky presenters who expect to see good press)
- Critics that never appear—because local media outlets don’t have the desire or resources to send a critic at all
As I watched these conversations unfold, I found myself amazed at how the discourse around music criticism surfaced so many important issues in our field. These issues include:
- Whose opinion counts? Why?
- What kind of community dialogue do we want?
- What resources are required to create a healthy critical ecosystem?
- How can new media outlets fill the gaping hole left behind by traditional media?
- Even better: how can they completely recreate the role of the critic?
The author photographs her bandmate, Nick Dorzweiler, in 2012.
Part II: A good critic is like a unicorn
Soon, I’m going to argue that our understanding of the critic needs to be completely overhauled. But first, I want to address the challenge of finding a critic who actually meets the criteria which are often expressed as ideal. Below are some common complaints about critics—paired with a related demand, often expressed by members of our musical community.
Assertion: Critics suck because they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Related demand: But critics need to come from outside the new music community, so they can be impartial.
Assertion: Critics suck because they are mean-spirited, failed artists.
Related demand: But critics can’t be working artists, because they’ll be biased or self-interested.
If you look at these criteria, you’ll start to see how a “good critic” is really a bit of a unicorn. They must be well-informed about our tiny niche field, but somehow be outside it. They must have a deep appreciation for artists, but cannot have any emotional baggage surrounding her own artistic endeavors. Where, exactly, is this person supposed to come from?
One response to this quandary, of course, is public musicology. Dedicated scholars who are truly passionate about contemporary music, and want to share their perspective with an audience of non-specialists, are perhaps the ideal writers and advocates for contemporary music. My friends Will Robin and Kerry O’Brien come to mind as wonderful examples of this. Of course, not every musicologist wants to write for a general audience—and not every great music writer has, or wants, a secure place in the academy.
There are other tensions operating on our ideal critic. For instance, the ideal critic is free from the space and subject constraints of most newspapers, but critics need editorial support in order to really succeed. The ideal critic is motivated by a sense of service, advocacy, and passion, but also needs to be compensated for time spent listening, researching, and writing.
I mention these things simply to remind us all that a very delicate needle is being threaded each time someone writes a concert review, or makes a public statement about art. The same goes for running a publication like Cacophony, or NewMusicBox, or VAN Magazine, or the Listening to Ladies podcast, or any number of media start-ups. It’s extremely hard, it’s often thankless, and even after you’ve threaded the needle, someone will still get on Facebook and quote George Kaufman: "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem. They know how to do it, they see it done every night, but they just can't do it themselves."
And we wonder why people aren’t exactly racing to sign up for this job.
Everyone is learning. So, hug your local start-up publication today. If you don’t like what they’re printing, and you have a little time, offer to write something. Also, let’s give young writers the chance to get better by giving them feedback. Critics are an endangered breed. Don’t step on the eggs.
Part III: A manifesto
Okay. Now, it’s time to address my species: the writers. The ones who, for reasons not always clear, feel deeply and personally moved to write about the art and artists around us. Some of us have already published a lot; some of us have never printed anything we’ve written. Nonetheless, this is for all of us writers to consider.
If we aren’t impartial observers, paid aesthetic gatekeepers, or cranky trolls, then what are we?
For all of us who feel called to write about the music of our time—even, and especially, music that is made by people quite close to us—there are a variety of personal and developmental tasks that we must accomplish in order to do that work in the world with confidence and joy. This applies whether you’re writing on your own website, for a web zine, or a major publication. This applies whether we make money writing, or not.
Here are some suggestions:
First, I believe we must develop an understanding of our personal mission. Why are you choosing to engage in the process of critical writing? Why is this important to you personally? We must examine what lies at the heart of our motivation to write; of course, this will be different for everyone.
The author with her now-bandmate, Sam Scranton, whose work she first reviewed in 2014. Photo: Karjaka Studios.
After years of ducking in and out of critical writing, I’ve realized that for me, writing about other people’s artistic work is actually an act of service. More than that: it is an act of love. Nobody ever talks about it like this. It’s as taboo as a therapist admitting that she loves her clients. But when I look back at my best concert reviews, I can see their devotional qualities. I never wrote about music that I didn’t like, or didn’t care about. Thus, my music writing is an expression of the fact that I really see this artist, that I believe in this artist, and that I want to shine a light on what this artist offers the world. And when I called out Chicago new music sexism, or Beethoven Festival dysfunction, or an unexamined trope in Amy Beth Kirsten’s work, it was much like the process of telling a close friend that they’re wrong.
Although I never reviewed my close friends’ work, the artists I reviewed often became close friends. My best critical writing was never impartial, and never aspired to be. It was about a personal moment of revelation; about finding work I loved amidst a sea of work I didn’t. It was a highly subjective lifting-up of what I thought mattered. It’s my task to find publishing venues that can support me in pursuing this mission.
Another task for us writers is to examine our impact—the impact we want to have, and the impact we’re actually having. What kind of community member do you want to be? Do you want to spark difficult conversations in our field, or are you trying to get more butts in seats? Are you trying to bring new audience members into the fold and educate them, or are you hoping to facilitate a dialogue among artists themselves? Are you trying to document the birth of a scene, the death of a venue, the quest for artistic survival? Once we’ve answered these questions for ourselves, we can look closely at our work and see if we’re accomplishing our goals. Are we publishing in the right venues? Are we choosing subject matter bravely and wisely? Are we ruffling too many feathers, or not enough?
Third, we must hone our craft and establish trust with our audience—however large or small. We have to take responsibility for what we’re putting out there. 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. Before you print something, maybe show it to three trusted friends who will tell you if you’re out of line. Ultimately, readers will come to trust and respect us because we’ve done our homework, laid our cards on the table, and shared something valuable from a place of empathy and generosity.
Last, and perhaps most importantly: I hope every aspiring and working writer will feel empowered to shape their own destiny, their own way of being and working in the world. Personally, I've spent too long bemoaning what music criticism isn't, while ignoring my own power to shape what it becomes. We all know the old model of the “critic” is on its way out. The question is, what model will take its place? We have a thrilling chance to transform this role for our era, and I’m excited to see how it keeps changing—including through the great work being done at Cacophony. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments, on Facebook, and via e-mail, if you like.
Ellen McSweeney is a violinist, singer, writer, and coach living in Washington, D.C. From 2008-2016, she lived in Chicago, where she co-founded Chicago Q Ensemble, Parlour Tapes+, and Handful of Smoke; served as the Chicago Regional Editor for NewMusicBox; and became a grown-up. She sends a weekly letter called The Pearl.