Blog posts like this often come about in what often feels like an arse-about-face kind of way.
You think about an idea one day, promise yourself you’ll pen it, and then forget all about it. Then someone else (far more organised) comes along and writes about just that very subject, and I end up thinking that time is now to resurrect that long forgotten un-actioned idea.
So it is here.
Cross-Eyed Pianist Fran Wilson has written about reviewing on her blog.
It’s a characteristically inclusive and empowering message she communicates. Self-effacing too. It also comes at a point in time when it feels like some old-time conventions are being challenged, some definitions are being re-written, and a positive sense of community is gathering pace.
Of course, this might be all wishful thinking on my part. I might actually be telling myself that the thing I’m devoting more of my time and attention to – writing about classical music – is in the ascendancy not because it is, but because I want it to be. You may also already be way ahead of me.
I review for the same reasons I used to write notes during training courses. Note-taking for some aids learning, embedding important insights in the brain, helping future recall.
In a similar way, reviewing helps focus my attention on the listening experience. That, in turn, helps me identify the reaction I’m having to the performance I’m participating in (as listeners we are participants in a live performance). Being aware of what I bring to a listening experience helps me improve my own sense of objectivity, and in the process strengthen the connection I have with the art I’m listening to.
In this respect, reviewing is not so much a reason to listen to classical music but a happy consequence. As a writer, it provides me with fodder to improve my technique. In that respect I’m drawing on the original motivation I had for writing in the first place – blogging – rooted in an acceptance that because you were able to publish, you were entitled to have a view. That basic rule of self-publishing has become distorted in recent years with the advent of mainstream media using social media as the basis of their journalistic ‘endeavours’ – in some cases resulting in toxic consequences.
But there is a deeper personal motivation for reviewing.
When I was studying music at university, my first year tutor Dr Alain Frogley set me and my contemporaries the task of reviewing one of the concerts in the Lancaster University Music Concert series run by Denis McCaldin. It was a concert of Haydn string quartets (no surprises there given McCaldin’s love of Haydn). I remember all of us attending the concert absolutely terrified. Some of us were preoccupied by how unfamiliar the works were. Others felt they hadn’t done anywhere near enough research for the task and, more to the point, would any of this count towards our end of first-year grades?
I had no idea what to write. All I remember about what seemed at the time like a traumatic experience was the fine point of the biro I was using to write, and how the process of writing a review I didn’t feel qualified to have an opinion on was akin to turning up to a party I hadn’t received an invite for, drinking wine I hadn’t paid for.
Every time I write a review I think of that first-year task. I’m always running to catch-up with that original challenge. Compensating.
What’s the difference now? I’ve become accustomed to the process. I don’t claim to be authoritative. In my personal opinion any reviewer who gives off a whiff of being an authority on a work can’t necessarily be guaranteed to be thinking first and foremost about their readers (*ducks*).
What I’ve become accustomed to is the idea that my view on a performance is valid. My review has a place. It’s not the final word; it’s just one take. My take is as valid a view on something as anyone else sat in the auditorium.
And that for me is the root of engaging with any art form, whether its sculpture, a painting, an installation, music, literature, poetry or theatre. That’s art’s USP. It’s a dialogue with anyone who wants to interact with it. It’s as challenging or as easy as you want it to be.
Art needs people commenting, reporting or reviewing it. Not because one person’s judgment is the final word. It’s because one person’s view stimulates a conversation about the thing they’ve experienced. In that way, writing critically, or as near objectively as you feel you can, is the beginning of a conversation about the art form you’ve participated in.
More people should feel able to comment on the art they experience. That’s what the artist would have wanted. No?