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On Reviewing

May 17, 2009

Now that I’ve been updating this site regularly, I discovered that there is a general interest in people trying to get an idea of what new classical music albums may sound like.  I shouldn’t be surprised that reviews attract more activity to this site (not counting show days) than my idle thoughts.

The problem, though, is that reviewing is pretty hard.  At least it is with good music.  Personally, many of my favorite albums cause me to react differently upon each listen.  I think good art should be able to do that: generate different emotions not just in different minds or different performances, but also when someone is in different moods or places in life.

So the question is, how do I pick which reaction to an album I have to write about?  Really, I hope that I’m fair and touch on all the aspects that I hear in all of my listens.

More than that, I try to use William S. Burroughs’ thoughts on reviewers.  If you’ve ever read some of Burroughs literature, you might find him to be insane and not exactly the person you’d want to take grounded advice from.  His literature runs in direct contrast to his essays and thoughts.  The Adding Machine is a great text that helps to inform the confused about Burroughs’ views on art, to some degree his own.  One of the last sections, entitled “A Review of the Reviewers,” is built around three principles for criticism established by Mathew Arnold (who had awesome sideburns, btw):

Mathew Arnold set up three criteria for criticism: 1. What is the writer trying to do? 2. How well does he succeed in doing it?  Certainly no one can be justly condemned for not doing what he does not intend to do.  3. Does the work exhibit ‘high seriousness’?  That is, does it touch on basic issues of good and evil, life and death and the human condition.

Burroughs goes on…

I would also apply a fourth criteria I learned at the age of twelve… ‘Write about what you know.  More writers fail because they try to write about things they don’t know than for any other one reason.

I think these are all fair principles to use as a starting point for criticism.  I also think that criticism is not so much about my opinions but about giving a fair representation of the artifact in question.  That’s not the same as writing boring reviews, because I wouldn’t want to write a review that no one wants to read.  So while I might take some creative liberties in writing reviews, understand that I’m not writing reviews for my own ego, but to spotlight good art.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 18, 2009 7:42 pm

    Hi Doug

    It was this from you that made me want to comment:

    ” … there is a general interest in people trying to get an idea of what new classical music albums may sound like.”

    I’m sure you and I would take a different stance on how to interpret that, but it resonates with me because it’s precisely what I’m trying to achieve with my reviews.

    Experience taught me long ago that when you have no idea what something might sound like – and no way of hearing it before purchasing – you can take quite a few ‘wrong turns’ in your classical music listening.

    So any review that focuses less on the technical aspects of a recorded performance and more on the way it sounds (albeit to a necessarily subjective reviewer) has got to be of use to at least some of those who read it.



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