Sep 7, 2011

To Read Or Not To Read (reviews)

In my day job at Princeton University I have mentored many young composers as they receive their first published and public reviews. Good or bad these reviews usually ellicit a discussion/pep talk about critics and careers. 

It is tempting for composers to want to view critics as the enemy but, in addition to the karmic downside of adopting enemies, it is fundamentally wrong. Critics are an important part of the new music community and provide valuable services. Discussing new music in a public forum makes our esoteric little world just a little more lively and fans the flames of general interest. Even if you are not a darling of the critics, attention paid to contemporary music is to your benefit. Most importantly, critics, espescially good critics, provide conceptual handles and a larger cultural context to help listeners get into new music. Let's face it, there aren't that many people interested in new music so we need to embrace those who are.

Given my belief in the importance of critics it might be surprising that my advice to my younger colleagues is to abstain from reading reviews of their own work or, if that isn't possible, try to clear reviews out of your system as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

There are threes issues in the wake of a bad review that tend to get bundled together: how reviews effect your psyche, effect your work and effect your career. For most composers, bad reviews make you feel bad for a few minutes, hours, days or weeks depending on home thin your skin is. For that condition I offer truisms such as "it is only one person's opinion." I also ask composers to consider that critics become successful and influential because they are, first and foremost, good writers, not because they offer infallible musical insight or prophecy about the future of a work. That rhetorical skill  can feel unjust when turned against you the composer, but it is that very skill that engages a readership and keeps the critic employed. Critics are writing for their own audiences and bosses, not to or for the individual composer so composers should just stay away.

When I have abstained from reading reveiws people have said, "but you should read this one, it is really good." I have a particularly thin skin and no amount of tenure or being "established" changes that. To me, and many people I know, reviews are never good enough. One small grain of qualification turns into a boulder and I become the Princess and the Pea in that vulnerable state following a premiere. I remember waking up to a review that said "this is the best new composition written in the past five years." I was disappointed that it wasn't ten years ... why not twenty? I know that is silly but I also know that I am not the only composer who doesn't think straight when it comes to fresh critique of new work.

The point of course is to not let a bad review compromise your work. I take inspriation from the tai chi fable of the student who asks the master, "how is it that you never fall?" The master replies, "But I do fall, I just get up so quickly that you do not realize that I have fallen."

Good reviews can be equally distracting and the thought "they liked it when I did X, Y or Z" is a slippery slope toward witing to please the critics. More truisms aside, ("You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself"), you are not the intended audience for reviewers and they should not be your intended audience.

Ultimately though, hurt feelings and work distractions are a lot easier to recover from when you fully realize that bad reviews will not ruin your career. There are more truisms for that: "music history is full of bad reviews for great pieces," and most importantly, "there is no such thing as bad publicity." I've been told that research shows that people think you are somebody important if they hear and read your name eight times. I once had a huge picture accompanying a nothing review in the New York Times and people congratulated me for weeks. Feeling and distractions aside, the bottom line is that a bad review will not torpedo a composer's chances at future performances, interesting collaborators, residencies, grants and other symptoms of success.

I had the revelation while teaching a seminar on composer for string quartet that the factor that keeps a piece for quartet alive in the repertoire is that people want to play it. That people want to hear it is secondary. I don't know a single string quartet who will not play a piece they like just because it got a bad review or two or three. Musicians like to champion music they believe in and a little resistance makes it all feel just that much more valuable and important. If you are not reviewed well there is always the chance that you are ahead of your time giving your performers a grand cause celeb.

After the premiere of an early work of mine for string quartet and electric guitar, twenty years ago now, the review was terrible. In a nutshell it said that mixing electric guitar and string quartet was a bad idea and I did it badly. The only positive thing to be drawn from hearing this performance, according to the critic, was the knowlege that nobody would ever have to hear this music again. Twenty years later, that same piece has been performed over 150 times by 30 different string quartets ranging from undergrad conservatory students to the Kronos, Arditti, Brentano and Borromeo String Quartets. I'll never know if a positive review would have led to more performances of the piece but I wouldn't want to take a chance on changing the way things worked out. There is even the chance that the intensity of the critic's opinion attracted more attention to me and the piece.

My point is not to disparage the critic by saying he was wrong. He had a valid point and he expressed it intelligently. For one thing, the disparity in the way sound emanates from a speaker versus the acoustic sound of a string quartet can be like oil and water. I think over the years I have learned how to play with string quartets and they with me in a way that turns the acoustic problems into features. Perhaps even more importantly, I think audiences have learned to hear the electric guitar in a concert context better over the years partly out of experience and partly because the ideology and preconceptions going into such a listening experience have changed. 

I think performers are more dependent on reviews. For one thing, being "ahead of one's time" and "misunderstood" by critics is a part of a positive mythology of composers more so than for performers. Then there is the fact that it is just harder to make an authoritative judgement about a brand new piece on one hearing than it is to judge a performer playing standard repertoire where there are well established paradigms that need to be accounted for with a convincing combination of mastery and innovation. Even if a performer is being reviewed for a new piece there are familiar and recurring aspects of playing like tone, intonation and charisma for which a critics judgement is more likely to be taken as truth. 

So remember that performers suffer the slings and arrows of critical fortune much more deeply than composers the next time you get a bad review for a piece that you feel was not heard due to a bad performance. It can also go the other way though too: One of the best reviews I have received was for a performance that I thought was so dreadful I couldn't bring myself to stand up afterwards. Again, I'm not trying to prove the critic wrong, apparently there was a frenetic energy coming from the ensemble which the critic found exciting but which I took as merely the panic of being ill prepared.

I wish I hadn't read that review at the time even though it was a rave. It was unsettling to think that something I thought was horrid was regarded as my strongest work. I'm not even saying I am right – maybe it was a great thing to listen to. I had enormous preconceptions and could only hear the ways in which the performance did not realize what I wrote. We heard two entirely different pieces.

You may be wondering if I practice the abstinence that I preach. Obviously not entirely or I wouldn't have these anecdotes to share. I did practice complete abstinence for a blissful decade, but about 6 or 7 years ago I started reading reviews again. I kind of blame my wife and the internet because it is hard to maintain a state of blissful ignorance knowing that she has surely googled and read whatever is out there. Or maybe it started when my eye accidentally caught a nice quote as I was trying to forward a review from a presenter to my publisher without peeking. I read on thinking one good review won't hurt ... and I've been off the wagon every since. It takes me a day or two to get a review, good or bad out of my head. I rationalize my regression as research to help me better advise my younger colleagues because practically speaking, nobody ever takes my advice about abstinence. However, I have every intention of returning to abstinence myself ... soon!