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Decoding the Critics

John Robert Brown

Recently, the Guardian reported that in response to the sluggish UK property market, sales reps at a Brighton estate agents have been sent on a poetry workshop. The aim was to learn how to ‘reinvent space’, to avoid the clichés.

Surely, the problem with the estate agents’ property descriptions is that the clichés used are commonly euphemistic? Their prose (and their poetry) uses a code. Property developers always sell homes, villas, properties or cottages, never houses. They call themselves estate agents, not house-sellers. They will describe a small lawn surrounded by other houses as a ‘fully enclosed private garden.’ Gardens are never small, but ‘easily maintained.’ ‘Efficient use of space’ means cramped. A houses is never tiny or miniature, but compact, cosy, or a pied-à-terre. ‘Bijou’ means microscopic. ‘Delightfully secluded’ means an hour’s drive to the nearest shop. A large house is a 'residence', or offers ‘family accommodation.’ Apartments are never flats. A busy road represents ‘passing interest to the front.’ A ‘sought-after location’ is likely to have a flash post-code and an inflated price, while a desirable home is likely to include ‘mews’, ‘drive’, ‘gardens’ or ‘park’ in its address.

Such language uses a common code. We all know the house descriptions to be exaggerated, romantic and slightly untrue. Music critics do a similar thing - though I have yet to see them employ poetry in a review. Musicians live in a small world. Music journalists are drawn from a tiny population within that world. Many players featured in music magazines have known each other for a long time. Thus, for reviewers to say what they really think is for them to risk offending a long-standing colleague or friend. In such circumstances the likelihood of readers seeing fierce criticism in print is small. I understand that to publish solely positive reviews is a terrible idea, even if you agree that if you can’t say something nice then it is wiser to say nothing. But for these reasons, whether a writer dishes out praise or blame, a music critic’s words often require deciphering.

Therefore, concerning tempi, the phrase ‘a thoughtful performance’ could, when used by a music critic, mean that the critic thought the performance to be too slow. ‘Thoughtful’ can simply mean tedious. A ‘gentle performance’ could be both too slow AND boring. Conversely, ‘energetic’ can mean too fast, while ‘dazzling virtuosity’ is sometimes a synonym for far too fast. ‘Masterly’ can be taken to mean unimaginative, humdrum, or ponderous. ‘Very entertaining’ may be the verdict when a reviewer hates a performance, or regards it as trivial and lightweight.

'Provocative' can mean annoying. Music ‘with a cutting edge’ is perhaps slightly rough. A ‘fresh approach’ could be interpreted as slapdash or ill-prepared. ‘Copious booklet notes’ is reviewer code for prolix or long-winded. Booklet notes from ‘the pen of a master’ are likely to be the same old waffle. Or perhaps the writer’s reputation is such that no writer wants to be the first critic to say they’re not wearing any clothes? Use of the adjective ‘epic’ suggests that the reviewer was intimidated by the player’s prowess, or simply that the critic couldn’t think of something else suitable to write. ‘In the tradition of’ means unoriginal or shamelessly derivative.

The word ‘jazz‘ is frequently used to describe any music pre-1960 that utilises a drum kit. ‘Showing mild jazz influences’ can suggest rooty-tooty, or a style that is cheesy and square. The player has probably avoided listening to much jazz, never taken the time to transcribe any of the great masters, or to received any instruction from a jazz musician. Once, I saw an out-of-tune jazz clarinet concert, a wild effort, described as ‘using African pitch’, a well-tempered way of avoiding the point. A CD offering ‘unusual repertoire’ may well contain pieces that few want to play or are capable of playing, and even fewer want to hear. An ‘exotic composition’ probably uses scales taken from the Slonimsky Thesaurus, to be played in a time signature to which no one could dance. A ‘spacious acoustic’ is reviewers’ code for too much reverberation.

When a critic attacks the ornamentation of a classical performance, or picks over the CD booklet notes, the extent to which he concentrates on these aspects rather than commenting on the actual performance gives one the clue that he might not have known what to write about when it came to the actual playing. Similarly with appearances; when a concert reviewer mentions the pianist’s purple and black socks, or the distracting way in which the lady virtuoso tosses her hair around, one has a strong clue that the music could have been more interesting.

No, you must never judge a performance by its review - however poetic it may be.

An edited version of this article appeared in Pianist magazine number 59, April-May 2011.
Included here by kind permission of the editor.
Reproduction forbidden.

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