Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Reviewing: a rationale

Now that I have returned to blogging I’m thinking of writing about my own experiences with art again. I’m going to try posting semi-regular reviews (mostly of music, maybe some film and books) in this space soon. I have no intention of turning JtMoU into a proper review site per se; please don’t send requests! (I already get inquiries from publicists every few days; I have no idea why.) Instead, I will more or less follow my whims.

But I should probably clarify my decision to review anything at all. Why do it? I have had enough negative things to say about the culture of music reviewing, both on this blog and in my book, that a reader is certainly entitled to be surprised to see me participating in it, even if only occasionally.

Here’s my philosophy. I generally think reviews are misleading in terms of their implicit goal of helping to delineate between the “best” and “worst” in culture. The underlying flaw with the genre is that aesthetic perception is always subjective—a platitude that is rarely followed to its logical conclusion. We can’t speak authoritatively about how other people experience art, so how can we know what is authentically “good art”? The best we can do is make claims for our own experience—and even there, thanks to the limitations of language, and our poor understanding of the human mind, we inevitably lack clarity.

Here are the six reviews I wrote for All About Jazz back in the aughts. They are nice enough examples of the genre, but they also suffer from the problems I’m describing. Take, for example, my piece on Jean-Michel Pilc’s Follow Me. “A former scientist,” I wrote, “Pilc plays with a precision that in places is reminiscent of Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson. More importantly (and also like Evans and Peterson) he avoids sounding dry or academic despite the fact that he rarely misses a note.”

What exactly does “dry” piano music sound like? Does it have to do with the attack? Note selection? Timing? Recording quality? And why should one not want to sound that way? It’s amazing how many unstated assumptions fit into that one little word. And it’s more amazing how the unstated assumptions pile up as I go from phrase to phrase: What is musical “precision”? What would it mean for a jazz musician to “miss a note”? And why is any of this “important”?

The standard response to such questions is either to tautologically cite the record as an example of the thing the record is supposed to be, or to say, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” But that’s a cop-out: if we can’t talk about it, why did you bring it up in the first place? Could it be that the review helps to create the context in which a work can be enjoyed—that it helps to construct the pleasure you attribute solely to the music? Would you have liked the album well reviewed by a respected reviewer if you had heard it before reading the review? That’s a counterfactual problem in every case, but I can’t help but think that sometimes the answer is definitely no.

My complaint is not that all of this is necessarily a bad thing, or that I have a better idea for how reviews should be done. It’s just that writers and readers pay little attention to how the genre actually works. Good writers, I think, understand the influence their work can have, particularly if they are widely read. But there is the danger of drawing the wrong conclusions from that influence: of coming to believe your own rhetoric, rather than accepting it for the flight of fancy it is.

If I am to post reviews here, I need you to understand that I have no illusions that my opinions on art matter any more than yours, just because I happen to be lucky enough to have this space, and some readers, and a willingness to work hard enough to put words together in a moderately pretty way. My reasons are baser: I write for the pleasure of it. I find that if I enjoy a recording (and sometimes if I don’t), I will usually enjoy writing about it. And there’s a blatantly self-serving utility to the enterprise: it helps me keep track of my listening (which is out of control most of the time), and gives me the false but comforting impression of having made sense of my affections.

If my reviews inspire you to check out the art I write about, great. When that has happened in the past, it has been personally flattering, and felt vaguely like an accomplishment. But that’s not the reason I do it.

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