What Do You Think?
How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question.
A couple of years ago I attended a concert that included a piece by the composer Fred LaMar (a pseudonym). After several months of fieldwork in the Chicago New Music scene, I had recently become fixated on asking a simple question: what do you think? I would ask this of fellow concert-goers and whenever an acquaintance knew the piece I was interested in, so I was eager to hear people’s reactions to LaMar’s work. After this show, a respected performer responded to my question by asking, “You’re not a friend of Fred LaMar, are you?” I was not, and we engaged in a detailed discussion of what she saw as the piece’s failings, as well as other aspects of the performance she didn’t like.
Such conversations have remained a subject of curiosity for me. In my research, I routinely conduct taped interviews, but these can’t capture or exemplify all the interesting conversations I have had while doing my fieldwork. Many times, detailed conversations about aesthetics and labor came about naturally while walking around town or during a chance meeting. I couldn’t always prepare for such an encounter, and when I have attempted to solicit negative reviews during more formal interviews, the results are frequently stale or intensely private. How do we critique each other’s work? What is at stake in such a conversation? How do our relationships mediate our critical perspectives? What happens when someone you respect does work you don’t like? I want to consider these questions with regard to both printed and spoken reviews of concerts. By looking at how we speak about these issues, we can begin to see how musicians move back and forth between ostensibly social and aesthetic concerns, and demonstrate how these two areas are deeply interwoven domains.
As I’ve attempted to formulate what it is that interests me about these conversations, I’ve turned to anthropological research on gossip. It’s not that every response to “What do you think?” constitutes gossip, but sometimes it does, and it can be hard to tell the difference. (I know, I know, the adage about only saying it if you would say it in front of someone, but the fact is some people are more open to criticism than others. I didn’t always have a strong relationship with the criticized or the criticizer, and presumption is riskier than abstention.) Since the 1950s, researchers such as Erving Goffman have argued that intimate conversations often have as much of a theatrical “staged” quality as public discussions. We shape our conversation to its context. Even our most intimate iterations are mediated by concerns about place and impact, though they remain authentic. We can lower these stakes in part by feigning ignorance of a subject, as noted by ethnomusicologist Henry Kingsbury. In his book based on ethnographic research in an elite music conservatory, Kingsbury described the question “What did you think of the Beethoven?” as a way to judge not only the talent of Beethoven and his performers, but of the speakers. More recently, Niko Besnier has argued that gossip is crucial to understanding the make-up of a given community, arguing that “exclusion from gossip is one of the primary means through which groups define outsider status.” Gossip, he argues in his book Gossip and the Everyday Production of Politics, is central to “how people construct and maintain a sense of localness.” Viewed with a sense of community in mind, “What do you think?” can serve to announce our relationships with the musicians in question. It can locate us in relationship to the broader community, as having more or less insight or talent (a la Kingsbury), or as being a trusted confidant (as in Besnier). Responding to “What did you think of the Reich?” with “I just don’t like music with so little melody” could risk placing you outside the community, in opposition to widely accepted views. In contrast, a more nuanced response, “I think Reich’s music stopped being good about seventeen years ago” might have the opposite effect. Your response also varies according to your place. Maybe you really don’t like music with the kinds of melodies Reich employs, but you don’t want to say so in front of the wrong people. Giving your opinion of melody is thus an intimation, a sign that you trust your interlocutor to keep your confidence.
In my fieldwork and interviews, “What do you think?” provided many people with an opportunity for expressing support. When I asked people what they thought, opinions were often given with various caveats or protective phrases such as, “First of all, I generally think Rebecca is a fantastic soloist and a great musician. But …” Many of the people I spoke with in the Chicago scene and elsewhere were eager to demonstrate their respect for the work required to produce a given performance. At each point in the conversation, interlocutors attempted to ascertain the rationale for the work in question. Why did this performance happen here in this way by these performers? Often, more intensely negative opinions appeared with more caveats, especially when disparaging respected figures. Indeed, this type of construction—a critique delivered after an expression of support—has, for me, become almost cliché. I encounter it frequently in press reviews of the groups I study. Eighth Blackbird is routinely praised for excellent performances while the same writer will deride the piece performed (check out Anne Midgette’s 2016 review of Eighth Blackbird’s “Ghostlight” program for a good example).
Sometimes, such constructions emerged after especially damning criticisms. In a recent concert review for Cacophony magazine, for example, Jen Hill took the vocal ensemble Quince and composer Luis Fernando Amaya to task, writing:
The concert began with a conservative program […] that relied on simplistic subtlety in terms of purpose and approach, in that any possibility of risk or consequence was masked by a metaphorical (and at one point, very real) veil of restraint. [This performance] objectifies the female bodies on stage and makes a theatrical mess of an otherwise pleasant listening experience.
That word “pleasant” recalls other back-handed compliments I’ve read over the years. Take, for example, this scorcher from a 2011 Eighth Blackbird concert review:
No need to return to Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire, a listenable but inconsequential concerto written for eighth blackbird. They gathered around the Steinway at the beginning of the piece and the end, bowing and striking the piano strings to pleasant effect.
In the comments posted to the Cacophony review, Hill responded to critics, “i have great respect for all performers and composers and staff involved in this festival and have no intention of passing judgement on their skill, commitment, or character.” And yet judgment was passed on the work, a move that at least raises some questions about character, especially when criticism includes accusations of misogyny.
Why support those we criticize? Or the reverse, why criticize those we support? Why do many of us feel the need to suss out works and our opinions? I posed this question to a friend, who responded, “Because it’ll make the work better. All this stuff involves innovating, trying to do something different.” In new music, it can be hard to know when somebody’s on to something or when we’re just excited for someone. Sometimes the distinction doesn’t matter, but often it does. There’s a point, I think, where your honest opinion matters more than your friend’s feelings. The opposite is also true, as was demonstrated to me repeatedly in fieldwork. “What do you think?” was rarely a simple question in the new music scenes I’ve studied. Especially when forming new relationships, as I did over and over again in the course of my fieldwork, sharing critical perspectives helped me engender a sense of trust and openness. Finding people who shared my critical views enhanced our relationship, and I needed those relationships for my work. When I could be honest with someone, I was able to have richer conversations, to open up, and—most importantly—to relax and stop analyzing everything I was doing while I was doing it. It helped make the long hours feel less like an intrusion and more like a shared experience.
Critiques and gossip both illustrate that, at least for the people I have worked with, new music is a rather contingent endeavor. An artist’s status, veracity, and execution were often points of debate. Even a group as successful as Eighth Blackbird ultimately risks a lot when they undertake a project. Groups with a larger budget and full-time employees cannot afford to fail in the same way that the part-time Ensemble Dal Niente can. This is important to remember amidst all the hyperbole around entrepreneurship. New music is a culture that tends to romanticize risk, and I think we ought to push back on that romanticizing. For all its aesthetic innovation, new music remains a job for many people. For every successful endeavor, there are more failures. As I became aware of this contingency, “What do you think?” became an increasingly high-stakes question. A consensus of failure had the potential to be a truly devastating realization, especially when a project cost a lot of money and involved multiple donors.
Attending to this type of talk complicates how we support each other. It demonstrates that negative feedback relies on a sense of trust and implicit support, as has been noted by Ellen McSweeney in an essay titled “Can a Concert Review be an Act of Love?”:
I’ve realized that for me, writing about other people’s artistic work is actually an act of service. More than that: it is an act of love…. when I look back at my best concert reviews, I can see their devotional qualities. I never wrote about music that I didn’t like, or didn’t care about. Thus, my music writing is an expression of the fact that I really see this artist, that I believe in this artist, and that I want to shine a light on what this artist offers the world. And when I called out Chicago new music sexism, or Beethoven Festival dysfunction, or an unexamined trope in Amy Beth Kirsten’s work, it was much like the process of telling a close friend that they’re wrong.
I don’t think I love everybody I talk about, but I do care about most of them. When I don’t care about something, I tend to talk about it very little (though when I really hate something, I might talk about it more).
One last thing about “What do you think?”: The levels of mediation I have outlined here demonstrate how much the people I’ve worked with rely on each other. The scene is small, or at least it is felt to be small. “What did you think?” is thus usefully combined with that other ubiquitous question in new music, “Do you know so-and-so?” To return to my opening example, I wonder what would have happened if I had been a friend of Fred LaMar. How would my conversation have been different? I think three counter questions would shape my reaction to another’s criticism of my imaginary friend’s piece. First, what did I think? This question often takes me a long time to figure out, and can change after I have a good talk with another listener. Second, who am I speaking with? The answer to this question determines how honest I can afford to be. Finally, did my interlocutor acknowledge in some way the work required to produce the work?
Determining the qualities of a piece of music of almost any kind remains deeply social for me and for many others. Most of us, I think, arrive at our opinions in dialogue with our friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and critics. Sharing our experience of music goes a long way to shaping our experience of that music. Even when we think something is bad, talking about it can still feel really good.