Music Criticism as Contact Sport

In the Age of Facebook, Blogs and Twitter, Snark Often Wins

Thursday, July 12, 2012

As almost anyone with a Facebook account knows, classical music criticism is going from spectator sport to participatory activity. Some people read the comments on articles or news feeds just as avidly as the actual reviews that precede them. Meanwhile, as newspaper arts coverage is cut back in many cities, blogs and Twitter feeds are a growing force in shaping conversations about the art form.

But where does this leave classical music? Is the Internet giving us a more democratic form of commentary – or a more shrill, unfiltered one?

This issue recently hit home for violinist Lara St. John, who publicly criticized Facebook commenters who were "piling on" by reposting and joking about a scathing New York Times review of a fellow violinist. In this podcast, St. John explains what she found so distressing.

Also joining us is Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post, and Pete Matthews, the editor of the blog Feast of Music.

Weigh in: What do you expect of a critic? Does the Internet make music criticism nastier — or simply more exuberant and democratic? Leave your thoughts below.

On negative reviews and the online response they generate:

Lara St. John: I have no problem with the review itself. That's what music critics do; they review concerts. But once I saw this happen for the third, fourth and finally the twelfth time, I got kind of angry. It was in a mean way that [Facebook friends] were re-posting this review.

Pete Matthews: I don't think there's much to be gained from cutting down somebody who's just starting their career and trying to build up their cred -- unless your point is to build your name as a critic and get your name out there.

Anne Midgette: I would object to the term cutting down. That propagates this idea that a negative review is about being mean to an artist. For me, the reason to write a negative review is you're trying to uphold standards...But the only way to make the field exciting is to call it sometimes when it's not working. Sometimes that requires a tough review.


More in:

Comments [8]

Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

I think that criticism should include some objective content before any purely aesthetic jugdments are presented. It is reasonable to know whether the performer handled difficult passages with skill or whether such passages were murky or disguised with the loud peddle, for example.

Furthermore, it is fair to note whether there were any peculiarities such as unusually slow tempos where composer markings are available or known historical practices are available.

Finally, whether a singer was able to maintain pitch or hold notes for their proper duration is appropriate in a review.

A critic may thus write a fair "negative" review if the above considerations are taken into account.

Jul. 17 2012 10:43 AM

NOBODY ...but NOBODY conducts wearing Boxing gloves....( at least no one I can think of )

Jul. 16 2012 08:55 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

A certain extravagant lack of civility has been part of the music-review scene for eons. Berlioz as a critic had no fear of savaging performances or new compositions. It's possible to write a negative review without being mean, but sometimes the awfulness of a performance should be emphasized with words that provide emotional italics.

Jul. 15 2012 07:36 AM
Walt Ribeiro from New York

A link to the NY Times review would have been nice, considering that the entire article is referencing it. A blogger would have linked to it, so obviously democratizing coverage is going in the right direction.

Jul. 13 2012 05:07 PM
Jeffrey Biegel

Music criticism has always been a part of the communicative process from journalists to the public. It informs, as well as educates, audiences in traditional performances as well as new works premiered into the mainstream repertoire. I find it inspiring that people like Anne Midgette provide this for the public, and with the internet, it becomes worldwide. The internet has broadened our careers tremendously, bringing music to the masses on a global platform like never before.

Jul. 13 2012 03:55 PM
Jorn from Norway

Great discussion!

As a reviewer of film, tv and game music I have been attacked by a few composers who disagrees with me. My view is this:

It's not about upholding standards, it's hopefully about honesty. I feel that the reviewer has to be honest with him or herself and let people know what they think. Otherwise, what's the point of the review?

The line is crossed when the reviewer is attacking the artist on a personal level and vice versa. Unfortunately the internet brings out the worst in people and although I have no numbers to prove it, the negative gets far more bandwidth than the positive.

Jul. 13 2012 12:06 PM

This was a great discussion. I have to say firstly though, "Welcome to the internet, Classical music composers, performers, listeners and reviewers."

Having been a reviewer of film, tv and game music and a part of the online film music community since 1997, I can say that just about every point you made (sans the clothes-talk) has been and remains a part of the online soundtrack environment (reviewers, blogs, forums, social media) since the dawn of the dial-up modem.

I think it's pretty clear that our culture (western culture I suppose) has been trending darker and more negative over the last two decades. Alongside of that, the communication tools that the internet affords us provide the opportunity to express that greater level of negativity.

There are simply more channels for more people to express themselves ... and with little consequence. In the end, it can be simply overwhelming, but, sadly, I do not see this changing any time soon.

Jul. 13 2012 11:19 AM
Brian Robins from France

Anne Midgette: "the reason to write a negative review is you're trying to uphold standards". I agree totally. The problem today is that far too much music criticism is fundamentally ill-informed. That applies especially to on-line criticism, which is frequently savagely ignorant. Paradoxically, at the same time the bar is frequently set too low by professional critics, who sometimes also have a vested interest in reining in criticism.

Jul. 13 2012 10:31 AM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

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