Friday, January 14, 2011

Listeners and Enthusiasts

I have been taking a fair amount of flack over at regarding the piece I wrote about Soyeon Lee’s Naumburg recital this past Sunday afternoon.  The bottom line was that I was totally blown away by her performance of an etude by Unsuk Chin entitled “Grains” and lukewarm, at best, about everything else on the program.  What got me in trouble was my scientific tendency to diagnose why I had reacted this way.  I thus decided to advance the conjecture that “Grains” worked as well as it did because of Lee’s command of the underlying metric pulse, while everything else on the program depended less on metre and more on a grasp of rhythm that would not be slavishly dependent on such a pulse.  Even if this was no more than a conjecture, it was enough to open the floodgates of wrath, leading to the largest number of comments any of my pieces have received, with the negative ones in an overwhelming majority.

Reflecting on this I now find myself facing another conjecture.  Hopefully, it will get me in less trouble, because it is an introspective one.  The origin of the hypothesis has to do with my ongoing interest in the nature of listening and how there is more to listening than just hearing.  Most of the music criticism I have read does not try to tap into the listening experience as a factor in how the critic evaluates a performance;  so I decided that “examining” might be a way to characterize how the nature of listening can play a role that tends to be overlooked by “reviewing.”  My conjecture thus is that I have been writing my pieces under the assumption that my readers are more interested in “examination” than in “review.”  I even went so far as to promote one series of San Francisco Performances events as being ideal for those interested in refining their listening skills and thus becoming keener “examiners.”

The problem with this conjecture is that not everyone in the audience wants to be such a listener.  There is this whole other category that probably covers the lion’s share of the seats in the audience, and that is the category of the enthusiasts.  These people are extremely important to the business side of music, because they tend to be the ones who feel most strongly about the tickets they buy.  There are, of course, any number of “targets” for such enthusiasm.  Performers tend to be the most popular, but people can be enthusiastic about a composer or even about a single composition.

The problem is that everything then rides on enthusiasm as the basis for a judgment call, particularly when that judgment involves spending money.  Even a mere conjecture that challenges that call can be taken as an affront.  At the very least it can lead to second thoughts about the monetary investment, but it can easy escalate to being taken as a personal attack.  Given that just about everyone has this feeling of living on the edge these days, I can appreciate that most such folks are always on guard against any such attack, however insignificant the substance may be (although, where enthusiasm is concerned, part of the deal is that everything pertaining to that object of enthusiasm is significant).

Apparently, inviting an alternative point of view can turn out to be a very risky business!


DigitalDan said...

Probably the response is in part due to the use people make of reviews, or at least the common conjecture about the influence of reviews. If a review is simply regarded as an educated opinion, informing the listener, that's one thing. If it's seen as something that will make or break the production, or the next performance by the same organization, that's another. Consider the classic movie about theatrical openings: everything rests about the run's future always depends on the first-night reviews.

Stephen Smoliar said...

Actually, in the classical music scene enthusiasm often runs highest in support of those who have already "made it," as if, once an artist has been "sanctified" by, for example, a panel of competition judges, any opposing point of view is immediately taken as heresy!