Assertion Evaluated

Opening sentences—commonly known as hooks or attention grabbers—often seem grandiose or obese, fattened by wild assertions. This practice is so misused, so misguided, that they border on the absurd and surreal. To a fault, opening sentences too often shroud the prose in a foggy haze of tainted farts. All the stuff we passionately want to know about—the descriptions, the evaluation, the subjects—are, thus, left to wither inside a noxious methane cloud of “Huh?”

What to do? Or better, what not to do?

Thankfully, the nice people at Pearson Longman Publishing have made available the overview of their guide, The Allyn & Bacon Guide to Writing. Along our way, we'll reference Chapter 15, Making an Evaluation, which is appropriate for a concert review and a nice way to introduce, you know, sound writing practices.

Today’s attention grabber comes from Newspaper W, in City T, which is located in State F.

If you closed your eyes you’d swear you were listening to one of the great violinists of the past.

And in case you don’t remember, let’s name some of them: Jascha Heifitz, Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Joseph Szigeti, Alma Moodie, Jacques Thibaud, David Oistrakh, and so on and so on. You get the picture.

Open [your eyes], and it’s time for a reality check.

Aha! So, based on the former, if we listened to today’s violinist, he/she would be indistinguishable from one of the above greats. Got it.

So what’s my problem, then? Well, if we take a look at Chapter 15 of the Allyn & Bacon Guide, the first—and probably most important—point to understand about making an evaluation, such as “the violinist sounded like one of the greats artists of the past,” is that:

1. Evaluation arguments proceed by a process called criteria-match.

In other words, we can’t compare apples to oranges without sacrificing the strength or validity of the evaluation. We can’t assert “apples are so much better than oranges,” without providing the context, or criteria, on which we base the evaluation.

Now, here’s how the author chose to match the criteria for his claims; this includes everything in the review referring to the violinist’s performance:

Her tone and color were very impressive.*

*Unless he’s referring to intonation, rather than “tone” which also means color, acousticians will weep.

Following a frenetic beginning, [the violinist] played with vibrancy and virtuosity.*

*Isn’t the emphasis on how the violinist played, instead of with what the violinist played? Shouldn’t it read, “the violinist’s playing was vibrant and virtuosic?”

In the “Passacaglia,” [the violinist’s] burnished tone and heart-rending softness were remarkable.*

*Tone, here, means color. Doesn’t it?

After an extended meditative solo by [the violinist], the work was concluded with [...]*

*I think this refers to the music (i.e., the score), so this doesn’t fall within the scope of our discussion. But, the work “was concluded?” Ick.

Anyway, the author detailed his reasoning for the opening assertion, right? Well let’s condense what he said: The violinist’s playing was vibrant (colorful), virtuosic, and heart-rendingly soft, with an impressive tone (color) and color (color).

Yes. In fact, these descriptors establish the criteria for evaluation; the violinist sounded a particular way, similar to past greats. Since what the author said about today’s violinist must also be true of the greats: “The greats’ playing was colorful, virtuosic and heart-rendingly soft.”

Good evaluation, then? No!

See, the criteria are so broad, they can’t possibly describe, let alone effectively evaluate, what makes violinists great. It's like saying, "All great cars from the fifties have windows and seats and wheels." What’s true of the past greats are true of the greats of today, of a hundred years ago, of two-hundred, of three-hundred years ago. Not to mention the possibility that “color,” or tone, refers to the actual violin(s), not the violinist(s), or that virtuosity is a prerequisite to play the piece in question—if someone even attempts to play Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto they’re probably pretty darn good to begin with.

In all, our author didn’t say one thing. My conclusion: stupid opening sentences are like making out in a Dutch oven.


Sator Arepo said...

The whole tone/color thing is really confusing, at least in the papers. It's hard to see a way around it, unless they decide to standardize the terminology in Music Journalism 101, which is a class that I assume exists.