Shitty Review Redux

Following up on an earlier post where a reviewer offered up a very negative (and, if put positively, somewhat uninformed) critique of Chen Qigang’s “Iris dévoilée”, as performed by the Shanghai Symphony.

Well, for a bit of symmetry let me post part of another review of the same program (different performance) by a critic who doesn't suck.

Josef Woodward, of the Los Angeles Times, has the review.

Look on in amazement as his review demonstrates an understanding of cultural and musical backgrounds. He educates his reader while simultaneously offering opinion. It's really quite a marvel what a review can be when, say, the critic knows something about the subject matter.

After dealing fluently with Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff..., the orchestra delved into the definitively East-meets-West score of notable Chinese composer (living in Paris) Qigang Chen’s “Iris dévoilée (Iris unveiled)” and gave it a measured, captivating and discernibly “home turf” reading. For a change, the musical forces themselves, from a full, taut orchestra to Chinese instrumental soloists, came from the eastern end of the East-West spectrum. ...

Take note, Shitty Reviewer, of the subtle touches of the English translation of the title for the Franco-challenged readers. And further providing an answer to the logical question of why a Chinese composer would give their piece a French title. Facts are awesome.

Divided into nine varied fragments, Qigang’s 2001 piece works the theme of the feminine spirit...,

Okay, so the shitty review contains this same information, but let's look at how differently the two reviews handle the followup to these introductory remarks:

First, let me remind you of Shitty Reviewer's shitty review:

Then came eminent composer Chen Qigang’s “Iris dévoilée”. This piece, if described positively, is a portrayal of the universal female archetype in nine movements;....

Okay, now each review has covered the same ground, so, what next?

Shitty Reviewer:

....or, if spoken of negatively, intervals of piquant female screams separated by much-needed silences specially designed for disgruntled audience members to flee the scene (many of whom did preciously that).

Shit. The piece was so terrible people fled the scene. That's the shitty approach.

Now, Mr. Woodward:

Divided into nine varied fragments, Qigang’s 2001 piece works the theme of the feminine spirit, inspired by the Iris of Greek mythology fame, the goddess of the rainbow.

Wow. Didn't take but 13 words, but that's already way more information.

Shitty Reviewer, do you see how this is better? Information over biased, unsubstantiated innuendo?

But wait! There's more!

A rainbow motif, in fact, suits Qigang’s multi-colored approach well, as the music veers from distinctly Chinese sonorities to Western classical elements, often with a clear French accent, from Impressionism to echoes of the composer’s former teacher, Olivier Messiaen. In the main, the musical language(s) are seductive to the ears, occasionally punched up with more dissonant and abstract colors.

Granted, Mr. Woodward seems to have enjoyed this work and Shitty Reviewer seemed to have not. And that's fine. But there's a valuable lesson here -- see how Woodward gives us informed musical analysis, that then supports his position as an authority. Saying how you wish you had fled the building, well, that just makes you...a Shitty Reviewer. In math circles, we call this showing your work.

So what next for our two reviews. Shitty Reviewer went the route of anecdotal evidence to round out her review:

A catharsis of sorts, as shown by the old lady who sat two seats away from me, who began to laugh hysterically midway through the piece. Other than this interesting fact though, “Iris dévoilée” was quite poorly received tonight.

My god that's shitty.

And Mr. Woodward:

For traditional Chinese instruments (some of which Western classical audiences have become familiar with through other Chinese composers’ showcasing efforts), the composer includes the pipa (Jia Li), erhu (Nan Wang), and the proto-koto guzheng (Xin Sun). Less familiar is the distinctive dual presence of a rich Western-style female voice (Xiaoduo Chen) and the sharper-toned sound of Peking Opera tradition (Meng Meng). Qigang traverses various worlds and musical resources with his ambitious piece and does so with persuasive, culture-blending aplomb.

So much excellent information. Instrument names, composer and performer backgrounds, explanations of the the Western elements as distinct from the Chinese features. For those who may have enjoyed the concert, or perhaps have an interest in the heritage of Chinese music, these are some excellent starting spots. See Shitty Reviewer, just because you didn't like a performance, doesn't mean you have to be a douche. Facts are indeed awesome.


Danny said...

Now that is the piece I listened to. I think the opening line of the review should be highlighted: In the field where Chinese composers and performers and Western classical music converge, East has been successfully meeting West long enough that the concept is closer to a norm -- or at least accepted cultural fact -- than a novelty. Atonality is coming up on its centennial, 12-tone and futurism are almost 80, etc. etc., and yes, Asiany classical music has been on the scene for more than 50 years (since the breakout of another of Messiaen's disciples, Takemitsu), so we can stop pretending it's brand new.

I can't believe this, but I'm going to defend Dorothy Chen on the grounds that she's a student at Columbia writing a review for the student paper. The reviews she writes are about the quality you'd expect from a student paper. So if it seems like she doesn't actually know that much about music, then she probably doesn't. I think we should ease up on her until poor reviews under her byline show up in real papers.

Gustav said...

Excellent points, Danny.

And, I realize that Ms. Chen is a student at Columbia, and I don't really mean to attack her specifically, but more the overall tendency of reviewers to write ignorantly on those pieces they dislike.

It's one thing to be an immature writer, which she is, but it's an entirely different thing to be purposefully ignorant -- even if it's the Columbia school paper.

Although, I fully understand your objection. Point well taken.

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