Phoning It In: A Who's Who and What's What

Unsurprisingly, we weren’t invited to the party in Denver this week. But on the bright side, being all by my lonesome gives me an opportunity to explain one of my pet peeves in great, long, drawn-out, excruciating, saddle-sore inducing, “telling” detail. No one will be safe! And I will have my revenge!

Okay, I’ll admit that I often scribble-up a number of these posts rather quickly. Not because I think I have the Midas touch, writing perfect, crystalline exercises of logic that no mortal can shatter. Instead, it’s because I would like to trick myself into thinking that I’m working under the pressure of a deadline.


It’s all too easy to forget that our dear critics burn the midnight oil, racing from the concert hall to the computer—in some cases, to the Selectric typewriter—just to get the review in on time, often with only a few hours to wittily opine, with a cup of coffee in hand and an ancient dictionary by their side. If that’s not enough, there’s this quirky little blog that’ll tear ‘em a new one if they say the wrong things. Scary, I know.

Sometimes, however, I think that critics just can’t resist the lure of sleep after a long day, despite their desire to write beautiful, lasting prose. Sometimes you have to give in and reset. So they shut it down, wrap it up, phone it in.

What do I mean?

Of course, there’s the Urban Dictionary’s definition:

phone it in: Perform an act in a perfunctory, uncommitted fashion, as if it didn’t matter.

But our definition requires a little more detailed explanation, because phoning it in can take many forms. Take for example Daniel Ginsberg’s little poopcicle:

[Steadiness] gives the reading a granitic strength that firmly places beautiful passages into a sweeping architecture.

WTF? Was that really necessary? Did that add anything to the discussion? What the hell is sweeping architecture? And how does steadiness firmly place passages in said architecture?

Whatever it was he was trying to say, it failed; it meant nothing. Thus, he phoned it in.

Or take for instance, Richard Scheinin’s non sequitor:

Sometimes each note was delivered cleanly, like a pushpin.

Huh? Pushpins are delivered cleanly? Pushpins? Then again, it’s not terrible. But he goes on to say even less:

Sometimes Bach's flourishes, which have a metallic ring on the harpsichord, landed like ripples in a pond [...].

Ripples land? On ponds? So do Bach's flourishes? What?

Similes can be powerful tools, but, here, Richard’s imagery failed hard. His is a kind of Dada criticism. Meaning has exited the building.

What about Edward Ortiz on Morton Feldman and his...impossible paintbrush?

It's akin to Jackson Pollock putting away his drippy paintbrushes for a set of standard brushes made for painting within rigid outlines.

What on Earth are “drippy paintbrushes?” Perhaps he meant, “dripping paintbrushes,” instead? Or a paint-dripping stick, or other objects Pollock regularly utilized when painting? But rigid outlines? Feldman composed by numbers? Sorry. Nope. Wrong.

And then there’s Tyler Zimmer:

There were countless moments during Fantastique when the orchestra sounded at its best, not in small part due to Slatkin, who is finishing his penultimate year as music adviser with the Nashville Symphony.

It’s hard not to picture Tyler in the audience with his pencil and notepad frantically making tick-marks every time the orchestra “sounded at its best.” Only, he failed, because he couldn’t count them all.

And also Andrew Drukenbrod:

This music is going to hurt, but you will be the better for it, like watching "Schindler's List."

Wow! Now that’s positive criticism coupled with over-baked imagery! Sheesh.

Check this one out. It’s from the Seattle Times:

(cricket, cricket, cricket)...

Whew. That was fun! Wasn't it?

Then there’s Paul Horsley from the Kansas City Star:

Among details I might quibble with were the upward-arpeggiated chords in the finale, which sounded more like broken chords than melodic line.

Um...unless I’m missing something, aren’t upward-arpeggiated chords synonymous with broken chords?

Or how about the ever-popular prefabricated stock-sentence:

The rest of the program was devoted to [enter composer here]’s [adj.] [piece], where the orchestra’s playing was [adj.] and [adj.], and the solos were [adj.] and [adj.].

Oh, and by the way, the final adjective was the ever-empty “interesting.” Again, just more examples of “phoning it in.”

And...(drumroll)...David Partick Stearns on Tchaikovsky:

Harmonic dissonances made intrusions more pointed than usual, almost like a depressive episode, establishing a darker undertone that never quite left and giving the music a dimension that suggested this piece is, in its way, the equal of his symphonies.

To reword: Unusually pointed intrusions, made by harmonic dissonances, suggested...??? That the piece was better than it actually was? I don’t get it. Kostka and Payne never covered that, did they?

And...(bigger drumroll)...here’s Matthew Guerrieri:

The elegiac fourth movement is built around the piano, collecting rhapsodic fragments into resonant clouds casting shadows over allusions to the previous movements.

Well, I take this one back. Sorry. Matthew is doing the opposite of phoning it in. In fact, this little nugget is quite complex, forcing me to cast reverse-shadows of metaphoric doubt over rhapsodic insinuations of the previous “phoning it in-ers.” So...nevermind. My apologies.

But, then there’s this:

The Mass is written for five choirs, and its most telling moments come from the composer's manipulation of their separate sounds.

That very well may be true. However, what was the significance of these moments? How did the composer manipulate “their separate sounds?”

I mean, I could say that “this meta-critique is significant.” But without telling you how it is significant, I’d be phoning it in, calling it a day, giving up. Without explaining my definition of “phoning it in,” I’d be lazy. Thus, I’d be phoning it in. If I made up long, drawn-out generalizations that didn’t say anything only to fill out my word count, I’d be phoning it in. If I simply made things up because they sounded good, I’d...

Have fun in Denver!

(thanks to Chris at Chris's Invincible Super-Blog for the pics)


Gustav said...

I think you're being a bit nice, E. Saying that they're "phoning it in" implies they at one point wrote well-conceived and fair reviews. I think your collection of critical gems shows us, quite clearly, that they don't know what they're talking about...and no matter how hard they may try, they're doomed to writing euphuistic and grandiloquent crap.

"Among details I might quibble with were the upward-arpeggiated chords in the finale, which sounded more like broken chords than melodic line."

...Terrible, just terrible.

BTW, great post, Empiricus.

anzu said...

Heh. Before going on blog-estivation (evidently, the estivation doesn't apply to occasionally trolling on other people's blogs), I was going to write about Kosman's review of the SF Symphony's Brahms-fest (I don't mean to pick on him, but as I mentioned in my blog, I don't do a whole lot of reading of reviews). I might still do it at some point. The review was fine enough, so perhaps I'm nitpicking, but something like 9 out of the 17 sentences had metaphors, metaphors, metaphors. (Or similes or synechdoches, etc.) I forgot the exact numbers, but it was about half. Two or three enhances the column, but at the end of something that is so laden with "x was like z" and other descriptives, the brain just gets overwhelmed. Or at least this brain does. There is one guy in this (SF) area who doesn't overuse metaphors, but as for the rest. . .I guess it is some sort of writing tradition, since many music critics seem to do it. It's like they play pick the metaphor out of a bag and pick a handful and thread them together in their reviews. Ok, I'm not saying Kosman does/did that (he writes quite well), but what is wrong with just using 2 or three? Really, they should be more like condiments rather than the main course. The problem with reading 8 or 9 sentences of "the notes shimmered like jewels under ___'s hands" or "_____'s performance was a slam dunk; a hole-in-one", is that you forget the music experience that the critics may or may not be trying to create, b/c you have all of these images of golf courses, Kobe Bryant, glistening diamonds, etc. floating around in your pea-sized brain. I don't see this sort of adjective-gluttony in food writing or sports writing or stodgy science/personal finance articles. I mean, can you imagine a restaurant review in which more than half of the review is metaphors? "The food danced around in my mouth like graceful ballerinas." Absurd, I tell you. Thanks for letting me rant. . ..