//Ad libs: Music reviews for the rest of us

Friday, December 19, 2008

Music reviews for the rest of us

I've just started reading Daniel Levitin's book "This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession." We ran an interview with the author a few months back when he was speaking at Kepler's about his latest tome, but I thought I'd start with this one. He digs into the science of humans' passionate attachment to music, with the unusual approach of a record producer-turned-psychology professor.

As an arts journalist, I enjoyed a passage about how music critics can turn off their readers -- and how editors shouldn't stand for it. A nice reminder of how we all need to remember who our audience is:

How many times have you read a concert review in the newspaper and found you have no idea what the reviewer is saying? 'Her sustained appoggiatura was flawed by an inability to complete the roulade.' Or, 'I can't believe they modulated to C-sharp minor! How ridiculous!' What we really want to know is whether the music was performed in a way that moved the audience. Whether the singer seemed to inhabit the character she was singing about. ... We wouldn't stand for it if a restaurant reviewer started to speculate about the precise temperature at which the chef introduced the lemon juice in a hollandaise sauce, or if a film critic talked about the aperture of the lens that the cinematographer used; we shouldn't stand for it in music either.

It's interesting that you don't tend to see this rampant use of jargon in other types of arts writing, except sometimes visual-art reviews. Unfortunately, the practice adds to the too-widespread feeling that classical music is inaccessible to the layperson, that it exists in an esoteric plain that the rest of us shouldn't bother to try visiting, even if we wanted to.

As I heard several people say at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute, appreciating classical music isn't so much about knowing the jargon as it is having a good attention span. Today we're used to Polaroids of entertainment that we can process right away. An evening of classical music asks you to concentrate on a creative work that develops slowly and carefully, in a way that gives you pleasure in analyzing the music and listening to it again and again, discovering sparkling new facets every time.

Pictured: Daniel Levitin's website YourBrainOnMusic.com.