When the crit hits the fan

January 23, 2015 at 5:51 pm | Posted in music | 4 Comments
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Fans have a rough time. We admit to a Bit of a Thing for someone, and immediately give up all hope of being taken seriously. The Arts World looks on us with faint distaste. Can’t we keep our silly emotions to ourselves? Whatever will become of rationality, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as base as looks?

Cumberbitch leggings, by Poprageous

I can’t not have these

There’s so much wrong with this. First, it’s more than just a question of looks. Fans react to the package (sorry): the acting, the singing, the musicianship, and yes, the looks (though looks can, believe it or not, be secondary: think of the Cumberbatch fans who only really fancy him as Sherlock). The ability to inhabit a part, to make us believe; to transport us, to sing us into submission. And, as I’ve pointed out before, esteem takes many forms, and it can be hard to figure out which one someone evokes in us. Admiration, inspiration, identification, #voicecrush, #mancrush…

Second, just because we’re fans, it doesn’t mean we don’t know or care about music. Well, OK, I don’t know much [cough] but others do. And admiring the cut of a tenor’s jib doesn’t negate this knowledge. We know a poor casting decision, a below-par performance, a phoned-in contribution when we see one. And we’re interested in the rest of the production too, not just ‘our’ star.

Third, there’s an element of sexism lurking here. While there’s the odd joke about fanboys, most of the disparaging comments I see are about women. Dirty, dangerous, lustful thoughts, we women have. How dare we? Can’t we have a cup of tea and a nice, safe, clean, intellectual think about things?

Lastly, and most importantly, emotion is part of life. Emotion is, very obviously, part of music. Why is it OK to admit to some emotional reactions to music (joy, pain) and not others (fascination, desire)?

Because YOU HAVE THESE FEELINGS TOO. Yes, you, Mr. Serious Critic. You may think you’re overcoming them, evading them; that your emotional reactions can’t possibly be influencing your intellectual assessment of a performance. But they are, because you’re human.

Iestyn Davies

This picture of Iestyn Davies is entirely necessary to the narrative. (c) Benjamin Ealovega

I’ve been listening to lots of countertenors recently. I bring this up, not just because it’s an excuse to burble on about Iestyn Davies again, but because it’s a good example of a response that isn’t intellectual in nature. I’m busy learning about different genres and techniques and approaches to the art, and starting to understand the immense skill and artistry that goes into classical singing. But I know that part of my obsession is just because some countertenor voices do inexplicable things to me. (Not everyone shares my view: my twitter friends’ reactions have been fairly evenly split between ‘God, that’s amazing! His voice is like a musical instrument!’ and ‘Ooh no, he sounds like a GIRL!’)

So, to some extent, we like what we like. And this is interesting in itself. I’d love to explain to you how the B-52s are the most criminally underrated band in the history of pop. I could go on for ever about the lyrical faux-naïveté, the clean-as-a-whistle vocals, the undercurrent of danger in the drumming. But I know it won’t make you like them (unless you do already, in which case, highfive!).

This fascinates me. But rationality has such a hold on our approach to criticism that we minimise the importance of these responses. People feel the emotion so strongly, and yet are so convinced of lovely clean tidy rationality’s priority over base messy mucky emotionality, that they seek intellectual explanations. It’s in the chord structure, the cadences, the phrasing. It can’t just be me, happening to like it. Do you like it too? You see! It must be universal!

I mentioned this to the boyf, and he brought up Adorno (he has a habit of doing this, but that’s what you get for living with intellectuals). Apparently, Adorno said that our reaction to an artwork is both rational and emotional, and it’s folly to think we can have one without the other. Instead, the tension between rational and emotional reactions creates the ‘problem’ of art appreciation; this ‘problem’ is, of course, what makes art interesting.

So I say it’s time to bring emotional reactions back into the critical fold. Accept them; learn to recognise them in yourselves; see them as part of your appreciation of performances, rather than some kind of dirty little secret you have to suppress. Start to understand their interplay with rational, intellectual interpretation. And stop looking down on fans, with our love and our pain and our joy and our desire so close to the surface. We might be closer to the truth than you think.

Music, emotion, denial, and anyway, I blame Iestyn Davies

April 21, 2014 at 8:37 pm | Posted in music | 6 Comments
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Yesterday, I biked through Old Town in tears. Yeah, yeah, I know. This time it was different, though: I wasn’t weeping over the hills, the headwind, my lack of grit, my terrible urge to pack up and go home after 15 miles. I was thinking about Dad.

It’s been a troubled couple of weeks. Mostly, I blame Iestyn Davies. I don’t listen to classical music. I kid myself it bores me, but really, it terrifies me. The other week, the boyfriend went to bed early, and I sat half-watching Rule Britannia, one eye on twitter. I looked up to see Iestyn singing ‘Dove sei, amato bene?’ and suddenly I was a mess.


It’s all still raw, then. The cracks, papered over. So much I’d forgotten. I was probably fourteen. It was getting late; I left Dad in front of the telly and went up to watch the end of Madama Butterfly in bed. God, it’s heartbreaking. Dad came up the stairs to say goodnight. He wiped his eyes; I blew my nose. And we laughed. Silly sods.

His emotions ran so close to the surface. Sunsets could bring him to tears, but music did it most reliably. He’d hide in the lounge and turn the volume up: Verdi, Puccini. No interrupting.

This was me, too. Singing in The Crucifixion, dreading the approach of ‘God so loved the world’ because I was going to cry, no matter what, in front of everyone. Paired ‘cello lessons with Denise, who was measured precision and correctness where I was all mad emotion and fluffed intervals.

But for Dad, joy in a beautiful performance had a flipside. That sharp intake of breath at a bum note. Hilariously accurate pisstakes of operatic overindulgences. Watching New Faces: ‘All he’s got is cheek.’ ‘She’s just a belter.’ Tuning, timing, interpretation, criticism. I used to wait until he was out to practise, because I couldn’t bear to murder the music he loved. Bach, Elgar, Saint-Saëns.gary larson roger screws up

And I couldn’t be good enough, never mind for him, but for myself. I stopped playing, because the fear of failure, of screwing up, far outweighed the joy. And I stopped listening, too; it was all just too much.

Dad had a folderful of skits. Good stuff. I put on one of his tiny plays at school, and we won a prize. I don’t know what happened to it all; I didn’t realise that after a funeral, stuff just gets thrown away. He was going to send his writing to Punch, some day, soon, when he’d just tidied it up a bit. It never left the house. He thought the world would be a harsh critic, as harsh as he was; he couldn’t expose himself to it. And I know I don’t want to be like this.

My boys are learning the piano. I bash out boogaloo riffs, worked out by ear. ‘That’s really GOOD, Mummy!’ I blow the dust off my ‘cello and scrape through TV themes. Someone dares me to post them on audioboo; I do it (after a couple of glasses of red), and I’m taken aback that people don’t go, ‘Eeeurgh! Stop it!’ but instead say, ‘How great to be able to do that.’
gareth malone tweet

So I’m trying to love the fear. It’s a bit of a work in progress. Like the joke about the stubborn understains being all that’s holding your pants together, I’ve grown accustomed to the tension: the conviction that if I relax, it will all come out – love, terror, pain, god knows what else – and where will it stop? So, small steps. This week, playing bad boogaloo. Next week, digging out the Elgar. Listening to The Messiah, and letting myself bawl uncontrollably, then stumbling back from the edge.

Because it’s not just music, of course. All those dreams, procrastinated over, because I’m paralysed with fear that I won’t be good enough. If I can do it with music, will it transfer? Embrace the emotion, feel it, let it rip me up, then piece myself back together. I’m going to try. No, really, I am.

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that is what you think, in that glass

Me, Dad, Grandad. Yes, that IS what you think, in that glass

(The best bad boogaloo:)

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