In what must be one of the more impressive season-long engagements with this year’s BBC Proms, composer and conductor Simon Cummings has been posting reviews of every Proms premiere to his (excellent) blog, 5 against 4.
That’s a pretty impressive service in itself. What makes Simon’s efforts even more valuable is that he has gone to the trouble of recording each piece reviewed (from the BBC’s iPlayer stream digital satellite broadcasts), and posting them as MP3s and FLACs – carefully edited to include any surrounding discussion about the piece. And he’s even posted the relevant pages from the original programme notes.
That’s critical completeness.
What I really like about this idea is that it adds a new dimension to live concert reviewing. LCR is a curious business: unlike most other criticism you’re not really recommending something to your readers because most classical concerts are one-offs. “You’ll love this/hate this” is not useful information for something that happened in the past.
The good LCR should try to emulate reporting: it’s a sort of aural journalism. Rather than give your readers a shopping list of what’s cool and what’s not, you’re trying to convey to them something of the aesthetic experience that was listening to that particular piece last night, and trying to put it into a context of larger cultural trends. You’re using the specifics of a particular concert as a way in to describing something larger and more encompassing.
This is especially difficult with music, because the thing itself is so ephemeral: the reader has to take so much of the critic’s description of it on trust. There’s not much room for any to and fro debate since the only evidence that can be presented has already been processed by the critic’s writing and re-presented as opinion. There’s no primary source to return to. (The LCRs I’ve most enjoyed reading in the past have always been of concerts I’ve attended myself, and so I have the primary source of my own memories through which to read a particular review.)
Debates of that sort – whether they take place publicly or simply within the mind of the reader – are absolutely essential for the continuing vibrancy of any artform. They’re where preconceptions are challenged, adaptations made, and evolution takes place. Without that critical to and fro you don’t have a lively art, you have a passive commodity. The model Cummings presents on 5 against 4 is time-consuming for the critic – not to mention too costly and legally fraught for any newspaper to consider – but it surely is a glimpse of what online criticism could be.