Dealing with the Critics

Hello World!

Well, I’m so happy to share with you my three contributions to the recently released album, “Purcell’s Revenge: Sweeter Than Roses?” (Delphian Records) which I made with early music ensemble Concerto Caledonia alongside singers Olivia Chaney, Jim Moray and James Bowman.

You can have a listen in full on here to my original song ‘Halos’, plus two rearrangements of Purcell songs, ‘Close Thine Eyes’ and ‘Evening Hymn’.

It’s been a really interesting few weeks, getting the reactions and reviews in from this release. As well as a nice bit of praise (who doesn’t like that…?), it’s the first time my work has been described as ‘naughty’ (The Times), on top of which a Radio 3 presenter found my rearrangement of ‘Evening Hymn’ ‘really quite distressing’. While I’m sorry for the upset, (though I’m sure she’s fully recovered by now), I’ve quite enjoyed feeling a bit renegade, like some kind of art vandal or song-scoundrel, especially as it’ll probably not happen again anytime soon. I always imagined I’d have to earn such a description through some spectacular feat of performance, like leaping mid-song into a barrel of oil or inserting a lengthy, ear-bleeding passage into a new work, but I’ve managed to pull it off with much less effort.

For it turns out that if you mess with Purcell’s ground bass, this causes waves in the classical world. (Ok, really not big waves…not big like Simon Rattle’s hair).

But little-big waves. In the case of ‘Evening Hymn’, I took the melody line and then altered the chords beneath it, and removed the ground bass…Wikipedia definition, yeah classical buffs, I had to look it up just now – ‘a short, recurring melodic pattern in the bass part of a composition that serves as the principal structural element’. It was fun to do and to sing (although challenging) and it turned out pretty much how I wanted it to sound (which had a lot to do with the brilliant musicians involved).

It’s not as big as this hair

I wonder what you think about reviews in general? When you read or hear them, do they strongly influence your feeling about a work, or do you take the whole thing with a pinch of salt?

This is the first release that I’ve had with a classical label (Delphian Records), that’s been reviewed by purely classical music reviewers, so in some ways its virgin territory for me. But in general over the years, I’ve found myself thinking about this quite a bit, because it touches on the very real question of ‘Who am I creating my art for?’ Who’s opinion should you take into account as you develop as an artist? A critic? The audience? Your biggest fans? Your label? Your aunt? Or none of the above?!

Probably like quite a few artists, I have an ambivalent relationship with reviews. I try hard not to look at them if I’m still very emotionally attached to a project, or I’ll at least get someone trusted and unhysterical to screen what the review says beforehand. But eventually, (so far at least) I always succumb to the temptation of reading them.

Part of (rational) me feels that it’s just one person’s opinion, and whether that’s a positive or negative one, it’s unhealthy to allow the future content of my work or how I feel about my current output to be affected. Of course, depending on the status of the critic, it can maybe affect other things like how many people end up buying your music or come to your shows. But I feel I want external judgements to impact me as little as possible and generally my own inner-voice, my instinct should be my ultimate guide.

In Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Artist’, he writes:

‘Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings…[M]ost experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.’

The vision is an appealing one, the artist answerable to no one but the Muse; the Wise Fool with a purity of purpose, and a healthy disregard for others’ fickle judgements.

Possible tarot candidate to represent this kind of artist …

However, that’s the sort of clear distinction that I’m not sure can really exist in the messy emotionality of being a Human-in-the-World. Because the line between inner-me and outer- world is…well, not really a line. More like the edge of where the ocean meets the land, constantly shifting, morphing, intermingling water and sand. Whilst I’ve been generally lucky and had kind words said about my work – and a lot of that has to do with being at a certain, relatively unknown level where the journalists who go to the effort of writing about me do so because they are already fans – on the occasions where I’ve been at the receiving end of harsh words, no amount of Rilke or skipping around in a cloak (read:sheet) chanting, “It’s Just Me And My Muse, Motherfuckers!” can really take away the dull (though temporary) ache of sadness and despondency. The desire to crawl under a rock and never be seen again. And at the same time, the overwhelming desire to bash critic’s head in with said rock. You know it’s an over-emotional and immature reaction. You know there are a thousand and one far worse experiences that can and might and also never will befall you. But it’s so hard not to feel it like a personal attack – and a public one to boot – because for most artists it’s difficult to separate yourself from what you dedicate most of your life (and heart and soul) to making.

As Donne wrote, ‘No man is an island’ – and the truth is most of us do care about others’ reactions to us – our friends’, our partners’, our families’ and colleagues’…yes, those who are our audience in both art and in life. And in its more positive sense, if to care is the same as ‘to take into consideration’, it’s untrue for me to say that I don’t also consider my audience as I create.

It’s exciting and inspiring to imagine that perhaps this melody, this song when complete might evoke a distant memory, a long-lost picture, a poignant sadness or heartfelt gladness in the eventual listener – and a real privilege when it actually does so. If you start to wonder whether that ear-bleeding white noise interlude might actually get a bit dull for the audience after ten or so minutes, is that a cop-out? Are you a sell-out? Over-compromising? Or being thoughtful and acting with some healthy humility? And how do you strike the balance between being true to your artistic convictions, but also take your audience into consideration – the people who are, after all, the ones you’re conveying your vision to?

Whilst creating for me is a communion with my inmost self, the act of communicating what I’ve created is an equally essential tendril curling out into the world. Communication, from the Latin, communicare means ‘to share, to make something common’; and it’s in the transmission, the sharing of art that we’re united in our common human experiences of love and desire, fear and pain, joy and grief.

I’ve seen some other artists deal with negative criticism by openly posting it or blogging about it, which I think is just brilliant. I saw a jazz musician and composer facebook-post this particularly harsh review for his new album recently:

“Each track is about as gripping as a particularly dull episode of Bargain Hunt, and I’m being generous there. Listen to it if you must, but be warned, you’ll never get that time back”.

(NB non-Brits, Bargain Hunt is a day time TV show, a by-word for totally middle of the road tedium). Now, I’ve no idea how this guy actually felt reading that review; perhaps he truly took it in his stride and just figured it’d be funny to publicise it among his friends and fans ( ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ etc) which is awesome if so. But whatever the case, I love how by reclaiming those words, by deliberately sharing and disseminating them turns what could be a really upsetting and privately born stab-in-the-guts into a point of hilarity. It shows a lack of preciousness, it brings levity and defangs pride.

For no matter how we are judged or how much we care, in the end perhaps that’s the very best feeling of all? The ego in retreat like the outgoing tide; the sound of waves a breath, gently exhaling. Fears of failure, longings for approval, all just floating pebbles in the gyre.

The lightness of laughter. A space opening.

#critics #purcell