On all topics I look to media in all its forms for basically two things: information and discourse. Yet, in the world of traditional music it is the very existence of real discourse - let alone its level of cut and thrust - that nowadays seems to be in question.
Why? It was not so in the "old" days of the folk revival, as a plaintive refrain from dark corners of festival bars - "Ain't no debate no more ..." annually reminds us. These members of the POOGs (pissed-off old geezers) have a point. I watch the feisty, intelligent sparring on BBC2's Late Review - usually, in the process, learning something about the current creative arts scene - but rarely do I encounter a similar opportunity for traditional music.
We have perhaps not been too good, we punters in particular, at saying clearly and openly what we expect. So here goes. In any discursive context, and that includes interviews and programme presenting as well as reviews, I would appeal for the following:
Clarity of definition. In which precise ways is a treatment "innovative", for example? Or, if a song is described as "outstanding" then please can we hear/read an example of its compelling imagery, linguistic rhythm or narrative force? How can something be described as having a "Gaelic feel" unless the linguistic and musical idioms that render genuine Gaelic singing distinctive are spelled out?
Rigour in assessing factors such as diction, intonation, emotional power, the appropriateness or originality of arrangements or harmonies.
Substance in the background conversation or analysis. Where does a style or version show continuity with a player or singer from the past, or echo interesting parallels with another culture? Who influenced whom over the years and who might nowadays be given a gentle nudge towards having a listen to what? Re-issues of early vinyl, plus field recordings both old and new from all over the world, are now rolling off the presses. But this musical feast - extraordinary in both quantity and quality - needs informed, enthusiastic and consistent comment, on air and in print, for its relevance to be properly understood and appreciated.
All of the above depend largely upon objective judgement. They are not merely matters of individual opinion. They are about things capable of being measured - and the greater the depth of knowledge and breadth of experience, the more accurate is that appraisal. An element of subjectivity plays a part, of course, and I do also want to know what is the reviewer's gut response. They may not particularly like a performance or recording but still recognise specific talents or techniques; or they may enjoy themselves yet be constructively critical of certain points.
Even outright personal prejudice matters not a whit, so long as this is honestly admitted and the reasons clearly articulated. And it can work both ways, remember! How often does a glowing review in fact cloak an unacknowledged bias towards a particular artiste or style?
The odd touch of humour is fine by me. After all, are the songs and stories themselves, from the tradition, not full of it? And one final plea - for simplicity of language. If the tone of a voice is rich or the touch of a bow deft, then that is all I need to know. If I have to puzzle over "darkly-oozing treacle" or "sparkily shimmering vibes", then the whole point of a review is lost.
Many feel, perhaps, that the music they play and love has for so long been so beleagured that a single negative word is a step backward. This may be understandable but is, surely, over-defensive. No performer, long-established or brand new, should ever end up the worse for shrewd, and often useful, evaluation. No punter should consider themselves beyond having long-held assumptions challenged - about what they think they like - or having their ears opened and their musical horizons broadened.
So, for editors and producers the task is to foster a body of reviewers, interviewers and presenters who can impart good, bedrock knowledge and who are not afraid to explore contentious questions, question the answers and generally make the rest of us think, argue, read, listen and think again.
E. Mairi MacArthur
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