We all know the adage Never judge a book by its cover, and of course there’s some truth in this assertion. But if we ditch the visual side of a book’s presentation are we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? I’ve talked before about the art of book reviewing and so am trying not to repeat myself, but perhaps in discussing the process of judgement in a related field that I do know something about — musical performance — I hope to throw some light on (and not the proverbial baby out of) the issue of assessing a book’s merits.
I’ve some experience of music adjudication, having for some years now presided at regional schools music festivals, individual schools’ music competitions and young musician contests run by Rotary International (not forgetting the many competitions at which I’ve accompanied soloists on the piano). My main criteria, based on a career in teaching music, are these:
- Technique: All performed music relies on the application of technique appropriate to a particular instrument or voice. This is about mastery, attention to detail and consideration of style (and usually the composer’s intentions). Particularly it’s about the key elements of music — such as tempo, dynamics, texture and tone — as expressed through the medium of instrument or voice. Without technique a performance will fall far short of expectations.
- Musicianship: Because we’re not machines it’s not just about technique. One can play a piece perfectly, as if one was a robot, but this is no guarantee that this would be enough to satisfy a listener, especially a hard-bitten examiner. Musicianship is about interpretation, subtlety, nuanced technique, all as appropriate to venue, audience, instrument and occasion. Above all, this is about the performer’s human response to a ordered selection of sounds.
- Performance: If musicianship is about the performer, performance is about the audience. The audience could be just a single individual — the solo performer, in fact — or any number upwards. Communication is the byword here: does the act of playing this piece now speak to whoever’s listening? Does it inspire delight, elicit admiration, convey emotion, appear convincing? Does the body language, the visual presentation and so on add to the impact of the performance just as in any other performance art such as drama or dance?
These three areas — sometimes overlapping, sometimes hierarchical — are how I and many other adjudicators go about assessing an individual or group performance. If I were to put weightings on the criteria they would be in the ratio of 4:3:3 or 4:4:2, depending on the level of difficulty of the music or the maturity required from the performer. But these can be crude measures, especially when two or more players achieve the same level; and added difficulties include comparing performers on different instruments where the demands of the instruments may vary very widely. So I have a killer decider of a criterion when faced with dilemmas like these: gut feeling.
Whoa there! I hear you declare! Gut feeling?! Cheating surely, or abdicating professionalism at the very least (you must be muttering to yourselves). But here’s the thing: I ask myself the simple question, “Which one performance, if I had to choose, would I want to hear again?”
The answer is, often, a surprising one. It might be a performance where there may have been inaccuracies or mistakes in technique; it may be one where the performer didn’t make eye contact with the audience or shambled on and off; it could be one where interpretations were stylistically incorrect even if consistent. But what it might well have conveyed is authenticity; innovation; evidence of deep thought; a singular vision; commitment; an ability to bespell an audience — all this beyond a strictly polite or correct presentation of a piece. In my experience nine times out of ten this assessment coincides with a listening audience’s gut reaction, showing that — whatever their level of appreciation or understanding of the requirements of an outstanding performance — they’ve recognised that authenticity or been enchanted by the experience.
And so it is with a book. There is no end of novels which are technically accomplished, reveal much about the human condition, speak to their chosen audience and, yes, appear in an attractive dust jacket or cover. But the outstanding ones? These are the books I want to hang on to, that I anticipate reading again, if not soon then whenever the mood takes me.
All I can say now is, thank goodness publishing is not primarily about competition.