Judging a book

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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12 thoughts on “Judging a book

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Chris. As someone who plays around on the piano (with neither technique, musicianship nor performance abilities), I appreciate your points — I fall in love with certain piano pieces because of how they’re performed, yet the best I can do is attempt to copy performances without making the pieces my own. I’ve no idea how to do that.

    This sense of “ownership” may be the performer’s equivalent to the audience’s “gut reaction” — something impossible to define but easily recognized when it’s present. Writing also draws on unabashed ownership: of story, characters, intention. I’m re-reading a lengthy series now. The author’s writing is occasionally clunky, yet her commitment to telling this complex story is clear from the first. That’s what keeps me returning to the series.

    1. “Ownership” is a good way of looking at this, very similar to what I think of as personal investment — whether a piece of music or the story, characters and intention you mention as the features of a novel you look out for.

      Apologies are in order too for not ‘investing’ in blogs like yours recently: not only this tsunami of a decision to exit the EU but also multiple musical performance opportunities (choral concerts and accompanying musicians for competitions and exams) and house matters have been taking up much my spare time, meaning neglect of the blogosphere.

  2. Pingback: Judging a book — calmgrove – Earth Balm Music

  3. I didn’t know you were a pianist. I am listening to the Sydney International Piano Competition at present and hearing performers with incredible technical facility. Hearing the expert comments it seems that at that level the gut feeling has to come into play. It is amazing how frequently the panel agree.

    1. I agree, Gert; the judging panel will have the benefit of copies of the printed music to check interpretation as well as collective decades of experience to aid their expert opinion, but I do rather think that it’s the connection made at the human level that will predispose them to favour one rendition over another.

      Yes, I confess, I’m a pianist, having learnt under a Russian émigré in Hong Kong from the age of five (over six decades have passed now!) but I’ll never ever have the technical facility that so many astonishing young musicians seem able to develop with sheer graft aiding their innate gifts. I’ve found that the trick is never to try to compete!

  4. My piano lessons started with angry old nuns. A Russion teacher would be a cut above, but I have heard they can be very tough. I’m sure we could all tell many stories about our lives with the piano.

    1. She was quite strict but mostly I remember her for insisting on technique. Her last advice to my ten-year-old self at the last lesson was “Bach, Bach, and more Bach!” I suppose you could say her Bach was worse than her bite …

  5. elmediat

    Here is another consideration in evaluation of books, television shows, music( recorded and live performance), and cinema, all of them are forms of Mass Media . A basic principle of Mass Media is that all Mass Media have specific intended target audiences.

    Often there is a problem in evaluating a piece of Mass media because the criteria does not fit the specific expectations of an intended audience. It also impacts marketing. This is especially true of cinema. Many times the marketing (trailers & commercials) does not reflect the audience for whom the piece was intended. Book covers can also cause a similar problem, hence the old adage about judging a book by its cover.

    The best reviewers can present a review that clearly identifies the audience expectations and incorporates that into the evaluation of the specific piece. This will also assist with the situation when the piece breaks from general expectations, creating a new form of media or a new style.

  6. Valid comparisons, particularly for one who is able to avoid personal bias.
    In my case, I can easily ignore the most pathetic performance (like my own) of a piece of music I adore, like many Beethoven Sonatas. There, the music rises above the performance. Similarly, in books, I can forgive bad writing if the topic is one dear to my heart and is at least acceptably represented. This is not a good basis for adjudication or reviewing!

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