"A slow, hypnotic groove kicks in" - Which tense should live reviews be written in? Is the convention changing?

Sebastian writes:

Is it just me, or is there's something of the paradoxical about the tenses conventionally used for live reviews and CD reviews, and could that convention be changing?

Whereas it is completely established practice to refer to the experience of listening to a (frozen-in-the-past) recording in the present tense, the convention for a live music review is that it should be written in the past tense.

This isn't a proper statistical sample, but I did a quick check at how our pre-eminent British jazz critic John Fordham works this through.

- He resolutely uses the present tense when reviewing a new issue (such as Christine Tobin's Thousand Kisses Deep).

- When reviewing a re-issue it is more complex. In an example from this weekend (Miles Davis at Fillmore East) he uses the past tense to explain the context, then slips into the present tense when the music is being described.

- When reviewing a live gig, the past tense prevails (John O'Gallagher and Hans Koller.)

What I notice, however, is that younger writers are challenging this dichotomy and writing live reviewsin the present tense. Adam Tait wrote a few reviews for us, such as THIS ONE.  More recently I also very much enjoyed the immediacy of a five-star review by Dan Paton for Michael Hubbard's MusicOMH's website of the concert by The Necks at the Bishopsgate Institute on March 21st. (LINK HERE).

A discussion about that got going on Twitter HERE. One contributor pointed out that Leonard Feather started using the present tense in the 1940's (is this true?)

We should clearly not get too worked up, this is a peripheral issue, to say the least. Indeed, perhaps those of us who turn scribbling from the sidelines into our main involvement in artistic creation are just, basically, a strange lot. Or, as the Argentine-born novelist Julio Cortázar has written, rather more eloquently: "Every critic, yeah, is the sad-assed end of something that starts as taste..."

Anyway. What I'm thinking/wondering  is this: if recordings replace live as the dominant/normal listening experience, could reviews of recordings and their conventions also - steadily - be dictating the norm. Constructive thoughts welcome.

4 comments:

  1. Similar debate about this has been going on elsewhere, particularly in how history programmes are presented on TV, which are now almost always in the present tense. I think it's this style that may be influencing gig reviewers to use it too.

    This is the kind of debate I mean: http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/04/23/ben-yagoda-gets-sick-of-the-historical-present/

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  2. Thanks Dave - a good link. Whether one approves of it or not, this one does start to feel like King Canute thinking he can hold back the rising tide.

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  3. Present OK for recordings because they are a permanent record available in the present. Live is a one-time event, distinctly in the past when reviewed. Obvious really. Why encourage demagogues to impoverish the language?

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  4. I'm not actually sure it matters! As long as it doesn't interfere with one's understanding of the writing, I think it is down to the writer's preference - as long as they are consistent!

    On the other hand, now you've made me aware of the issue, it's probably going to REALLY bug me...

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