I never thought of myself as one who cared what critics thought. But when I got my first negative review, which basically called me a two-bit knockoff of Aaron Copland, it rattled around in my head for months.
Especially in those moments when I didn’t have something else to occupy my hands, I found them pressed against my temples thinking of my critic. I imagined him, thin-lipped and bald, dressed unseasonably in an ugly tweed suit (I don’t know what he looked like), and found myself incredulous that he could have seen in my work such a caricature of my goals. His two-dimensional view of my piece, myopic as it seemed to me, was frustrating, maybe even infuriating. Long after I’ve forgotten the critic’s name, his words stay with me.
Even so, when I sit down in the early morning or late evening silence to work toward the deadline I have coming up, it ‘s never the critic’s voice in my head. I know what the critic looks like (even though I don’t), and it isn’t him saying snide or biting things about the notes I’m writing. It isn’t really anyone specific. It’s always The Listener: the faceless everyman entity who is so vague in their preferences and proclivities as to be useless. Composers talk about The Listener all the time, guessing at its preferences, its likes and dislikes, its artistic creed.
Even though we often find ourselves writing for it, trying to please The Listener is a fool’s errand. A surefire road to madness. We know that.
But the same thing that makes The Listener useless is the thing that makes it so dangerously crippling. Because its facelessness isn’t like that of a shadow or a will-o-the-wisp. It’s more like that scene in A Scanner Darkly where Keanu Reeves is constantly shifting bodies as he walks — one second he’s one person, and then without breaking a stride he’s got a new face, new hair, a new outfit. One second the Listener is my mom, asking why I don’t write something happy. The next second it’s shifted shape and it’s my old composition teacher, telling me he hopes I don’t put this piece on my CV. Now it’s the old friend who’s won more competitions than me, and I never knew why but I always feared it was because he’s better than I am. My late grandfather. My wife. The tenured faculty member down the hall. The Listener knows who you want to impress, and it knows who you’re afraid of. And it can amplify those voices so loud that they drown out the music.
I still don’t really care what critics think of me, even the thin-lipped writer who compared me to Copland. So why am I so frightened of bad reviews?
Because whoever The Listener is in any given second, I know they know how to read.