BIT Chronicles #2 – Philosophy
BIT Chronicles is nothing but a way for me to process what we’ve done so far, and what we’ll do from here. See it as a mission statement, an ode to the past, or self-centered rants. In any case, a lot has been said about Black Ivory Tower over these past years, but I never really took the time to clarify myself on what motivates our writings and what it is we’re trying to achieve. BIT Chronicles will do away with some misunderstandings while also giving you, the reader, an idea of what you might expect from us in the future. It is by no means essential reading, but it might serve you some food for thought.
1 – History
2 – Philosophy (current)
3 – Maddox
If there is one thing that is harmful to writing, it is the number of petty rules – written and unwritten – that dictate how you should compose a text. Of course I’m not referring to spelling, grammar, paragraphs and other aspects of a text that serve to keep things understandable and orderly. Rather, I am taking about what is usually said in the endless writing manuals and ‘writing tips’ articles that rain on the parades of aspiring authors worldwide. To name an example, in Dutch it is highly inappropriate to start a paragraph with “I”. Nobody really knows why, but everyone obeys slavishly.
Most rules do have a certain logic, and it is best to honour them unless you are absolutely sure what you are doing. It is not without reason that, when you are still in school, you focus on mastering the basics of writing. After all, there is little use in trying to distinguish yourself with your writing when you still have trouble stringing a sentence together. I learned as much when my English teacher responded to my exquisite and exhaustive holiday report by asking me to write in a more ‘schoollike’ fashion. She knew what I was going for, but I still lacked the technical skills to achieve it. Especially when English is not your first language (as is my case), it can be tempting to overestimate your own knowledge and bite off more than you can chew when composing a text.
In my three-year experience as a music writer, I’ve stumbled upon countless articles that tell me, the reader, what I should not do when writing a music review. Don’t use the first-person perspective. Don’t write more than 300 words. Don’t use this word. Don’t use that word. Only write short sentences… In the end, though, these sound like instructions for a high school exam rather than a rulebook for grown-up writers who are in the process of developing their own style. Sure, bad use of the first person perspective can make you look like a narcissist. And putting together a long text is dangerous for those who have no clue how to apply structure. For more skilled writers, though, rules should be handles rather than absolutes; guidelines rather than laws written in stone. Even when George Orwell laid down his essay Politics and the English Language and told people exactly how to write better, he commented that any of the rules he mentioned should be broken in case the text should benefit from it.
From the beginning of Black Ivory Tower in 2011, I told myself that I would not cater to any of the silly restrictions writers tend to impose upon themselves. This platform was to be a liberation from all the efforts I had to make in the texts I normally wrote to cater to the wishes of professors or other editors. In a way, my first articles for this website were rest material of the thesis I was writing at the time, but with no obligations towards annotation or rigid objectivity to spoil the fun. Even though a lot has changed (for the better) since those early days, the founding philosophy of Black Ivory Tower remains intact. Reviews go to great lengths to offer the reader some insight into the music in question, largely in a quasi academic manner. 
While said approach has gained this site support over the years, there are many others who outright dismiss a more in-depth, analytical take on music criticism. One commonly heard complaint tells us that reviews should be short and to the point because music criticism is about the music, and not about the ponderings of the author. It is certainly true that many reviews contain potentially pointless information such as how the reviewer got into the band, awakening the impression he thinks the review is about him and not about the music. However, these “Dear Diary”-type reviews should be no basis to dismiss the possibility of a personal and/or extramusical perspective on a piece of music. It is all about the way in which these perspectives are implemented in the text, and how well they relate back to the topic at hand.
What bothers me so much about this rhetoric surrounding claims such as ‘you shouldn’t use the first person perspective in your reviews’ or ‘you should only focus on the music’ is that it presupposes that such techniques can only be used as egocentrical devices that draw attention to the writer instead of the music. As someone who has been working on a website/magazine for 3+ years and invested nearly €1000 in it without ever mentioning his name, I can assure you this is not the case.
It is only logical that more reviewers should move towards an experiential narrative rather than an objective one. Now that the latest albums are but a few mouse clicks away, music criticism can finally move away from trying to be a generic ‘consumer guide’ and start focusing on actually trying to enhance the listening experience. Discovering the tiniest detail about a band can make you listen to its music in an entirely different way. Good reviewers should aim to collect as many of such details as they can and share them with their readers. In doing this, they eliminate several problems that bare-bones reviews struggle to overcome:
1) Reviews are relevant once more: readers who already know Album X will still have an incentive to read about it as it might help them ‘rediscover’ a record they thought they already knew. At the same time, those who weren’t yet familiar with Album X will now have a good entry point: they have more context and will be less likely to dismiss the album right away.
2) With the focus on context also favouring people who are already familiar with the record, there is less urgency to write about albums for the mere fact that they are new. Reviews will be less obligatory in nature, writers can concentrate more on actually worthwhile music, and publications are less dependent on promos and favours from record companies.
Particularly the argument about providing readers with the right entry point is something Black Ivory Tower strongly believes in. It enforces a sort of quality control in that we are only able to write about music that we know a great deal about. Even more importantly, it allows us to make it a bit easier for our readers to enjoy the music we cover. A good example is our Kamaedzitca review, in which we went to great lengths to explain the appeal of an extremely confusing band. By now, I know of about a dozen people who got into the band after reading that review. Would this have happened too, had I simply written a 1-paragraph blurb about their album? It is dangerous to answer this question, because I do not wish to imply for one second that their art would have had any less merit if I had never talked about it. But in the end, I do not doubt that it would have been so much easier for those people to reject the band had they stumbled upon one of their songs on YouTube. Without context, much of their work may have come across as silly, random or obnoxious. But in showing what was behind that posture, our review might have made some listeners more inclined to give the album a second spin.
So in the end, it was the music that benefitted. All of my personal musings in that review merely served to show the reader a point of view he could empathise with. It was never about me. Music criticism is not hindered by writers talking about themselves, buzz words, writing techniques or other details, but rather by a lack of motivation to make an impact. A reviewer should aspire to contribute something to the way in which an album is ‘read’. He is expected to go to greater lengths than a casual listener to try and uncover the true essence of a piece of music. Only this approach does justice to the wealth and depth of art.
Everything else is disposable.
 I say ‘quasi’ because, while they adapt the basic structure of academic writing, the texts – at least for as far as my own work is concerned – are produced with much more frivolity; I like to think they have an impulsive feel to them, whereas true academic essays go through a near-endless editing cycle before the last uncertainty is removed from the text. When I look at how I write reviews for Black Ivory Tower, the process is much more chaotic: I do not plan anything, and I often work on 3 paragraphs at the same time, writing down whatever comes to mind while I am working.
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