Young Music Critic competition

Writers: we want you!

The New Statesman, in association with the Royal Academy of Music, is delighted to announce the launch of its Young Music Critic competition. We are looking for classical music writers under 30.

If you have a passion for, and knowledge of, the canon, but are also interested in pop, jazz, politics or the wider culture, and if your love of music is equal to your love of the written word, submit your work to our distinguished panel of judges.

To enter, send a 500-word review of a concert you have attended recently, accompanied by a brief CV, to daniel@newstatesman.co.uk. Orchestral, ensemble, opera and contemporary classical performances are all eligible. Please mark your email "Music Critic Competition" in the subject line. The closing date is 31 May.

We will publish the winning review, and the winner will receive a £50 gift voucher from Corney & Barrow and will also be given the opportunity to become the New Statesman's music critic. For full terms and conditions, click here.

Our judges explain what they're looking for:

Alex Ross, author and critic

Critics are, first of all, journalists, and while there is no such thing as an objective, just-the-facts-ma'am description of music, a good review ought to give a sense of what it was like to attend a certain event. It should have atmosphere, human detail, a sense of context and history. The review must rest on a strong foundation of musical knowledge, yet that knowledge should not be shoved in the face of the reader. And there must be a certain music in the prose. Dull, awkward, or jargonistic writing is a betrayal of the art. Perhaps the greatest challenge is to remain passionately engaged over the long term -- not to become jaded, politely accepting, cynical, or, worst of all, nostalgic. To the end, critics must remain open to the possibility of being totally undone by what they hear.

Suzy Klein, BBC Radio 3 presenter

You must not only have an intimate historical and aesthetic knowledge, but also know the key performers, venues and record labels of today's music world.

Ian Bostridge, tenor

You should be a writer whose prose can re-create the ephemeral in performance, engage with what a composer or a performer is trying to achieve, and generate enthusiasm for adventures in art.

Roger Scruton, philosopher

A critic should be able to recognise all of the following: pretentiousness, insincerity, bombast, kitsch. And he or she should be familiar with all of the following: singing, dancing, smiling, weeping, praying, kissing.

Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, principal, Royal Academy of Music

A broad cultural understanding and literary flair are essential. Also, good critics require courage in conveying a view that may be unfashionable and unpopular, but that they believe to be true.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump