Overflow: February 2009 Archives
Art is emotional ambiguity and intellectual complexity, among many other things. We can talk and talk about making art-music more approachable through mash-ups and crossovers and other forms of "outreach," but the hard truth is that not many people possess predisposition plus curiosity plus the willingness to dig down deep - a combination that's virtually a precondition for having art-music play an important role in one's life. New and not-so-new approachability techniques will work for some young people, I hope, and demonstration-performances in the schools by orchestral professionals seem to me a promising tack to take: get the musicians, especially the young ones, out of the concert hall and communicating directly with the kids! But I suspect that pure accident, stumbling on the right thing at the right time, will continue to be the Number 2 pathway to art-music - Number 1 being, of course, growing up in an environment in which that music is a natural (not enforced) part of daily life.
On the issue of concert-hall formality I can testify that when, as a pre-teen, fifty years ago, I first started attending concerts, I found the dressing-up by performers and audience alike ridiculous - particularly the wearing of 19th-century tail coats by male orchestra players, conductors, and soloists - and I still find it ridiculous. But many people, especially among the subscribers and/or donators to musical organizations, disagree with me: some like the uniformity and believe that miscellaneous clothing would be distracting; others claim that the formality helps to create a sense of occasion. I'm a music addict (I thirst for good performances of the music I love and stimulating ones of music with which I'm less or not at all familiar), so for me the music creates its own occasion. But I figure that putting up with the penguin suits and the rituals of stage entries and exits, bows and blown kisses, and polite or enthusiastic applause is a microscopically small price to pay to keep the music going. Audience members no longer need to wear dresses or jackets and ties to concerts or even to opening nights at the operas, whereas such stuff was de rigueur when I was a youngster; young people and anyone else can come in t-shirts and jeans if they like, so that attire is no longer a valid excuse for not going to musical events. Yet the fact is that just as I didn't see a lot of other 12-year-olds at concerts when I was 12 or a lot of other 18-year-olds when I was 18, I don't see a lot of 12- and 18-year-olds in attendance today. Formality, or lack of it, doesn't seem to be a major issue.
I don't agree with Richard Strauss's contention that for people who lack musical training, listening to music is necessarily "a purely sensual, aural feast, unmitigated by any mental activity," and that such listeners are presumptuous to assume that they understand music "better than, for example, Turkish." Many of a piece's psychological subtleties can be communicated to a person who is sensitive to music and accustomed to a given musical language even if that person is musically illiterate. Not to mention the fact that being musically literate or even being a professional musician does not automatically guarantee musical sensitivity. Nevertheless, exposure to fine music, like exposure to fine literature, theater, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, etc., is effective only when there is some basic receptivity, and the relationship to music can be deepened only through a readiness to pursue what is eternally elusive - to take pleasure in the search itself and in one's evolving but never completely evolved understanding.