The Concert Companion again

Never, in all my musical life, have I talked about anything as much as I’ve talked about the Concert Companion. And not because I start the conversations. At the ASOL conference at Pittsburgh, people wanted to talk about it with me. And the press does, too. I’ve never done so many interviews about anything before.

Obviously, there’s lots of interest. But one interviewer, a very smart and serious music critic, said something interesting. He said the Concert Companion is “controversial.” I’d never thought of it that way. I know there’s some objection to it, largely on the grounds that it would distract people from listening to the music. But controversy? The objections, in my experience, aren’t nearly widespread enough to be called that. Inside the orchestra world, I only see a lot of interest, whether it was from orchestras visiting the Concert Companion presentations at the conference to find out what the fuss was all about, or from the people (many from absolutely top orchestras) who wanted to talk at length with me.

If there’s anything that could be called controversy, it’s largely among critics. And this makes me think, not for the first time, that critics — whatever other virtues they might have — are largely cut off from the classical music profession, or rather that they’re a separate strand within the field, one that doesn’t mix very much with people in any of the other strands. Critics certainly don’t talk the way musicians do, or the way music administrators do. Beyond that, I’m not sure many of them are aware of how musicians or music administrators talk. There’s nothing wrong with people in a profession having that profession’s point of view (it’s inevitable, in fact), but if the profession includes writing commentary about classical music, then the people writing the commentary at least have to know how other people in the business think. Obviously this doesn’t apply to all critics. But it applies, I think, to enough of them for this to be a problem.

(And I don’t mean this as a special criticism of the critic who interviewed me. He was very impressive in many ways, and I liked him.)

Something else I thought about: that classical music has spent too much time in its familiar ivory tower. Some people who don’t like the Concert Companion have in mind, I think, an idealized conception of what goes on at concerts — that the concert halls are full of people listening intently, following each unfolding nuance of the music. Or at least that this is an ideal, in principle attainable, which we should be working towards.

But who knows what’s really happening? Studies of the audience, as I’ve said before, seem to show that people at orchestral concerts drift into what they feel is some kind of transfigured realm. That’s completely compatible with losing track of the music for minutes on end, which I’ll confess that I sometimes do. (My wife will tell you that I even have been known to fall asleep.) We’ve all seen people reading program books. I’d love to see studies on how many orchestra subscribers can identify all the instruments, and can follow standard musical structures, like sonata form. I suspect the number would be lower than we think, but the most important thing, I think is that we simply don’t know. The audience studies I’ve seen don’t address those questions. (If anyone knows of a study that did address them — orchestras sometimes do private studies, whose results they don’t publicize — I’d love to hear about it.)

And so here we have the Concert Companion, whose users — as I heard some of them say in focus groups after the New York Philharmonic tests of the device — suddenly found themselves listening with more concentrated attention than they’d ever brought to music before. This is a bad thing? Some said that even though they’d been going to concerts for many years, they couldn’t identify all the instruments. So maybe this device is more needed than we think.

In Pittsburgh, the focus group was very strongly positive. All the people there save one loved using the gadget. And the one who didn’t like it, asked if he’d recommend it to his friends, said he definitely would — because the other people in the focus group had liked it so much!

I felt a one reservation, writing text for the Pittsburgh texts. We used the Companion for two pieces, Afternoon of a Faun and Joan Tower’s fabulous Tambor, a virtuoso piece that features the percussion section. I worked with Joan on the text for her piece, so I know that, whatever anybody might have thought about it, it describes the music the way she herself hears it. In fact, I often simply quoted her.

But for Debussy, I of course was on my own. And it doesn’t seem possible just to write objective text about his music. It’s too evocative, too flavorful. I’d betray it if I just listed the instruments that play, and outlined the music’s structure (which in Afternoon of a Faun is fairly ephemeral in any case). So I wrote about the feeling of the music, as well as about more objective musical facts. I can see some people objecting, because they, understandably, might feel the music a different way. Do the winds, pulsing in the background of the second statement of the wonderful D flat major melody, really pulse with “helpless passion”? I think they do, but someone else might not.

The Concert Companion, though, is aimed mostly at people who haven’t gone to many concerts. My working theory goes something like this: For some, at least, of these people, classical music seems something like a blur. It all sounds very nice, but at first it’s hard to separate one moment from another. The more I describe the essence of each moment, at least as I feel it, the easier it will be for people to get some handle on the music, and begin to hear what’s going on as the sound flows and changes. The people using the Companion don’t seem to object to this. What some of them did object to, at the New York tests, was me telling them that certain moments were wonderful or dazzling. That struck them, I was fascinated to learn, as either gushing or patronizing. So I learned (with thanks to all the people who spoke so honestly about their objections) to write more calmly, but still with plenty of personal feeling.

The point, after all, is to call attention to those background woodwinds, so that people hear more than just the surface of the music. And I can’t see any way of doing that without saying something about what the woodwinds are doing. I can’t just say, “Listen to them.” Because then people might ask, “Listen to them doing what?” A precise technical description of what they’re doing in that passage would be very hard to write, very verbose (far too long for a single Concert Companion screen), and also, come to think of it, not precise at all, because there aren’t any technical terms to describe what’s going on. The winds don’t play a counterpoint, but are something more than an accompaniment — which, by the way, I can’t say in Companion commentary, because the people the Companion is for won’t know what these words mean. (Or even the concepts. The idea that there’s material that stands strongly on its own, even if it’s subordinate, and other material that simply fades into the background to accompany the things it’s subordinate to — you need a fair amount of musical experience just to think in these terms.)

So I find the Concert Companion very promising. And useful, too, based on the simplest of criteria — the people it’s designed for (orchestras, and the audience) find it useful. What its future is, beyond all this, is hard to say. I’ll just repeat something I’ve suggested before — as classical music starts to change, it’s not helpful (and maybe even dangerous) to try to guess how the changes will work, or which of them will turn out to be lasting. We just have to try things, and see what happens.

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