This picks up from some comments posted here, and also from a Twitter debate I had with a musician from the London Symphony. (Thanks, @londonsymphony!)
And it all comes from my suggestion that classical music organizations consider Twittering during concerts — sending out real-time thoughts about the music, from musicians, for instance, or (a very interesting option, for me) from members of the audience.
Some people don’t like this — and understandably, of course — because they feel that it would interfere with listening. That’s a point to take seriously. We have a tradition (not as long-established as we think it is, but still very firmly established now) of listening to classical music in silence, without distractions. And yes, this has been head-butted a little in recent years, with video screens at concerts, and other innovations. But still most concerts are untroubled with distractions, and many people want to keep it that way.
I want to make it clear that I sympathize with them, and that — no matter what innovations might appear — there should be concerts, maybe the majority of concerts (to serve our existing audience), where nothing will trouble people who want to listen silently.
Where I take issue, though, is when the discussion turns ideological — when people say that classical music absolutely demands silent listening, and when some of us start drawing large conclusions about our society, saying (as my London Symphony debating partner said) that we’re bombarded by music everywhere, and that we might be losing the ability to truly listen.
I don’t agree with either point. I’ve said many times that the entire pre-19th century classical repertoire — with the exception, I’d imagine, of church music — was created for performances when the audience talked while the music played, and applauded whenever they heard anything they liked. There’s no sign that composers disapproved of this. Quite the contrary — we have evidence from Mozart and Verdi, for instance, that they were highly gratified.
Now, I could even name advatnages we’d get from an active audience. If we want their attention, we’ll have to earn it. And it’s not at all clear to me that 18th century audiences didn’t pay attention. Mozart’s famous letter about the premiere of his Paris Symphony shows an audience apparently alert to what he compose. He teased them by starting the last movement quietly, instead of with the loud, resounding coup d’archet — stroke of the bow — that in Paris was traditional. They immediately shushed each other, taken by surprise, then burst into cheers when, a few bars later, Mozart brought in the whole orchestra, forte. They understood the joke that was played on them.
There’s also an anecdote about the opera audience in Lully’s time, a raucous bunch, who’d scream insults to each other, among much else, while the operas were performed. A star singer couldn’t appear; his substitute was bad; the audience immediately noticed, and began insulting him. He answered wittily, and from then on, they listened to him happily.
I once programmed the first movement of the Paris Symphony at a concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony, which I was hosting. I read Mozart’s letter, and told the audience that they were free to clap whenever they felt like it. The results were fascinating. The applause, first of all, varied greatly from point to point. People clearly were listening very hard. And when they clapped, and then something new started in the music, they fell silent, to listen to what happened next. It soon was clear to me that Mozart designed the piece for that, constantly bringing in attractive new ideas, to hold the audience’s attention.
None of which, of course, tells us what would happen if people started talking, or clapping, or tweeting during something as profound and serious as the last movement of the Mahler Ninth.
But now let me ask what we think our present audience is doing? Yes, they’re sitting quietly, but are they paying attention? To what extent do their minds wander? A little? That’s for sure. My mind wanders during concerts, and I’m a musciain. We’re all human. But maybe the audience has minds that wander a lot. Maybe they pay very sketchy attention. How do we know?
And might they pay more attention if they had something else to do, besides sitting still and listening? Virgil Thomson — who, to judge from his writing, was an acute listener — wrote once that he listened more carefully if he had a little bit of distraction. I’ve found the same is true for me. If I force myself to concentrate, to pay attention, my mind will sometimes wander. (A famliar happening, I might add, in any form of meditation.) If I distract myself a little — if, let’s say, I look at an app on my iPhone that displays floating clouds — I’ll focus better on the music. (I do that at home, with CDs. Not at concerts.)
And now suppose I got up and moved. Even danced to the music. I think that would focus my attention even more. Even in the Mahler Ninth. (The last movement, I might add, is one of my touchstones for great music that deeply gets to me.) Likewise if I was talking quietly to a friend about the music. “Listen to that…interesting countermelody there…oh, no, the conductor completely missed the point, a moment ago…” I think I’d pay much closer attention than I do at concerts.
And no, i’m not necessarily saying that people should talk to each other during Mahler. If 1000 people did it all together, the chaos might outweigh the benefits. Or maybe not! Have we tried this? What would actually happen?
Let’s also remember that there are cultural differences about these things. (Which is where ideology comes in.) In western, European-derived culture, it would be highly inappropriate to react out loud when music is played at a church service. Highly inapprorpriate! Just about irrrelgious.
But if you go to a gospel church, the rules are turned around. There, it would be highly inapprorpriate not to react, not to cry out something when the music (or the preacher) gets to you. Likewise in Kabuki. Connoisseurs will bark out little syllables, when something onstage seems especially good.
Our kind of silent listening goes back, I think, to a long-established trope of western philosophy, in which the mind is hugely favored over the body. The mind is rational, responsible; the body is childish, dangerous, and primitive. So we sit in silence when we listen to profound music (or music that’s thought to be profound.
But is this what we still have to believe, now that we have a multicultural society? Other cultures see the world quite differently, and give the body equal weight. So what would happen if we listened to classical music with our bodies — and with our feelings visible, for all to see — instead of mainly with our minds? Maybe we’d listen better, as I’ve been saying.
And maybe the established habit of silent listening actually gets in the way of concentration! This is a point that’s not original with me. But I think it’s worth taking seriously. Take a group of people. Shackle them. Tell them they can’t move, or speak, or visibly react in any way. And now expect them to pay full attention to Mahler. I don’t think they (or I) can do it. But if I could participate in the experience, put my body and my voice into action alongside the music, I think I’d listen harder. And I think that’s also true of the existing audience, although they might be hesitant or even shocked to try this, even as an experiment.
Which leaves one more point of ideology — the idea that people aren’t listening to anything, because we’re drowned in music. This reminds me of something I read in an exhaustive history of Britain in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Never Had It So Good, written by Dominick Sandbrook. In the late ’50s, just as in the US, British cities started growing suburbs. British intellectuals hated the suburbs, and wrote extensively abo
ut how alienating they were, how people were atomized, isolated from each other, losing all community ties.
And then some sociologists looked into this, and found out what suburban life was actually like. It wasn’t anything like what the intellectuals had feared — and assumed, without any data at all, to be reality. People in the suburbs formed community groups, looked after each other when anyone got sick, and didn’t behave in any way as the intellectuals had assumed.
I fear that we in classical music may be in the same position, when we look at music outside the classical world. Of course there’s music everywhere. I myself don’t often mind it, and might suddenly find myself looking up with pleasure when (as happened a while ago) the background music at an airport turns out to be a song I really like, and whose words don’t suggest background music at all, the Pet Shop Boys’ “Rent.”
But suppose the music is largely trivial, and might in some way trivialize both the idea of music, and the spaces where background music plays. Why do we assume that nobody outside the classical music world resists that? In fact, popular culture is full of debates about things like that. There isn’t anything anyone in classical music says about mass-market pop music that rock critics don’t already say, and often much more strongly. Nobody hates Celine Dion, for instance, as much as rock critics do.
And if you get at all involved with pop music, you see people listening to it very hard and carefully, and making detailed critical judgments. So if mass-market listening is some kind of problem, classical music isn’t the only antidote, and maybe not the most effective one. Serious pop music, entering the same cultural arena (loosely speaking) as mass-market pop, is far better placed to combat whatever ills mass-market pop might encourage.
Which would mean that the listening habits we’re used to in classical music might have nothing to do with these larger debates. We know, many of us, how we like to listen, and we shouldn’t be deprived of that. But our listening isn’t the only way to pay serious attention to music, and isn’t the only answer to whatever ills music in society at large might get caught up in.