Alex Ross has an article in the New Yorker this week on the history of the classical music concert, and in particular its recent/decent descent/ascent into stoic sitting in silence. My favorite comment from the reddit thread on the article:
Reading this, I just realized the main difference between a classical concert and other types of concerts…. pianissimo, and the ability of the audience to hear it.
In unrelated news, today I unevenly jammed a pair of contact lenses into my poor, silently screaming eyes for the first time. It took half an hour of poking to get the lenses in, and then another ten minutes to get them out again. The “whites” of my eyes currently do not deserve that title. This better bloody get easier soon…
Last night, total lunar eclipse night 2008, at a concert by the Alban Berg quartet:
Pre-concert: Are these chairs made from wood or cunningly crafted plastic? They’re too precisely curved to be wood I think but.. OW. The lamps under the soffit of the armrest are a) hot and b) grounded, and all the dry air has shoved far too much static on me for that not to hurt in two different ways at once. Oh, here we go…
During Haydn Op. 77 No. 1: Sonata form, you cheeky devil, you sonofagun – I can hear you the first time through now! You’re marchy today, too. I just saw you repeat the exposition, and now look at you all developing. 2nd movement: your start brings to mind in me Shostakovich SQ 13, and the rest of you is exceptionally lovely, I like your rising ripples. Huh, rising ripples sounds surprisingly filthy. The rest of you is sturdy and wonderful to watch as everything gets thrown back and forth but, sorry Haydn, you just didn’t quite do it for me this time.
Berg Op. 3: Uh-oh, 2nd Viennese school, my classical music mostly nemesis, but… oooo… this stuff sounds rather different when it’s being performed live, it’s suddenly far more appealing, why is that? I wonder if it’s because it’s more shocking to see that these are actual people, playing actual music, on instruments of all things! It’s not some kind of electronic device whirring and chirping away and generating all those odd sounds. It’s wood and guts. You lose that through a CD, don’t you? You almost forget that once upon a time, someone actually played the stuff you are listening to. The live effect is particularly overpowering during the really dramatic sections. Watching those players batter their instruments has an intensity that recordings just cannot match.
Beethoven Op. 132: I know you. You’re the string quartet that starts out like the Grosse Fugue. Then you have that bit in your first movement which sounds like Schubert’s Trout. The third movement is the really good one, this is spiritual stuff, and deliberately so. It’s amazing during a movement like this to watch the faces of those watching the performers. Us, the audience. So many heads turned upward and sideways and all heavy with contemplation and concentration. Eyes lightly lidded but clearly alive, active below. The fifth movement is almost a song, lyrical but certainly not saccharine. Stubborn. Resilient. And the ending kicks about ten kinds of arse.
Coda: Huh. the moon’s all red.
Today I am going for an unwieldy title award. What was really meant by all those unnecessary words is that we very excitingly got ourselves together and made seating reservations at the sparsely occurring concerts out here in the wilds. This season the line up features the Alban Berg quartet, playing Haydn, Berg and Beethoven. According to wikipedia they are disbanding this summer, so we’re lucky to be able to see them play. I have Beethoven’s Op. 132 playing right now, as a T-minus two-weekly warm-up. It’s probably the late quartet I know the least well.
The other concert I’m excited about is Camerata Nordica, who will be playing pieces by Webern, Wolf, Kreisler, and Beethoven; two of whom I’ve never heard of (and I bet you can’t guess which). They will supposedly be playing Beethoven’s op. 130 but with the Grosse Fugue ending, which is one of my absolute favorites.
I’m prepared for disappointment though. Last year I was pumped for a Shostakovich symphony, and then they changed it to — euugh — Rachmaninoff. Sacrilege!
Over at Sounds & Fury, ACD is critical over a somewhat anonymous posting discussing alternatives to the standard concert-going experience. While I am actually somewhat proud of my iPod sensibility (although I’d prefer a more generic mp3-based title, as I cannot stand the cult of Apple) I find myself basically agreeing with ACD.
The author of the original article (which is itself a response to this piece comparing popular and classical pieces) suggests things such as multiple annoyance tiers (of course, this isn;t what the author calls them) for concerts. That is, different rooms in which people can “attend” a concert performance – such as one in which the audience is free to drift in and out and talk amongst themselves, albeit only up to a certain decibel level (god knows how that would be policed).
I’m all up for natural selection of ideas, so someone should give that one a go… but I’m pretty suspicious of it’s potential for success. I suspect it would end up as a bunch of people standing around, not really discussing the piece, and than leaving after a few minutes because the whole experience is kind of uncomfortable.
The next idea discussed is even more bizarre: that there should be an alternative means of attending the concert which consists of sitting alone in a booth with a pair of headphones on and some sort of video screen. There would be controls to pause, rewind, etc. Now… how is this different from just watching a DVD of the performance? In your own home? A much better implementation of this idea would surely be just to provide high-quality video and audio versions over the internet, for a small price. I’d love it if the major orchestras regularly did this.
I think the concert hall listening experience is distinct. You are experiencing the music without any pauses, and perhaps more importantly, without the ability to pause it. You necessarily relinquish your control. No replaying is allowed, you simply have to experience the music as it comes to you. Contrast this to recorded music, in which you can skip sections, or replay movements or fractions of movements as the music moves you to do so. These two approaches are complementary, and trying to shoehorn one into the other seems to be tricky, and probably less than ideal.
What I would much prefer to see is not only the orchestras putting their performances up online, but also making it so that these recorded performances can be discussed and analyzed by the devotees. For example, how about a system in which people can comment along the timeline of the video, meaning that each section can be separately discussed.
There were some excellent comments on my last post about one of the benefits of recordings, as compared to live music – namely that you can listen to recordings over and over again.
While I find CD’s extremely valuable for “learning” a piece before hearing an actual performance, JF now finds it better the other way around:
I *want* to hear a piece for the first time in live performance, to make whatever impression on me that it may. Then I decide whether I want to hear the music again and again, and if so buy a record. If indeed it’s been recorded; often enough it hasn’t.
First impressions matter, and I’ve found that music makes a stronger first impression on me if I’ve invested the time and trouble to go out and hear it. There are no interruptions, unless someone’s cell phone goes off; my attention is more focused; I get the full dynamic range of the music, including huge climaxes that recordings can’t deal with.
Whereas Andy argues for recordings, and giving several practical reasons:
1. Cost – the cheapest tickets are usually $20-25. If I take my wife, it costs $40-50, plus another $25 or so for a baby sitter. For that cost, I can buy 5 CDs which I can listen to repeatedly at my leisure.
2. Time – It’s a 30 min. drive each way from my house to the concert hall. Plus, you need to make sure you are early so you can get to your seat on time, and there will be an intermission. Probably 3 hrs for an hour and a half of music.
3. My wife – she doesn’t like symphony concerts. She’ll go to an opera because it has the added visual drama. But we have small children and since we rarely have a chance to get away, a concert is low on the list of things to do together.
JonJ brought up something that I have often wondered about:
I think the interesting thing is that, before recordings, people couldn’t bone up like this before hearing a complicated piece. They had to get it the first time, and in many cases it would be the only time they heard it in their lives, so in a sense we are probably much lazier today in our listening habits. Of course, they had their aids to comprehension too: there were piano reductions of orchestral works that could be played at home (a lot more people could play piano in the old days than now, of course), and they could study printed scores (ditto for the number of people who could read scores in the old days compared to now).
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that classical concerts aren’t as popular in the current age as they once were. We are sort of spoiled for sound now. A century ago the only way to experience a really massive, powerful auditory experience would be in the concert hall. Now people can amaze themselves (or not, since fantastic sound has become so completely mundane) in their living room by popping in a CD. I think I’ll write more on this in a bit.
Lastly, James Cook provided a great quote:
“I can’t believe that people really prefer to go to the concert hall under intellectually trying, socially trying, physically trying conditions, unable to repeat something they have missed, when they can sit at home under the most comfortable and stimulating circumstances and hear it as they want to hear it. I can’t imagine what would happen to literature today if one were obliged to congregate in an unpleasant hall and read novels projected on a screen.” – Milton Babbitt
And commented that:
Why should music be a “one-shot-deal” any more than any other form of art? Indeed, this attitude may have a lot to do with the “difficulties” of twentieth-century music. People have this idea that if they don’t “get” a piece of music the first time they hear it, then it must not be good music. But that’s just silly.
I definitely feel that is the case with classical, as opposed to most other genres. It’s much harder to get after a single listen, and it seems that most non-classical listeners aren’t used to this, and will give up far too early because they don’t immediately get it.
Incidentally, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the CD.