Gavin BorchertGavin Borchert, composer and the Seattle Weekly‘s classical music critic, has an interesting take in this week’s rag, on current calls for jazzing-up or otherwise “slumming” the concert experience. A couple cogent paragraphs:

A couple of things puzzle me. First, the classical concert experience is, in all essentials, identical to that of dance, theater, literary events, or for that matter—barring the munching of popcorn and cheering the fireball deaths of villains—movies. Go to the performance space, buy a ticket, sit down in rows, watch and listen, try not to disturb your fellow audience members. Yet it’s only in conjunction with concerts that you hear complaints about what a crushing burden this all is. Second, why is sitting quietly considered such an unendurable ordeal? Millions of people do it every night in front of their televisions.


So what have we learned? Well, maybe people behave the way they do at concerts not because it’s an artificial standard imposed by ironclad tradition but because the music sounds better that way. Maybe listeners feel classical music most deeply when they pay quiet attention to it. Maybe sometimes not clapping is OK, and we don’t need to rush in and obliterate every silence. Maybe true innovations in concert presentation—new ways of getting music and music lovers together—will be concerned not with questions of formal vs. informal, loose vs. uptight, but with what setting best allows music to work its magic.

26 thoughts on ““What’s the problem?””
  1. Well, of course, when people started wearing tuxes, the people in the audience were wearing them, too. There’s, of course, no reason why anybody should these days, except, I guess the idea that if everybody’s dressed alike, no one person is a distraction. I’m not sure, nonetheless, that anybody really particularly cares about that one way or the other.

    As to clapping between movements–it was a reverence thing, of course, and no reason to maintain that either. Nobody particularly worries about it, though, either (except maybe after the third movement of the Pathetique Symphony, where, even if the applause is built in, it’s somehow annoying when it happens, particularly if it disturbs the beginning of the last movement. Maybe Tschaikovsky just gets his just desserts for trying to come up with some fancy conceptual trick, though). Since there was a tradition in, say, Mozart’s, Haydn’s, Beethoven’s time for clapping after a particularly rousing movement, I sort of like it when people do that.

    It is possible to regard all of these things as ritualistic, elitist oppression of some sort, but mostly they had pretty sensible reasons for coming into being, and, like many conventions, there’s no particular reason to get exercised about them (unless or until they start to take a life of their own more than what they were supposed to be accompaniment or facilitation to). I do, however, get annoyed when my attention is distracted from something I want to listen to, especially in a situation where that’s presumably what we’re all there for. And, actually, walking out on something is pretty insulting, and, once again, distracting; I presume that when it happens that is the message, since after all, you can always take a book and read (as long as you turn the pages quietly).

  2. [Hate to break the thread, but this quick public service announcement for Galen et al: The alternative to the spam blockers is an endless stream of Russian porn site postings and “Hi guys, great site!” with malicious links, that takes pretty much a full-time person to police & delete.

    My advice: just before you press “submit”, select all the text of your post and click “copy”. If anything screws up the first time, you only have to click “paste” in the text-box, and your post will be there again for the second try (which generally always goes through).

    One other caveat: comments with multiple url links will almost always be shunted to the “wait for moderation” queue, so try to have no more than one url link in a comment if at all possible. Any more comments, questions, gripes about the spam blockers, please email me, Jeff or Jerry, rather than fill up this thread.

    OK, back to our regularly scheduled programming…]

  3. In response to Rodney and others, I didn’t mean to imply that, “sitting still and listening” being only about 200 years old as a social practice, that there was anything wrong with it. For me, Gavin’s points are very well taken, and well expressed. It seems there’s something not quite “natural” about sitting still and mentally following instrumental music – but there is no reason at all to content ourselves with what is “natural,” as though we were savages, and all the reason in the world to develop our perceptual faculties as far as they’ll go in any direction. It may be worth remembering, though, that, as a relatively recently developed paradigm, “sitting still and listening” is still a rather fragile one, and needs all the help it can get.

  4. I’m glad we’re not seeing much spam, but I think it’s a significant problem that one of the spamblocking solutions routinely causes people to lose their work.

    Also, I don’t think anybody’s saying that sitting still and paying attention is elitist in itself. It’s the telling people that that’s the only legitimate way that’s elitist. But you’re right that many of the things that have been tried either don’t work or can’t replace the current model.

  5. [Galen, we’re running three different spam protectors now, so once in a while you might get a message. But they’re doing a mostly good job of letting legitimate posts through.]

    I’m with Rodney; I don’t find anything elitist about the “sit still and pay attention” necessary for so much art music. It is what it is; tampering with that isn’t being true to the ethos of the work itself. And I’m with Jeff in hoping the work and playing itself should have enough quality to command some of that attention. And I’m with Walter when he rails against the truly elitest detrius the art-music concert has accumulated above and beyond the primary respect and attention this music often intends. And I’m with the many that think that either the “be-in” or “bells and whistles” approach can’t be used for the whole shebang.

  6. Hm, was a change in spam protection made between the time when I tried and failed to post the first time and then pasted it in and wrote my PS on the second attempt? I’ve never seen that moderator message before. If so, horray!

  7. Let me see if I can clarify my thinking about the Respect issue a little. It may be that I simply chose the wrong word — I’m talking about a level of respect that’s similar to reverence. Most traditions expect you to treat the music and the audience and musicians with a minimum of respect, and that minimul level is generally based on the idea that you should give the music a chance. In a rock club, once you’ve given the music a chance if you aren’t into it you can hang out with your friends, or hit the bar, or just leave and come back later. Any attention beyond giving it a chance is expected to be earned by the music and the musicians on a case-by-case basis. You keep your freedom and your autonomy.

    The trappings of the classical concert over the past 50 years or so have been set up to demand attention on the presumption that the music _deserves_ that attention, and that if you don’t see it that way you it’s because you’re wrong and so you need to be forced to pay attention. Everything comes with an air of presumed “greatness,” and the atmosphere is one worship. And several of the practices we’re talking about are designed to hold you prisoner — changing the channel on your TV set or leaving the rock club during somebody’s set is perfectly normal, but in the classical concert hall “walking out” has been elevated to an insult or a statement of protest.

    So for each tradition we need to ask why.

    Why does the orchestra perform in tuxedoes? Two reasons, both bad. First, Classical music is presumed to be an upper class affair, so the musicians need to be dressed like waiters. Second, the music is presumed to be great, borderline holy, and so the musicians need to dress up out of respect to the Art.

    Why don’t you clap between movements? Because the music is a holy relic, not to be disturbed.

    Why don’t we sell advertising space on the stage? Because the music is sacred and commercialism is profane, and never the twain shall meet (except at the box office, of course).

    The sucky 20 minute solo euphonium piece that Jeff postulates gets placed into this context because as a piece of “classical music” it is presumed to deserve it.

    P.S. Can we get different Spam protection? Every time I write a nice long respose I get accused of being a spammer and lose my work.

  8. Jeff,
    I’m not sure if I agree with your comparison to the live CDs of Trane and Miles. First of all, you’re dealing with a much different time period (okay, Miles’ live recordings go up to 1992). More importantly, audiences routinely interact with jazz and pop musicians. As a matter of fact, I can definitely find examples of audiences cheering on a soloist, or even loud exclamations during a solo. The key is, there was interaction going on! (I’d love to see that at a new music concert – people cheering the players on like they were jazzers. Imagine hearing, after a soloistic passage, “play it, brother!”)

    Audiences are not expected to be interactive these days. They’re expecting things to be force-fed to them, told what to like, when to clap, laugh, etc. They’re not expecting to think much. And, they’re not expecting to sit still. (Odd aside: I recently had a conversation with someone who told me about some Buddhist monks who mediate for 18 hours at a time.) And the mode of interaction is different: follow along with the music, make connections in your mind to what you’ve heard before. Sure, it’s easier to do in a Beethoven piece than, say, Babbitt, and it’s one of the reasons for the immense popularity of minimalism: you can follow it.

    I’m not sure where the blame lies: television, the lack of music education in the schools, the co-modification of music (and the arts) to the lowest common denominator, the fact that we’re a nation of over-worked and burnt out individuals, or something else.

  9. i have recently attended Met’s HD Broadcast and because it was at a regular movie theater and i skipped breakfast i got myself a couple of hot dogs and a coke – now i have to say that the only way to watch opera, from now on i will be sneaking in dogs into an actual opera performance – let’s see what happens…

  10. I still think we’re missing an important point and I think that I probably didn’t express myself well earlier to boot. Truly detailed, intensely executed acoustic music typically produces audience quiet automagically.

    Take for example a truly great jazz performance. Ever heard a live recording of say Miles or Coltraine? There’s often NO audience noise. Billy Holiday live recordings? No audience noise. Sure there’s some intense shouts every now and then, but what there isn’t is people talking in the background. (We get those same effects in superb opera performances often, too)

    I don’t mean to suggest that those live recording environments are special – sure – they’re often warned by the producer – ‘We’re making a live recording so STFU… etc…’

    My point is that the music itself should produce the audience/cultural norms. These classical/newmusic concerts we’re talking about often produce discomfort in many parts of the audience because they’re experiencing something they don’t often experience in a live concert they’ve paid for – intense boredom.

    Our programming, just isn’t leaned towards producing great immersive experiences that produce rapt awe. That’s what produces quiet. Not cultural norms, in a healthy musical environment. Rapt awe.

    We program to showcase, to sell, to promote some dude’s music that promoted our music, not to blow audiences away. And then, frankly, and especially in new music concerts we don’t rehearse enough, so not only is the piece badly sequenced/programmed, but the mixed bag plus a mediocre performance plus you have to STFU? So we’ll have one or two interesting piece and then a 20 minute solo euphonium piece that SUCKS!

    It’s enough to make someone not want to go to concerts at all, which is one reason I keep saying, the iPod is the venue now. Not the concert hall, but that’s besides the point. 🙂 If our concerts weren’t so intensely boring most of the time, people would be happily quiet. Not unhappily quiet. They’d want to be quiet so they could feel just how blown away they’ve become.

    That’s the goal. Not changing cultural norms. To blow audiences away so severely that they want to be quiet. They want to be quiet – for themselves. That is, until they become so unhinged that they have to shout… ‘WOW!’ 😉

  11. Thank you so much for the comments on John Denver concert. I believe the current discrimination against classical music is a political and cultural trend. There are certain rituals which have become noxious to us, such as the wearing of tuxedos, or the pretense towards wealth. But these are inherently political criticisms, and as all political things, come and go. One could be just as vocal about the rituals at concerts such as you describe; but it is not in-fashion to discriminate against those rituals. You’ll never hear anything of the “insular, pretentious, ritualized world of John Denver.” And all the better for it; though it would be pretty funny. My point is an exhortation to resist the mob mentality; resist the tide of the times that discriminates against one thing and leaves the other hypocritically unnoticed; believe in yourself, who you are, and what you love – and don’t worry about what the culture is telling you about yourself.

    Walter Ramsey

  12. And about the comments on the original placement of Haydn’s symphonies: no doubt these composers knew the fate of their symphonic music in their time, that is, to be heard in the background and as secondary importance. But that it no way mitigated the importance they attached to their own work, and the quality with which they endowed every detail. It may be better to say, instead of “they wrote the music to be heard,” “they wrote the music to be good.” And good music deserves to be heard, whatever the majority of the culture thinks or does.

    Walter Ramsey

  13. I had something of the opposite experience once. Because my wife was a John Denver fan we went to a concert when he appeared in town. I was not looking forward to it, but it turned out to be kind of fun. While everyone one else clapped and swayed to the music I sat and listened. My wife finally turned to me and said “Can’t you ever enjoy yourself?” It ruined the rest of the concert for me.

  14. Your to my mind strange comments on high schoolers dressing up is a good indication of the insecure, self-deprecating attitude one sees a lot in classical music. The point is not that people should have to dress up for a concert – though if you want something to be special, dress up; is dressing up for a wedding or funeral considered elitist these days? – but the point is why should we even care? Because of this self-discrimination, every little thing is put under the microscope and doubted intensely. I oppose all discrimination, and these days, one has to be on one’s guard most especially against self-discrimination.

    Imagining myself in the position of the dressed up high-schooler, being told by a regular concertgoer that I didn’t dress up, I would probably feel at first disturbed and protective of my girl-friend, then slightly resentful that someone would get in our business. I can’t imagine any positive outcome from that scenario whatsoever.

    People want change, but so often change starts with oneself, not with trying to impose new theoretical standards on a situation. If one doesn’t want people to feel they have to dress up for concerts, one can always start dressing down; and if one believes in oneself, and is not insecure and self-discriminatory, one can do so with confidence.

    Walter Ramsey

  15. Thanks for all your comments and to Sequenza 21 for posting my piece. With some chagrin I see that Rodney, in his last post, made in one eloquent final paragraph the point I required 900 words to make.

    It seems that the essential issue is less how people behave at classical concerts than why; Galen is right to suggest that the faux-worshipful atmosphere of reverence, or the perception of same, is what’s keeping people away. And so I think that changing the concert experience is only part of the battle–we also have to change people’s attitudes, to coax them out of their (sometimes fervently held) prejudices and convince them that concert behavior should enhance what they get out of the music, not stifle it.

    Often at Seattle Symphony concerts, or chamber music recitals, or the opera, I see high-school-age guys in suits and ties with their dates in fancy dresses. And I’m always tempted to take them aside and ask, “You do realize that you don’t HAVE to dress up, don’t you? Are you comfortable in those clothes? Because you shouldn’t feel obligated. It’s great if you enjoy getting gussied up, but of course they will let you in the door even if you don’t.”

  16. Kyle–

    You’re right, of course. I knew somebody would bring that up, as soon as I wrote it. However, even with certain exceptions (dancing, for instance, or some kind of cocktail party musack, I’d still stick by my main contention. (I’m reminded of the place in Auden’s Metalogue to The Magic Flute:

    “…And even those Divertimenti which
    He wrote to play while bottles were uncorked,
    Milord chewed noisily, Milady talked,
    Are heard in solemn silence, score on knees,
    Like quartets by the deafest of the B’s.” )

    I’m a little lost in Galen’s ideas about respect. I’m not sure how you decide what’s to be respected enough to listen to without listening to it to begin with.

    But still, organizing concerts around the expectation that the main business of the event is listening, and trying to set up a situation which is conducive to that end is not elitist, and if the needs and desires of classical audience doesn’t involve listening, they’re probably needing and desiring something else.

  17. My biggest concern is getting students to actually SIT during the whole concert. Kids just seem to get up in the middle of a piece, go out to the bathroom or whatever. I usually ask them “do you have a bladder problem?” I mean, I think they can usually hold it in for some time.

    The problem is, once again, non-interactive performance media. If you talk, munch, fart, or get up in the middle of a movie, Harrison Ford still says his lines on cue, saves the day, etc. People forget that there are performers there, that will get distracted when they hear people getting up to leave in the middle of a performance. I’ve had to tell students to stop texting when I’m lecturing – and I’m not talking about the kids in the back row! There’s a certain amount of rudeness that comes with watching television: you can be essentially not paying attention to any of the stimuli around you (sounds from the television, smoke detector howling, dog barking, friend talking to you) and not seem to think you’re offending anyone.

  18. Yes, we kiss and slap an awful lot of distinct traditions by grouping them together as Classical – the 17th century Italian opera house, the 18th-century Austrian palace, the 19th-century French drawing room, the 20th-century American university, to name four seemingly incompatible ones – seems like we’d be best served letting each event or venue define its own standards for listening.

  19. Classical music was meant to be listened to – after a certain point. Don’t forget that Haydn’s symphonies were originally played as royal background music, and that one of Beethoven’s patrons took the innovative step of shushing audience members who talked, surprising them by insisting that they give their full attention to the music. The practive of sitting silently and listening to wordless instrumental music is not all that old, in cultural terms.

  20. Rodney– You’re right of course that the music “was meant to be listened to,” as is most music in most genres. I would suggest, though, that one of the problems is that many of the performance, presentation, and audience traditions of classical music presume that first and foremost the music is to be _respected_, and that listening is the primary method of respecting it. I’d like to elevate listening and enjoyment above respect, and let respect be earned on a case-by-case basis.

  21. I think the, as it were, bottom line is that the kind of music we’re talking about was meant to be listened to. The general situation–you come in and sit down and listen quietly, presumably paying attention to the sounds, generally not doing anything that distracts other people from also listening– is not by any means elitist. It’s just what’s necessary to actually have the experience.

    If you want to talk about what players wear, what the audience wears, whether the players are in front of, behind, over, under or through the audience, or for that matter whether you clap between movements or at all or anything like that, then you are talking about some kind of received behavior which may or may not be snobbish, may or may not be freighted with dastardly political meaning, and is, in any case, ultimately not important.

    But the listening is.

  22. The thing that is obviously missing is that we no longer find classical concerts sufficiently immersive to stay quiet. The events are not visceral enough or powerful enough, even at today’s sometimes unwarranted high volume levels.

    Why is that? I think we no longer recognize or respect exactly what the musicians are doing on stage. We’ve lived so long with this ‘everybody is an artist’ ethos that we almost don’t believe that these musicians are creating that sonic magic. How can anybody be THAT good? The respect for the achievement of musical mastery is lost. We used to be astounded. ‘How did she play that – that fast and perfectly.’ Now we’re not even amused.

    Chalk it up to the hyper-immersive experiences which abound and our own narcissisms. I don’t believe we can reclaim the quiet concert until we reclaim respect for performance/musical mastery. In the meantime, let’s all play louder and emulate rock music so that nobody thinks we’re uncool.

  23. Gavin makes some good points, and clearly has the right attitude, but a few thoughts:

    First, the status quo clearly isn’t working for a significant segment of the classical audience, and that’s why you hear complaints. I don’t care what the ultimate configuration of the concert experience ends up being as long as it works for people and is allowed to evolve to meet their needs, but my sense is that many of the restrictions on behavior at classical concerts come primarily from a tradition of elitism. If once that tradition is broken people still prefer to sit quietly, then I’ll be all in favor of it — in fact, I understand that in some inde rock scenes you see similar behaviors, but the difference is that those behaviors arose naturally to meet the needs of the contemporary audience. As far as I’m concerned we haven’t yet ascertained the real needs and desires of the classical audience.

    Also, you get into dangerous territory comparing behavior at a concert to behavior at events where the visual component is more important. People sit quietly and watch for movies and tv shows and opera and ballet because those media require sight and sound simultaneously. Certainly there are things that are worth seeing at a classical concert, but they’re not critical, and even a rock show tends to be more deliberately visually engaging than a classical concert because a rock show often has a significant stage and lighting show, often with video. Adding these elements to a classical concert would likely be considered pandering. Comparing behavior at a movie theatre to that at a concert hall is a false analogy.

    I could go on, but I have to get back to work. Ultimately, I completely agree with Gavin’s statment that the goal should be figuring out “what setting best allows music to work its magic” — what I’m proposing, though, is that issues of formality and ossified tradition are interfering with our ability to do so. I’m sure it’s true that a significant portion of the audience prefers the current customs because they enhance a particular, entirely valid, kind of listening experience, but they are doing so _in the context of_ an “artificial standard imposed by ironclad tradition.” Only by removing the artificiality of the standard can we truly give people what they need and want and effectively serve the music.

  24. You’re framing the discussion in the wrong way, in a political way. Music should be kept free from political arguments, which just serve to do it injustice. You’re saying that because some people think classical music is better than pop, the whole established experience is elitist and condescending.

    This is inherently political criticism, and I firmly believe it has no place in music. The music critic is right: we should find to present the music so that it sounds the best. And oftentimes, that ends up being in a late-19th early-20th century concert hall, sitting in relative silence, and listening.

    The music presented in those halls is structure and detail oriented, and it sounds the best when you can hear structures and details. Performers devote their lives to not only realizing details in the practice room, but making them sound in the concert hall too, which is a totally different thing as we all know. And with that in mind, there is a faction out there that wants to allow talking, eating, and dancing or whatever during these concerts. I think it’s very disrespectful to the composer, performer, and the audience that wants to truly listen.

    I am on the other hand sympathetic to those who see a certain rigidity of process; an empty ritual, that hasn’t been updated in a long time. But bravo to the critics who are brave enough, in these days of arts cuts across the nation and rising populist voices, to say what this one said. Too often the voices calling for change, represent a reckless abandon; and we need a counterweight.

    Walter Ramsey

  25. Now Steve as everyone knows, classical music is art and everything else is just pop. You can tap your toes and clap your hands to Cecil Taylor and Pandit Pran Nath but try doing that to Psappha or the King of Denmark. Be silent and still because you are among genius my friends. I laugh my evil laugh…

  26. Bravo. I’ve always pointed to the double standard when it comes to classical music. Why do people involved in the world of classical music often seem to be their own worst enemies? Go to a chess tournament; poker tournament; Wimbledon; anywhere like that. If you make a sound, you will be decapitated. And what sportswriter ever laments on the sports page, “Why are we so elitist at Wimbledon? Why don’t we let people just make noise during the serve?”

    It’s a double standard, plain and simple; I’m against all discrimination, and these days one has to be specially on one’s guard against self-discrimination.

    Walter Ramsey

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