Monday, April 17, 2006

Music and silence

By Andrew Clark
From the Financial Times - April 14 2006 16:20

At an orchestral concert in London a few weeks ago the conductor gave a little speech about each piece of music before it was performed. No advance notice had been given of this “educational” element, but it was well handled and everyone listened appreciatively.
A few days later I heard a composer prefacing a performance of his music with explanatory remarks from the platform. He spoke not about the music itself, but about the effects of sea and sky that had inspired him, thereby implanting a kind of pictorial narrative in the audience’s mind.
On another recent occasion the conductor arrived on stage to the customary applause, but instead of turning to the orchestra he faced the audience, adjusted a microphone and gave a jokey introduction to the programme. His remarks were scarcely relevant to the music, but the audience was amused.
These incidents are typical of a trend in classical music. Speaking to the audience is on the increase, especially in the UK and US. Concert-goers love it because it breaks the “glass wall” between stage and audience. It makes them feel part of the performance process; concerts are less stuffy. And when a composer is there to talk about his or her music in person, audiences are relieved to discover that these creative types do not wear horns or live in ivory towers, but are actually quite normal and sometimes vulnerable. Hearing them talk, we get a sense of their personality. It helps us understand where their music is coming from. If the music then turns out to be frightful, at least we tolerate it better.
It’s not just audiences who enjoy the speaking element. Concert promoters and orchestra managers are falling over themselves to encourage it. They advance the careers of conductors they think are good at it - despite the fact that the best platform-speakers are rarely the best interpreters of the music. The idea is that if the concert experience is more user-friendly, attendances will rise. Managements can then tick the boxes marked “education” and “access” - buzz-words in today’s consumer-led cultural landscape - and win brownie points from the politicians and funders who ultimately determine their survival.
This sort of thinking is insidious. It signifies a fear that classical music may not be sufficiently communicative or “entertaining”. No one will admit to this fear. You don’t have to explain jazz to anybody, but the implication is that you do with classical music - for reasons that are phoney. It’s not because the music is too complicated and needs elucidating. When I first attended a piano recital in my late teens, I didn’t need an explanation to be enraptured by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin - any more than people did when it was first performed nearly 100 years ago.
The problem for classical music in the 21st century is that it is competing with the high decibel count, the simplistic beat and the narcotic effect of rock and pop, beside which it seems “boring”. No wonder it is considered a minority interest. Demystifying the concert experience is part of a desperate attempt to give it more street-cred and develop enough support to sustain it.
The trouble with speaking to the audience is that it limits the imaginative scope of the music. Listening to someone discussing a piece of music before you have a chance to hear it pre-programmes your responses. The music has no chance to communicate freely. You are left with a number of objective ideas about what to think and feel, circumscribing the subjective impressions that music seeks to create in the listener through the medium of sound.
Music begins where words end: the whole purpose is to express things that are not possible in words. The traditional concert format - uniform dress, subdued lighting, no speaking - evolved with this in mind: it’s not some silly old-fashioned ritual. It was designed to throw a cloak of impersonality over the concert process, to create a directness of communication between music and listener, to detach you from everyday discourse. That has always been part of the sanctity of a classical concert. When performers start speaking they break the spell; they prick the illusion of a transcendent force. The only exceptions are when a soloist announces an encore or - as Oliver Knussen sometimes does - the conductor decides to give an immediate repeat performance of a new piece.
But most promoters today would be embarrassed by talk of “sanctity”. The whole drift of cultural provision is away from the idea of a pure aesthetic experience. The consumer is king: heaven forbid that anyone should be required to make an effort. That explains the drive to make concerts more informal, to persuade the audience it’s all jolly.
On the rare occasions when mainstream promoters put money into new music, they like to be able to guarantee the return by converting it into an educational project, rather than risk backing an artist on his or her own terms. Most composers go along with this: it’s the only way to get paid. If you don’t conform you’re “difficult” - as Jonathan Lloyd demonstrated when he was interviewed on stage before a recent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performance of his Fourth Symphony. Using elliptical one-word answers he made himself absolutely clear: everything he wanted to say was in the music.
I’ve heard few concert-hall talks that made the music more meaningful. They may have made the concert experience more “fun”, in the way that Leonard Bernstein did at his young people’s events, but the idea that they deepen our understanding of the music is an illusion. You have to have a very good ear and an even better memory to be able to relate what was said beforehand to the myriad motifs, harmonies, rhythms and tunes you hear in performance. If you really want to learn more about the music, you are better off studying the programme notes before the start - or perhaps listening to a CD of the music at home.
I am not opposed to talking about music - as a music critic I use words every day to describe the musical experience - but there is a time and place for it, and this excludes the concert itself. Pre-concert talks, of the kind given by the conductor and educator Benjamin Zander, using musical examples on the piano, can enrich the concert-hall experience. Post-concert exchanges between conductor and audience, as recently espoused by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, can be gratifying - if only as a way of coming to terms with our reactions to the music and the way it was played.
The only other instance where talking has a legitimate role is when an event advertises itself as a lecture-demonstration, of the type championed by Roger Norrington: the auditorium becomes a laboratory in which the music is deconstructed, examined from various angles and put together again.
Of course, it doesn’t do to be too purist. I recall several occasions at the Cheltenham festival in the past 10 years when festival director Michael Berkeley introduced a concert from the podium. He happens to be a composer but, unlike most composers, he is also a relaxed public speaker. He thinks as a composer does, but knows what information will be most relevant in advance. Exceptionally the formula worked. But please note - it was the exception.

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