Despite all my recent ruminations about sonic disturbances when folks walk out of concert halls in mid-performance, many concerts I attend happen in less than optimal sonic conditions. Underrepresented in the big, acoustically-designed venues, new music thrives in alternative spaces. And while these places are frequently great to be in, they’re not always great places for focusing on the music. But sometimes all the extraneous noise, while hindering the ability to listen with undivided attention to the actual performance, is part of what makes these concerts exciting, socially-engaging events.
This past week I attended three concerts in places that are more conducive to wining and dining than digesting sonic information. Last Tuesday, I went to a rock club called The Cutting Room to hear eleven new string quartets performed by a young group with the catchy name Sweet Plantain. The following night I heard a rarely-performed Korngold Piano Quartet, originally written for left-handed pianist Paul Wittgenstein, at the café in the Neue Gallerie, a posh enclave on Museum mile which houses an impressive collection of fin-de-siecle Austrian art. Then last night I heard Anna Clyne’s music on a series I curate in the basement of a fabulous restaurant in Greenwich Village, the Cornelia Street Café, which was far beyond maximum audience capacity for most of the performance.
Each of these three events was the basis of a great night out. But, even though riveting music happened on all three concerts, ultimately none of these events were thrilling solely because of the music being performed. At The Cutting Room, where I was sitting way too close to an unguarded door next to one of the club’s bars, people would inadvertently walk in to get drinks and music blaring from a P.A. in the club’s other room added additional sonorities to the timbres of the two violins, viola, and cello. At the Cornelia Street Café, the music would end on stage but sounds of old heating pipes and mixing drinks would fill the never-empty sonic space, at times sounding like a continuation of what was going on in Anna Clyne’s compositions, even though it was completely random and unintentional. At the Neue Gallerie Café, the concert presenters did everything they could to minimize sounds coming from anyone besides Gary Graffman and members of the Shanghai Quartet, but the movable chairs that surround the café’s small marble tables make sound no matter what you do, as does the endless traffic going down Fifth Avenue directly outside.
But I have no complaints. In fact, I probably enjoyed each of these events in the spaces they occurred in more than I would have had they occurred in a standard concert hall. Having hermetically-sealed performances of music is a rare luxury and one that can go against the way things are in the real world. Music inevitably exists along with an infinite number of random sonic stimuli that can rarely be completely tuned out most of the time. This is probably why noise is tolerable in a place that’s noisy, while a small cough can be so disconcerting in a place that’s pin-drop quiet.