In Life There is No Dolby

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.

7 thoughts on “In Life There is No Dolby

  1. mjleach

    Concert environment
    The most uncomfortable concert I ever experienced was going to hear Ellis Larkin at the Carnegie Tavern. You would think that playing in a bar environment like that, that there would be a little leeway for incidental noise. However, with every melting, shifting ice cube, Larkin would swivel his head around to glare at the offending patron/glass. The whole audience was so on edge, that it was really unpleasant and tense, and I can’t think of Larkin, a brilliant pianist (the pianist on “Ella Sings Gershwin”) without that negative experience.

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  2. Daniel Wolf

    Even buildings intended for music can have astonishing amounts of background noise. Heinz-Klaus Metzger once quipped that Webern was the last composer before the advent of air conditioning.

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  3. glennfreeman

    I would hope the same is true when you are listening to recordings, unless you live in a vacuum.

    There is no such thing as silence. Just because a dog barks, your cat meows, a plane or car passes your window, does not mean you stop listening to your recording … it becomes a part of the experience and the piece, if you allow it.

    This does not mean we want to leave these sounds in our recordings, does it … understand? We allow for these sounds to occur when, and if, they occur … we do not invite them in as part of the recording process … they simply happen from time to time … no different than a live performance.

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  4. cbustard

    What most alternative performance spaces have going for them is close proximity between performers and listeners. Psychologically, this can offset acoustical limitations due to low ceilings and less-than-optimal reflective surfaces such as Sheetrock partitions, brick walls or glass storefronts, as well as extraneous noises such as traffic, clinking glassware, etc.

    It might be instructive to survey composers on where their works – especially chamber works – are played.

    Are contemporary art musicians affected in the way they organize sound by habitually presenting their music in black-box theaters, galleries, clubs and the like? Or do they write with concert-hall acoustics in mind and hope for the best?

    Did Brahms or Dvorak tailor the note values and dynamics of their chamber works to compensate for their being played in the “chambers” of their time – rooms full of overstuffed furniture and heavy window drapes?

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  5. Dfelsen@mac.com

    Being one of the recent beneficiaries/victims of the latest trend in “club concerts” (or at least latest according to the papers; this has been going on in one form or another for years) it all, as usual, comes down to intention. For what venue did you write your music? If you indend nuance, a wet hall and NO distractions is your achingly quiet moment’s best friend; if you like raw rock power in your string quartet, an amplified club might be just the ticket. And while nobody but NOBODY can compete with a cash register (which, in this age of laser printing, all seem to be from the early 80s, the era of dot matrix) or the clinking of ice cubes, it comes down to where you expect your music to be heard. This, to me, has always been the most salient difference between what we call up-, mid-, and downtown music: not only who do you expect to be listening, but in what room will they be sitting. After all, the communal enter-and-exit-as-you-like downtown ethos works not well for much music (leave during a Davidovsky Syncrhnism or a Babbitt quartet, and likely you miss all of it).

    But myself, I am happy to have music played, so I am in no position to complain about venues–except when they do a disservice to the work. But then again, any port in a storm, right?

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  6. jonrussell20

    The Revolution Cafe in San Francisco, normally host to jazz and world music of various sorts, has recently started hosting “classical jam” on Sunday nights, and I have to say, it’s become one of my favorite venues for hearing classical chamber music. The performers are all young, many of them students from SF Conservatory, and often they are sight-reading. Polished performances they are not, and certainly there is plenty of distracting background noise, but I have never heard such exciting, edge-of-your-seat performances of classical chamber music repertoire, and can’t help feeling that this is far closer to the original spirit of this music – much of which was written to be read for fun by friends, not rehearsed meticulously and played in huge concert halls. And people love it! Sunday nights are usually hard nights to get people to come out, but it’s become very popular. And it is without a doubt the youngest classical music audience I’ve ever seen. In hearing a Beethoven quartet recently at the Cafe, I was struck by the fact that, yes, this is serious and profound music, but it also has such a sense of joy and adventure and vitality about it, and these qualities really come to the fore in a venue like this – the music is not some perfectly sculpted gem to be put on display and admired, but a living, breathing, unpredictable beast. New music is another matter, and I suspect much of it would not work so well in this setting. And it makes me wonder about our music, if it’s become so serious and precious and self-important that it can’t handle co-existing with everyday life, the way Beethoven and Mozart and Bach, as I’ve come to realize, so easily can.

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