Let Us Now Praise the Quiet Concert Hall
I really didn’t want to begin this column by commenting on the iPod as an agent of cultural transformation. I own an iPod, but I generally use it only in the most mundane (and un-composerly) ways—I listen to it on the bus and backup my files to it. However, the omnipresence of recorded music illuminates, ironically, the issue of venue and its impact on the experience of listening to music. The fact that we can, at any moment, hear what a piece of music sounds like brings into relief the conditions under which music is experienced—in other words, if we can listen at any moment to a recording of Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima, a performance of that piece ought to take place in an environment conducive to all of the things about the piece that the recording can’t capture. Otherwise, we might as well sit around in our underwear and crank Fragmente-Stille in our living room. (I have it on good authority that this is Richard Taruskin’s modus operandi.)
Among my fellow graduate composers, a favorite topic for debate is whether our music would be more successful in or better suited to a performance taking place outside of the concert hall. Some feel that the socio-cultural baggage of the proscenium is lethal to the kind of experiences their pieces seek to provide. We’ve batted around the idea of giving concerts in local rock clubs or even staging “guerrilla” performances of new music; several of my colleagues have had successful performances in galleries or other art spaces. Our limited access to the various “official” performance spaces on campus is another impetus.
The concert hall, however, has one crucial advantage over these other venues: There’s nothing to do in a concert hall during the performance but listen to the music. If your music requires absolute concentration on the part of the audience (concomitant with a minimum of background noise), the hall is unbeatable.
There’s a quality to this arrangement, however, that’s rigidly hierarchical (if not downright coercive). Personally, I’m not bothered by this, but I understand that it’s not only distasteful but also potentially detrimental to the successful realization of certain musical projects. I just can’t get past the aforementioned problem of focus—in music predicated on the revelation of structurally significant details, I don’t see how a performance in, for instance, a factory (to return to Nono) will work. I’m sure we’re not the only new music scene confronting this problem, so please, share your thoughts.