See What You Want To See and Hear What You Want to Hear

The primary reason I’m flying to the United Kingdom tomorrow evening is to attend the 2008 conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres in Cardiff, Wales. The conference doesn’t start until next Monday, but it’s been a decade since my last trip there and I couldn’t be that close to London without reacquainting myself with their fabulous museums and some of my favorite old pubs. One of the most transformative experiences of my life was walking into the Tate for the very first time and being immersed in their wonderful permanent collection of Turner’s proto-abstractionist seascapes and then being surrounded by the oceans of color in another room which consisted of nothing but paintings by Mark Rothko.

Sadly, it seems that while I’m there the Rothko room will be closed in preparation for a major Rothko retrospective which won’t open until I’m back in New York. And all the Turners are currently in New York as part of the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So while I’m extremely disappointed about missing those Rothkos, I decided to put myself in a London frame of mind a few days earlier and I visited the Met’s Turner show on Friday afternoon. If I can trust my memory, I was mesmerized by them even more than I had been ten years ago.

Right about now, you are probably asking yourself: What does any of this have to do with music, particularly contemporary American music? I’ve long been trying to figure out why certain people are so open to experimentation in visual art but cannot bear it in music. I’ve encountered the reverse as well: I have a friend who is extremely open to a variety of musical experiences, particularly the way-out ones, but is totally indifferent to art. He claims music is all-encompassing since you can hear it no matter which direction you turn, whereas most visual art is designed to be encountered head on. Admittedly my fondness for both the Tate’s Rothko room and all those Turners (which I’ve now been surrounded by in two locations) has something to do seeing something remarkable everywhere I look, which is precisely analogous to what my friend loves about music.

I’ll go further out on a limb and make the claim that annoying interruptions during a musical performance—e.g. those endless chains of coughs we inevitably hear during an orchestra subscription concert—have an equally irritating corollary in visual art. After seeing the Turners, I spent nearly an hour in the Met’s American wing, which—save for a seemingly intrusive David Smith sculpture—has a dedicated Clyfford Still room rivaling the Tate’s Rothko presentation. I would have spent a shorter time there, but it took forever to get a complete look at Ellsworth Kelly’s massive Spectrum VI (1969), a series of 13 monochrome panels hung side by side along a wall. (An image over at Artnet gives you some idea of what it looks like, but doesn’t to it justice.) For the majority of the time I was there, a young couple was taking pictures of one another using one of the monochromes as background, completely oblivious to others’ attempts to appreciate Kelly’s stark minimalist sequence as a work of art. But luckily a patient audience for a non-time-based art can wait out such a distraction, whereas in a non-recorded performance of music it is literally now or never and anything that superimposes itself on the experience becomes an inseparable part of it.

Of course, in a society nothing can live in complete isolation—no piece of music, no work of art—and to fanatically desire that it should borders on being irrational, if not creepy. But the social contract on which a viable civilization is founded also demands that people be as respectful of others’ experiences as they are eager to pursue their own. To that end, occasionally holding your breath, or your flash, can go a long way.

3 thoughts on “See What You Want To See and Hear What You Want to Hear

  1. JimB

    new art vs new music
    I have often seen the comment that new painting and sculpture is more approachable because if you don’t like it, you can walk on to the next one (while if you don’t like a piece music, you’re stuck with it until the composer shows mercy.) But I wonder if a lot of the supposed approachability of art isn’t simply: money. The stuff goes for big bucks and big bucks command respect. People may look at a Pollock and think their kid could do it, but they also know their kid couldn’t get $20 million bucks for it. So they take a second look – I mean it’s just _gotta_ be good if someone is willing to pay that much for it, right? Think how much more respect new music would get if the papers ran stories about a Russian billionaire buying an early Elliot Carter piece for $15 million. Think how much more eager people would be to commission new works if they had a chance of making a bundle on them. The problem isn’t the music – it’s the business model.

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  2. rtanaka

    The New Yorker came out with a pretty good article on this subject matter recently, written by Alex Ross — the idea that you have to be “quiet” during a performance is a relatively recent phenomenon:

    Why So Serious?

    (The question isn’t rhetorical, Ross actually answers the question inside — pretty brilliant stuff.)

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  3. rtanaka

    Here’s a quote in case ya don’t want to read the whole thing:

    When the concert rite emerged in its perfected form, circa 1950—the ban on applauding after movements took hold only in the early twentieth century, almost certainly prompted by the passivity of home listening—it seemed to elevate and to stifle the music in equal measure. Composers were empowered by the worshipfulness of the proceedings, but, generally, only if they were dead. Performers thrived on the new attentiveness, but struggled against the monkish strictures of conservatory training and certain inexplicable regulations governing behavior and dress. (The overarching problem of classical music is the tuxedo.) Listeners, too, come away feeling both liberated and confined. James Johnson identifies what he calls “the paradox of bourgeois individualism”—a culture of conformity encircling an art of untrammelled personal expression.

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