Staying Inside

Last week I wrote about uncharacteristically turning off on my technology and venturing outside, which prompted Dan Visconti to wax poetic about how the indoor environments composers set up for themselves fuel their creativity. But this morning, after getting drenched from just walking a block to and from the subway, I have absolutely no desire to go out again for the rest of the day. So I thought I’d continue the thread and ponder something about the comparative merits of listening to music indoors and outdoors.

While I think that there is undeniable value to both formats, I’m going to get polemical and argue that it is far more difficult to pay attention to music outdoors than it is indoors. Yet some instruments don’t sound completely comfortable when trapped by four walls and a ceiling—e.g. bagpipes—although nowadays folks have built arenas that can handle just about anything. Centuries ago, in an era of smaller concert halls, performances by wind and brass ensembles mostly happened outside. And composers back then clearly made a distinction between the kind of music they created for outdoor and indoor listening, which is why there are many more subtleties in the indoor string quartets of, say, Mozart and Beethoven than there are in the outdoor music they composed for wind ensembles.

Nevertheless, listening to music outdoors can still be extremely enjoyable and occasionally transporting. It is also an extremely vital form of audience outreach. I first learned about a wide variety of music through hearing outdoor concerts in New York City’s Central Park. Everything from opera and orchestral music to bluegrass, salsa, and—in fact—Scottish bagpipe music happened for me outside long before I ever ventured into a concert hall to listen to such fare or bought a recording.

However, once I got serious about the music I discovered outdoors I no longer felt the urge to partake of the music that way. There were just too many distractions. First, the aural ones: I still bristle at the memory of the folks who brought along a radio to accompany their picnic conversation during the New York Philharmonic’s live concerts in Central Park one hot summer night in the early 1980s. But even without utterly inconsiderate neighbors, there are tons of other sensations in close proximity that make it just too easy to walk away, like the sales pitch of someone selling ice cream around the corner.

And far more disconcerting (pun intended) are all the visual stimuli, since by and large we’re acculturated to respond to things we see more readily than to things we hear. Admittedly, concert halls are filled with audio and visual distractions, too: from the coughs and rustlings to the periodic eyesore wardrobe both on-stage and off. I used to think that tuxedos were completely anachronistic and off-putting and that an all-black uniform sent a message of being too detached and full of attitude. But now I’m more inclined to think that if something a musician wears calls attention to itself unduly, it’s somehow getting in the way of the music. Of course, a too solemn and disengaged appearance is an immediate turn off to a potential new listener and can even negatively affect the experience of the most intrepid listener—since what we see has such an influence on all our other perceptions.

So given the undeniable impact of the other sensory input we’re receiving as we listen, which might in fact tug on our awareness even more than what we are hearing, what really occurs when we use listening as a way to tune out our immediate surroundings? I’m referring to the people I encounter everyday who seem totally oblivious to what is going on around them in real time due to having their ears blocked by earbuds as impossible-for-everyone-else-not-to-hear regular bass and percussion thumps emanate from them. Last week I witnessed a woman on the subway who was so mesmerized by the sonic information she was receiving through her mp3 listening device that she started dancing around. Mind you, this was on a crowded rush hour train and she nearly knocked into several people. It didn’t seem to matter to her in the least.

If you completely close off one of your senses to the outside world and somehow artificially saturate that sense to a numbing level with input of your own choosing, it actually seems possible to numb all of your senses to what is really going on. As a result, you’re having a listening experience that is neither inside nor outside, although hopefully it’s not raining.

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