A Place for New Music: A Discussion on Concert Hall Venues

1. The Ubiquity of Music

FRANK J. OTERI: We’ve reached the point now where music really is everywhere. You can turn music on in your home; you can walk around the streets with it, with a walkman; music of your own choosing if you choose CDs or MP3s or whatever it is that people are listening to these days or music not of your own choosing if you’re surfing through the radio. You can even listen to music playing whether you want to or not. When you walk into a supermarket there’s Muzak blasting…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: The subway platform.

FRANK J. OTERI: True, you can even hear live music just about anywhere… There’s almost no longer a distinction between a place that’s specifically meant for hearing music and anywhere else. Is this a good thing or is it a bad thing? Is there too much music all around us?

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I think that what’s been happening is just going to keep going. I don’t think we’ll ever go backwards. There’s always going to be live music on the subway platforms, there’s always going to be Muzak in the supermarkets, so I just think we can almost not ask, “Is it a good thing or a bad thing?” I think we have to realize that that’s what we’re going to have. It’s not going to change.

FRANK J. OTERI: But does it sort of numb us when we hear music in a “real” space?

RUSSELL JOHNSON: No. I don’t think so. I don’t think so.

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I think it is expands our landscape. It expands our sonic landscape to have music everywhere whether we choose to hear it or not. It’s the creation of the Walkman, the elevator Muzakä. The introduction of music in unlikely spaces has just broadened the sonic landscape to a point where it’s just another conversation piece; it’s just another conversation heard on the street. It’s a part of our daily lives.

FRANK J. OTERI: But does it bring us to the point where a concert experience isn’t as significant?


The interior of Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
Photo by Don Perdue

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I don’t think so. I think most of us turn the things off that we don’t want to receive. When I hear live music on a subway platform, it doesn’t really damage me. I can ignore it. So therefore when I go into another environment, let’s say Carnegie Hall, where there’s an established way of listening that’s been developed over the last 350 years; when you go there you have quite a different experience than any other aural experience you’re going to have. So I believe that the more or less sacred ground of concert halls, I think it’s going to continue with this for, I hope, 200 years.

FRANK J. OTERI: Only 200?

RUSSELL JOHNSON: (laughs) At least 200!

LIMOR TOMER: When you go to listen to music, when you’re actually going, whether you’re paying or not paying, or going to a bar or a concert hall or an outdoor festival, you’re making a conscious decision to go and you’re participating in the experience, you’re taking it in; so the level of your seriousness and you’re participation is different than being exposed to music as pollution, or air or traffic noise and so, you could hear it or not hear it if it’s coming at you on speakers or in Penn Station or in the street or in the subway, you’re not actively seeking it or participating in it, so the question is whether the listener is participating or not. And if they are then the experience is different and it’s…it could be in Carnegie Hall or an outdoor arena.

FRANK J. OTERI: Russell’s comment about being able to channel out music he doesn’t want to hear is interesting. To look at from the opposite point of view, is it possible in such an environment to actually listen to something? What if the subway musician happens to be really fantastic? Can you ever really hear that person in this context or do you need the barrier of a concert hall? Do you need a wall to somehow contain the music in order to give the performance credibility?

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I don’t think so. I think if a busker were standing in front of a theater in the Broadway section of Manhattan and he was really talented and had developed a technique for getting across his message, he gathers an audience and you do get the impact. You get everything he’s delivering. And some of them, some of these chaps are really fantastic. So I don’t think you have to be in a dedicated space.

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