Recently, I asked my wife what she thought of a new choral work that a colleague of mine had written for our university’s commencement ceremony a few weeks ago. Since we had both attended the ceremony—me as an enrobed faculty member, she as a staff photographer—I knew that she had heard the same work and performance that I had. She responded that, while she liked the work overall, the unbalanced lighting on the choir caused by their placement in the auditorium made it difficult for her to fully enjoy the performance.
Then last week I had the wonderful opportunity to reunite with two of my good friends and classmates from my time in the USC film scoring program. As with any gathering of composers, once dinner and drinks were finished and the evening wore on, we ended up playing recordings of our recent works for each other. While we all had great fun catching up musically, what really stuck out for me was how these two top-notch composers who worked primarily in film and television interpreted my chamber and large ensemble works as if they were film scores. Their comments on how they could “see” a particular scene or how they could hear certain influences didn’t phase me a bit (since that mindset is very much a natural state with most composers in Hollywood), and, to be honest, it wasn’t long before I was hearing dramatic arcs in my own works that I was unaware had existed.
Both of these episodes were already resonating in my mind as I read Richard Dare’s article “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained” which was published earlier this week on the Huffington Post. In the article, Dare—the newly minted CEO of the beleaguered Brooklyn Philharmonic—attempts to describe what a typical orchestral concert experience feels like from the viewpoint of a “typical” audience member accompanied by a “guide” affiliated with the orchestra giving the concert. The primary complaints that Dare brings up included the process of buying tickets at the ticket counter, the reverence his guide seems to place on the concert hall itself, his frustration at not being able to express his feelings for the music being performed by clapping, laughing, or shouting during a piece, his interpretation of the audience as deferential and “possibly catatonic,” and his guide’s seeming ignorance of his own confusion as to the concert-going experience.
From these experiences, Dare then extrapolates outward, making broad statements as to what is wrong with the genre of classical music. After looking back at the (supposedly) halcyon days of Beethoven and early 19th-century Vienna, Dare compares our current concert traditions, including the (supposedly) strong emphasis on the conductor as high priest to, well, I should just let his words speak for themselves:
The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.
This “once more unto the breach, dear friends” concept of rallying the HuffPo-reading masses, Occupy-style, to demand the removal of our silence-laden shackles and the “de-maestro-ization” of the conductor (classical music’s seemingly obvious analog to the “1%”) is both passionate and timely. Dare’s statements about composers being “real people” who “bleed like the rest of us”, while not exactly new, are well-intended and a breath of fresh air coming from an orchestra administrator. If one squints enough to miss that it was composers such as Wagner and Mahler who were some of the first to impose those evil distraction-free traditions on audiences so the focus might be directed towards the music being performed (which was mentioned in the Wikipedia entry on concert etiquette Dare links to in his piece), his overall zeal for changing the concert-going experience is both visceral and convincing.
The common thread that runs through my earlier anecdotes and Dare’s article is that all three are examples of the effect of filters—namely, a straightforward musical event being filtered through the eyes, ears, and experiences of an individual. There were probably hundreds of people who attended the same concert as Dare and, because of previous concert attendance and their attitude towards the environment, it is quite likely that many would have had a completely opposite reaction.
There has been an explosion of reactions to Dare’s article (which was, of course, one of the points of the article) in the comments section, as well as on Facebook and Twitter, and it is there that one finds the clearest example of these experiential “filters”. What is surprising with the reactions is not that they lean heavily one way or the other, but that there seem to be just as many detractors as there are supporters—for every “Amen” there seems to be a “WTF?” Not only that, but the reactions seem to exist irrespective of background or profession—non-professionals in the article’s comment section fall on both sides, but I’ve also seen examples of performers, composers, and even conductors who have come out strongly both for and against Dare’s article.
I’m sure one could draw comparisons to our current American political climate where our country has been seemingly bifurcated along party lines with neither understanding how the other can have the opposing view on exactly the same person/policy/event/etc. But inasmuch as our own expansive and inclusive artistic community is concerned, this binary “good/bad” knee-jerk reaction is as unwise as it is common.
Concert music has been dealing with its own three-way tug-of-war between those who enjoy music that is experimental, pop-influenced, or traditional in nature for many years now, and many of the arguments are just as surface-based as Dare’s rant against the totalitarian state of the concert hall. After all this time, we still haven’t figured out that there is enough room in our culture for each style, each genre, each musical language to not only stand on its own, but for others to present and interpret the music in new and unique ways. Hopefully, one day, we will realize that we do have our own filters, move on, and enjoy whatever music we wish in the manner of our own choosing.