The Rambler :: blog

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


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Rob Witts has a handy link-summary of the current condition-of-the-classical-music-scene coverage (there have been quite a few recent pieces in the mainstream media here in the UK). Which reminded me that I meant to draw attention to a debate that has been ongoing in the Times letters pages, arguing the (faintly ludicrous) case for paying to see a concert, then closing your eyes throughout in order not to be distracted by such things as performers, etc. This is precisely the point I was making below with regard to Reich. Attending a live concert is more than a question of sound fidelity (and, necessarily, attending a concert at London's major venues is certainly about something other than the sound); classical music is most fully experienced as a live audio-visual performance. It was written as such - you only have to spend a few seconds in the company of a half-decent string quartet to see that the shaping of time in live classical music is an expression of both sound and movement. To me, closing your eyes to the work of the performer on stage seems both dishonest, and a little selfish. It's an act that exalts the composer, and his romanticized intellect above all (a position I always find difficult to agree on anyway). It makes redundant the physical labour of the performer (and if this was no matter in, say, the 'Hammerklavier' sonata, don't you think Brendel would still be playing it?) - in fact it removes the performer entirely other than as a lightning rod for that romanticized intellect again. It attempt to exclusivise (word?) that intellect for yourself, to deny the community around you, to consume in isolation. Attending a concert is not the same as reading a book - there's a profound difference in design that is not entirely coincidental.* And worst - but most typically - pretending you can't see what is being performed on stage removes the body from music. Watching (watching!) a concert with eyes closed is a plea to remove all vestiges of the physical from music, to leave just the spiritual husk, beamed in from the heavens where Beethoven's soul resides. Rather like those intravenous all-over body drips in The Matrix. Music is bodily: this seems obvious enough to anyone who's ever tapped a toe, shed a tear, had their heart broken, smiled, winced, headbanged, air-guitared, watched Rocky II or Carmen or Moulin Rouge or The Magic Flute or sang or picked up an instrument at any point in their lives. It makes me sad that people are relieved to miss out on any of that.

[Update: On matters of applause, which often depends upon the same audience-performer-music relationship, see Alex Ross's outstanding post. Ossip Gabrilowitsch speaks words of wisdom: "It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets."]

*And just in case there's any confusion, a CD is, or can be, like a book. Recorded music is ontologically different from live performance.

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