Saturday, October 27, 2007

Musical Chairs

Another weekend, another idiotic article in the NY Times. In a recent op-ed piece, Daniel J. Levitin argues that classical music audiences should be allowed to dance, sing, and generally participate in concerts - citing such spectacularly relevant examples as Ludacris and U2 concerts in his defense.

Dr. Levitin should stick to hip-hop.

Even coming from an academic, this is a ludicrously impractical suggestion. As anyone who's been to a concert knows, the worst thing about live classical music is the audience - between the lovebirds whispering sweet nothings in front of you, the fat lady snoring five seats away, the guy with the hacking cough in the back row and the 243 people who think that the longer you draw out the process of opening a crinkly lozenge wrapper the less annoying it is (not true, people!) it's hard enough to appreciate the beauty of the music when the audience is supposedly silent. Imagine if they had carte blanche to make all the noise they wanted! Never mind the ridiculous image of row upon row of 60 year olds trying to keep up with the percussion in Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, can you even begin to conceive of the god awful ruckus this would create? How many people would actually be able to hear the music with all this humming and stomping going on (and by music, I don't mean just the overall rhythm or the general tune, I mean the sound of each instrument clear and distinct)? And what about the slow movements? If we're going to let audiences go wild in the more strident pieces, how do we ensure that they stay quiet in the softer ones?

Ironically, Dr. Levitin himself provides the best evidence against his suggestion. Speaking of the naturalness of wanting to dance and sing along when listening to music, Dr. Levitin cites the example of little children, "swaying and shouting and generally participating whenever they feel like it". Have you ever been to a concert where someone had brought little children? They are the most annoying thing ever. They whine, they chatter, they shout in their shrill, high-pitched voices. Typically, they lose interest the moment the music gets even slightly soft / subtle and then they sit about fidgeting in their seats and loudly asking their parents when they can go. I'm opposed to the death penalty, but if bringing little children to classical music concerts were made a criminal offense I might consider changing my mind. And this is the golden example that Dr. Levitin would have the rest of us embrace. Tchah!

Don't get me wrong. I totally empathize with the urge to get up and dance listening to say, the final movement of Beethoven's 7th. But that's why we have stereo systems: so we can indulge ourselves - leap, twirl, wave our hands around, play air-piano or air-conduct - all in the privacy of our own homes. Would it be great if you could do the same thing at a live concert? Sure, if you were the only person allowed to do it. If everyone did it, everyone would be worse off.

As for music as a community activity - sure - but that's what we have nightclubs for, so people can relive their atavistic tribal past [1]. I don't go to concerts to be part of some community, or to commemorate some primal ritual I read about in Anthropology 101, I go to concerts for the music, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let some stupid theory get between me and Mozart [2].
And if we really want to resurrect old customs in order to bring us closer to our roots why don't we start with something less objectionable. Like head-hunting, for example.


Meanwhile, over at Slate, Erik Tarloff has a listener's guide to telling the difference between Mozart and Haydn. Amusing stuff, if only for the way Tarloff bends over backwards to try not to be too partial to Mozart and doesn't really succeed. Also, see the end of the article for a whole new (to me) perspective on Haydn.

[1] There's no reason, of course, the nightclubs shouldn't play more classical music - in fact, I have the perfect piece for any dance floor - the Dies Irae from Karl Jenkin's Requiem. If Dr. Levitin seriously wants more people dancing to Bolero, that's what he should be arguing for.

[2] Fortunately, I think there's little risk of anyone taking Dr. Levitin seriously. Which is the only explanation I can imagine for him writing this in the first place - it's easy to be provocative when you know your views are inconsequential (it's the principle this blog runs on); that, or the man's been OD ing on Schoenberg.


sonia said...

it's easy to be provocative when you know your views are inconsequential


I like it so much, it's going on my facebook quotes:)

equivocal said...

What exactly is your beef with Schoenberg?

Falstaff said...

sonia: You're welcome.

equivocal: No, no, no beef with Schoenberg. Just think prolonged listening exclusively to the man is apt to make you a little unbalanced.

Aishwarya said...

Well. Presumably people who want to participate in Ludacris/U2 concerts could just listen to their stereo systems too - or there could be specialised classical music concerts for audiences who wanted to dance and sing and the like. Actually, I rather like this idea. They wouldn't disturb the regular classical music audiences and they might be quite interesting to attend.
(The only problem would be finding musicians who were willing to play in that sort of atmosphere.)

Revealed said...

The mind boggles. Whatever next.

Crp said...

What I would really like to see is a young violinist sporting a mohawk play his instrument with his teeth and other body parts and finally smash his million-dollar Guarneri on stage after he's done.

This great concept can also be extended to the Indian context. Audiences should be allowed to do the Lungi Dance to Kishori Amonkar. Will sure bring in the millions of Rajini fans to the concert halls.

Crp said...

And yes I agree, OD'ing on Schoenberg, especially his "little" pieces, is a recipe for madness.

Falstaff said...

"The only problem would be finding musicians who were willing to play in that sort of atmosphere"

I think the real question is - why do you need them? If the idea is to dance and hum along you're not really concentrating on the music anyway - why not just play a CD? Which is why playing classical music at a disc makes sense. And what do you know - if nightclubs started playing Ravel I might actually consider going to one (I wouldn't go, of course, but I would deign to consider it).

revealed: Yes, exactly - is nothing sacred anymore?

crp: Am trying to picture Jasraj's reaction to someone doing a lungi dance at one of his concerts. He'd probably be so insulted you'd have to sacrifice like a thousand coconuts at his personal altar to get him to open his mouth again.

equivocal said...

Hey-- had you seen this? Tomas Transtormer with what seems like a poetry version of Tarloff's last anecdote:

Aishwarya said...

...but that's what I meant in my first comment, why do people go to other concerts (of the non classical variety)? Obviously they aren't really listening to the music either, and might as well be at home playing CDs.

Revealed said...

@aishwarya: But in other concerts (as in rock, pop) it's as much about the words and the sentiments about love, life and whatnot that is being given by one party, accepted by the other and so shared communally as it is about the music. In classical concerts, it's not just about random vocabulary-associated gyaan. It's actually about what the music means personally to you and you alone, and to the musician and the musician alone, and to an extent people can share in it but it's very personal, no? And (no offense to non-classical musicians) classical music is a lot about the skill, talent and sheer genius of the musician. Most people go there to appreciate the skill on display, not perform in a tribal round-the-bonfire ritual. Time and place, woman, time and place.

@falstaff: Apologies for usurping your comment space and replying to your commenters. I could not resist.

Tabula Rasa said...

the imposition of silence on the celebration of music is akin to the imposition of latex on the celebration of love.

Crp said...

Also imposition of extraneous noises on the celebration of sound (this is a more restricted class than music) is akin to the imposition of lights, camera crew and audience participation on the celebration of love :)

Crp said...

Of course I am all for spontaneity in both musician and audience -- that's the reason I gravitate towards jazz and Indian classical music -- but the difference here is that the performer anticipates these interludes and generally there is a pause in the music to accomodate audience reaction. In the case of western classical music which does not naturally admit this freedom and is generally performed with minimal or no amplification, extraneous noises can cause one to miss out on the music and can be very annoying.