Words that kill the magic

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Haydnseek
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Words that kill the magic

Post by Haydnseek » Sat Apr 15, 2006 10:42 am

...was the title of this article in the print edition of the Financial Times.

Music and silence

By Andrew Clark

April 14 2006 16:20

At an orchestral concert in London a few weeks ago the conductor gave a little speech about each piece of music before it was performed. No advance notice had been given of this “educational” element, but it was well handled and everyone listened appreciatively.

A few days later I heard a composer prefacing a performance of his music with explanatory remarks from the platform. He spoke not about the music itself, but about the effects of sea and sky that had inspired him, thereby implanting a kind of pictorial narrative in the audience’s mind.

On another recent occasion the conductor arrived on stage to the customary applause, but instead of turning to the orchestra he faced the audience, adjusted a microphone and gave a jokey introduction to the programme. His remarks were scarcely relevant to the music, but the audience was amused.

These incidents are typical of a trend in classical music. Speaking to the audience is on the increase, especially in the UK and US. Concert-goers love it because it breaks the “glass wall” between stage and audience. It makes them feel part of the performance process; concerts are less stuffy. And when a composer is there to talk about his or her music in person, audiences are relieved to discover that these creative types do not wear horns or live in ivory towers, but are actually quite normal and sometimes vulnerable. Hearing them talk, we get a sense of their personality. It helps us understand where their music is coming from. If the music then turns out to be frightful, at least we tolerate it better.

It’s not just audiences who enjoy the speaking element. Concert promoters and orchestra managers are falling over themselves to encourage it. They advance the careers of conductors they think are good at it - despite the fact that the best platform-speakers are rarely the best interpreters of the music. The idea is that if the concert experience is more user-friendly, attendances will rise. Managements can then tick the boxes marked “education” and “access” - buzz-words in today’s consumer-led cultural landscape - and win brownie points from the politicians and funders who ultimately determine their survival.

This sort of thinking is insidious. It signifies a fear that classical music may not be sufficiently communicative or “entertaining”. No one will admit to this fear. You don’t have to explain jazz to anybody, but the implication is that you do with classical music - for reasons that are phoney. It’s not because the music is too complicated and needs elucidating. When I first attended a piano recital in my late teens, I didn’t need an explanation to be enraptured by Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin - any more than people did when it was first performed nearly 100 years ago.

The problem for classical music in the 21st century is that it is competing with the high decibel count, the simplistic beat and the narcotic effect of rock and pop, beside which it seems “boring”. No wonder it is considered a minority interest. Demystifying the concert experience is part of a desperate attempt to give it more street-cred and develop enough support to sustain it.

The trouble with speaking to the audience is that it limits the imaginative scope of the music. Listening to someone discussing a piece of music before you have a chance to hear it pre-programmes your responses. The music has no chance to communicate freely. You are left with a number of objective ideas about what to think and feel, circumscribing the subjective impressions that music seeks to create in the listener through the medium of sound.

Music begins where words end: the whole purpose is to express things that are not possible in words. The traditional concert format - uniform dress, subdued lighting, no speaking - evolved with this in mind: it’s not some silly old-fashioned ritual. It was designed to throw a cloak of impersonality over the concert process, to create a directness of communication between music and listener, to detach you from everyday discourse. That has always been part of the sanctity of a classical concert. When performers start speaking they break the spell; they member the illusion of a transcendent force. The only exceptions are when a soloist announces an encore or - as Oliver Knussen sometimes does - the conductor decides to give an immediate repeat performance of a new piece.

But most promoters today would be embarrassed by talk of “sanctity”. The whole drift of cultural provision is away from the idea of a pure aesthetic experience. The consumer is king: heaven forbid that anyone should be required to make an effort. That explains the drive to make concerts more informal, to persuade the audience it’s all jolly.

On the rare occasions when mainstream promoters put money into new music, they like to be able to guarantee the return by converting it into an educational project, rather than risk backing an artist on his or her own terms. Most composers go along with this: it’s the only way to get paid. If you don’t conform you’re “difficult” - as Jonathan Lloyd demonstrated when he was interviewed on stage before a recent Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra performance of his Fourth Symphony. Using elliptical one-word answers he made himself absolutely clear: everything he wanted to say was in the music.

I’ve heard few concert-hall talks that made the music more meaningful. They may have made the concert experience more “fun”, in the way that Leonard Bernstein did at his young people’s events, but the idea that they deepen our understanding of the music is an illusion. You have to have a very good ear and an even better memory to be able to relate what was said beforehand to the myriad motifs, harmonies, rhythms and tunes you hear in performance. If you really want to learn more about the music, you are better off studying the programme notes before the start - or perhaps listening to a CD of the music at home.

I am not opposed to talking about music - as a music critic I use words every day to describe the musical experience - but there is a time and place for it, and this excludes the concert itself. Pre-concert talks, of the kind given by the conductor and educator Benjamin Zander, using musical examples on the piano, can enrich the concert-hall experience. Post-concert exchanges between conductor and audience, as recently espoused by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, can be gratifying - if only as a way of coming to terms with our reactions to the music and the way it was played.

The only other instance where talking has a legitimate role is when an event advertises itself as a lecture-demonstration, of the type championed by Roger Norrington: the auditorium becomes a laboratory in which the music is deconstructed, examined from various angles and put together again.

Of course, it doesn’t do to be too purist. I recall several occasions at the Cheltenham festival in the past 10 years when festival director Michael Berkeley introduced a concert from the podium. He happens to be a composer but, unlike most composers, he is also a relaxed public speaker. He thinks as a composer does, but knows what information will be most relevant in advance. Exceptionally the formula worked. But please note - it was the exception.


Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic.

Find this article at:
http://news.ft.com/cms/s/ca95a2be-cab5- ... s01=1.html
"The law isn't justice. It's a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be." - Raymond Chandler

Reed
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Post by Reed » Sat Apr 15, 2006 3:18 pm

The way the Boston Symphony does it works for me. The lectures began a little over an hour before the performance, and one can attend them or not.

My wife and I choose to attend them, even if we're familiar with the pieces to be performed. We always learn something. Lecturers have included Hugh MacDonald and Michael Steinberg, as well as locals from the BSO staff and the area conservatories. In fact, we're shortly off to hear the lecture and see the performance of the Berlioz Requiem conducted by Raphael Frubeck de Burgos. (Don't know who's doing the lecture tonight, though.)

Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic do something similar. However, his Thursday concerts integrate the lectures into the programs. For example, the lecture about the first piece, then the performance immediately following. Intermission, then the lecture about the second half, then the performance, unless of course it's one long piece, like a Mahler symphony, and then we get a longer lecture, intermission, then the performance. But again, if one doesn't like this approach, one can choose to go to his Friday or Sunday performances, where the lecture appears an hour or more before the performance and can be skipped if one wishes.

taisiawshan
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Post by taisiawshan » Sat Apr 15, 2006 10:40 pm

I was once a Chinese teacher.

You can say that Chinese is a language, and language is a tool. Some think that to teach Chinese means to teach the usage of the Chinese Language.
In Malaysia, to teach Chinese also means that to teach the moral virtues of the Ancient Chinese Civilization.

For me, I emphasis more on Chinese Literature.
It's not that I disagree with the language teaching or moral teaching, I feel that there's a lack of art teaching. And personally, I enjoy art teaching more than the other two.

One of the methods I teach is to share my personal experience. This attracts the students very much. I get very happy because they are responding.

However, after I stopped teaching, I realise that I'm wrong.
It's true that the personal experiences are very attractive to them, and this maybe might lead them to art.
Yet, to analyse further, the personal experieces is like "gossip" to them.
They are not interested because they think the experiences of art I said was interesting. They are just interested in thier teacher's ( that's me)
personal life.

Another thing, my personal experiences is limited.
It's true that it'll limited their imagination if they listen to me too much.
For youngster like them, they don't have enough experience & knowlege to just take mine as reference.

As for classical performance, I think it's the same.
It depends on the speaker & the audience.
Both should know that too much is no good, but a bit can help.

srappoport
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Post by srappoport » Mon Apr 24, 2006 1:00 pm

A part of me strongly agrees that when you go to a concert, you are there for the music and that the program notes, if any good, will point out features that you might like to know.

But sometimes we need help. The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society has pre-concert lectures to about 12=15 concerts a year. A few of them have been bad, some have been merely good, and a surprisingly large number have been stunning. I recently heard Wayne Connor, before a recital by Monica Groop, give us the "skinny" on Schubert, Grieg, and Ravel as I have never heard before.

The PCMS also uses composers and professors to illuminate what will be in the evening's performance. Sometimes they play recordings. Then, we recently got to hear the song "Death and the Maiden" (sung by Fischer-Diskau) before we heard the quartet of that name.

The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia has the conductor (Ignat Solzhenitsyn) and the soloist, if any, speak to the audience AFTER the performance at its Sunday afternoon concerts. I have yet to attend Sunday performances, having gone only on Monday evenings. But I am going to find out on this coming Sunday what the experience is like.

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Re: Words that kill the magic

Post by Corlyss_D » Mon Apr 24, 2006 1:10 pm

Andrew Clark wrote:This sort of thinking is insidious. It signifies a fear that classical music may not be sufficiently communicative or “entertaining”.
Where's he been for the last 50 years? This has been a "trend" since Lenny's Young Peoples' Concerts on TV were so successful. It fills a very necessary gap, the same one that programme notes fill. Clark may think it an ugly fact, but people appreciate the music more when they know something about it. That's especially true if the composer is unfortunately still alive (because that means it's most likely some modernist crap that won't succeed even minimally without large dollops of explanation). He can call it "insidious" if he must, but it's here to stay because it makes the listening experience more enjoyable and, more importantly, more meaningful to the listener.
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srappoport
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Re: Words that kill the magic

Post by srappoport » Mon Apr 24, 2006 1:30 pm

Corlyss_D wrote:
Andrew Clark wrote:This sort of thinking is insidious. It signifies a fear that classical music may not be sufficiently communicative or “entertaining”.
Where's he been for the last 50 years? This has been a "trend" since Lenny's Young Peoples' Concerts on TV were so successful. It fills a very necessary gap, the same one that programme notes fill. Clark may think it an ugly fact, but people appreciate the music more when they know something about it. That's especially true if the composer is unfortunately still alive (because that means it's most likely some modernist crap that won't succeed even minimally without large dollops of explanation). He can call it "insidious" if he must, but it's here to stay because it makes the listening experience more enjoyable and, more importantly, more meaningful to the listener.
Have you noticed that virtually all just-written music now requires the composer to provide a writen or oral explanation? Can you imagine Beethoven (if he had not gone deaf) addressing the audience to "explain" one of his symphonies or quartets?

Schumann once wrote (as I recall): "The best discourse upon music is silence." There is a lot of truth there.

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Re: Words that kill the magic

Post by Corlyss_D » Mon Apr 24, 2006 1:35 pm

srappoport wrote:Have you noticed that virtually all just-written music now requires the composer to provide a writen or oral explanation? Can you imagine Beethoven (if he had not gone deaf) addressing the audience to "explain" one of his symphonies or quartets?
No, I can't. But then the audience he was writing for was not ignorant of the musical scene. It's more difficult to explain the trend for people who grew up with classical music than it is for people just becoming acquainted with classical music. I'd be more torqued off at someone wasting my time explaining Mozart's 39th than I would be at someone explaining anything by John Adams or Philip Glass, assuming I would be caught dead at a concert of either of these latter gentlemen. It's a marketing device, and if it makes classical music more important to the stock broker or the legislative staffer inclined to read programme notes by the footlights during the performance, then I'm all for it.
Corlyss
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karlhenning
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Post by karlhenning » Mon Apr 24, 2006 1:41 pm

Reed wrote:The way the Boston Symphony does it works for me. The lectures began a little over an hour before the performance, and one can attend them or not.

My wife and I choose to attend them, even if we're familiar with the pieces to be performed. We always learn something.
Yes, I think this is a good system. I am sure the lectures are always illuminating; we seldom attend them, simply because we don't usually want the evening lengthened thus.

But you know, if I didn't have to work Monday through Sunday :-)
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
http://members.tripod.com/~Karl_P_Henning/
http://henningmusick.blogspot.com/
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Re: Words that kill the magic

Post by karlhenning » Mon Apr 24, 2006 1:45 pm

srappoport wrote:Have you noticed that virtually all just-written music now requires the composer to provide a writen or oral explanation? Can you imagine Beethoven (if he had not gone deaf) addressing the audience to "explain" one of his symphonies or quartets?
The late quartets? Yes, I can imagine this easily.

Certainly, a lot of Viennese music lovers in 1783 needed the 'Haydn' Quartets explained to them.
Karl Henning, PhD
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston, Massachusetts
http://members.tripod.com/~Karl_P_Henning/
http://henningmusick.blogspot.com/
Published by Lux Nova Press
http://www.luxnova.com/

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