Music and ceell phones

The inveterate quizzers among you will know that the famous Nokia ringtone is a snippet from bars 13-16 of Gran Vals, a composition for solo guitar by Spanish composer Francisco Tárrega. And there are so many other ringtones that are snatches of other classical music tunes (The ‘Lone Ranger’ excerpt from Rossini’s William Tell overture, Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to name just some of them). Music to your ears? Well, it depends.

The ubiquitous mobile phone has been receiving a large dose of attention on music websites, forums and in the news in general. This compact little device is rightly or wrongly being regarded as an indispensible appendage to people in all walks of life, regardless of age or income.

There are several functions on the mobile phone that bring them into conflict and controversy in the concert hall.

First of all, its very intrinsic function as a phone. It is routine at concert venues around the world for announcements to be made advising patrons to take a moment to switch off their phones. I learnt to my chagrin (thankfully not at a concert!) that merely switching one’s phone into silent or even flight mode does not ensure its silence. If an alarm has been pre-set for a certain time, it will go off regardless. So the only fool-proof option is to switch if off.

However, I am sure that many of you will have been at a concert (or in the cinema or in church) where a phone did go off. In fact, many of us have gotten so inured to such an occurrence that it even somehow seems ‘normal.’ What’s the big deal, one might ask?

Plenty, in fact. Here’s what German pianist-conductor Christian Zacharias had to say after he stopped playing a Haydn piano concerto in mid-performance after a phone rang (twice!) in Gothenburg concert hall, Sweden: “Sometimes it is just too much! …Especially when you get to this moment where the music gets more and more silent and more magical, then I say No. People should realise the music lives on something completely different…The general attitude is sometimes just awful. Music provides a rare moment when our mind can go and focus on one thing. We have prepared this (the music), and this is the least you can do to honour it, in listening, and being there in silence.”

Joyce diDonato defused a similar situation at Teatro La Scala Milan when playing Desdemona in Rossini’s Otello by turning to the audience to ask if it was Rossini calling to comment on her performance of his aria.

One quick-thinking concert violist Lukáš Kmiť incorporated the Nokia ringtone into his performance when a phone rang (thankfully at the end of a movement but ruining the moment nevertheless) while he was playing a Bach suite at the Orthodox Jewish Synagogue in Presov Slovakia. He played a little set of variations on the Nokia tune to much amused applause before resuming his recital.

A phone went off during the closing pages of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony as Alan Gilbert conducted the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in 2012. The malefactor was found to be a rather shamefaced elderly subscriber who had recently purchased an iPhone and obviously hadn’t figured out how to shut it up. Apparently he has still not lived it down.

The other function any self-respecting smartphone today has is the camera and video option. These also come with their own catalogue of issues.

Last year, Krystian Zimmermann, one of the world’s leading pianists stormed off the stage at a concert at the Ruhr Piano Festival, Essen Germany. The reason? A concertgoer was filming as he played. He requested the person to stop but he didn’t, upon which Zimmermann interrupted the recital and walked off.

Zimmermann returned a few moments later and said “The destruction of music because of YouTube is enormous.” He explained that he had lost recording assignments because the recording companies pointed out to him that those works were already in the public domain through YouTube. I have had visiting performers to Goa tell a similar story. The director of the festival at which Zimmermann played went to the extent of labelling illicit recordings of live concerts as “theft, pure and simple.”

Another issue is that the often appalling quality (visual, audio or both) of the recording can further jeopardise the prospects of a musician, especially one starting their career. A performer having an unusually bad night can have it return to haunt him/her through a recording in the public domain for a long time to come.

Concert violinist James Ehnes has written an insightful article titled “Smartphones in the Concert Hall” for the Huffington Post. He describes an episode where an audience member filmed his performance, and Ehnes’ reaction swayed from “surprise and mild annoyance” to even feeling a little flattered for a moment. He contemplates that a YouTube recording could even widen his reach, getting to nooks and crannies where a live performance never could. But then he makes a compelling argument: “This is how I make my living, and recording a performance changes the economics. When someone buys a ticket to a performance, they are paying to hear that performance once. One could say that it’s a rental, not a purchase. And they are paying for themselves to hear it, not for their friends, families or internet followers. There are those who might accuse me of being miserly, feeling that it is my duty and privilege to share the art of music, but consider the parallel: if I pay someone to mow my lawn, that doesn’t mean that at the push of a button they should mow my lawn again for free, or mow the lawns of my neighbours and friends. A job is a job, and bills are bills. A one-time mow doesn’t cost the same as a weekly lawn service.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)