How should we Listen

An article I was reading recently mentioned in passing, by way of illustrating quite another point, the change in the way audiences listened to music over time.

It argued that up until the eighteenth century, concerts “functioned as a pleasant soundtrack for aristocratic soirees”, and at concert halls and opera houses and the ballet, “the nobility would canoodle in their boxes, only half paying attention to the performers.”

This changed with the Industrial Revolution and “a rising capitalist class”: a shift occurred from entertainment to education. Audiences now sat still and silently concentrated on nothing but the music, stifling sneezes and coughs and any extraneous noises lest it break anyone’s concentration. The Germans of the time even invented a word ‘Sitzfleisch’ (‘sitting flesh’) “to describe the muscle control required for sitting absolutely still during a concert performance.”

It brought into focus something that’s been on my mind for a long time, and that I’ve been meaning to write about: how should we, collectively as an audience, here, and today listen to a concert? By this, I refer to a western classical music concert.

One hears two extremes if one speaks to a cross-section of people. On the one hand, I have been reminded of precisely this evolution of music performance and listening, and a fervent argument is made for going back to the ‘anything goes’ attitude that seems to have prevailed centuries ago, as some sort of historical validation. Going back to an imagined past seems to be trendy on so many levels in India, and it is true here too. Why not let people just be themselves, and abandon the whole stuffed-shirt image that classical music has undoubtedly acquired? Notch up a victory for freedom of expression!

The other extreme is the ‘Sitzfleisch’ brigade to the power of infinity. Sit perfectly still and become part of the furniture. And not just that; the cardinal sin of clapping between movements (sections) of a piece of music is to be countered by rounding upon the unfortunate blunderer with a Medusa glare that will petrify him/her for eternity.

The Naxos Record label specialising in classical music has an Education section on its website, with advice on how to enjoy a live concert, and has a whole section on ‘Coping with Snobs.’

And what does it say about them? It starts by saying that “snobs are everywhere, in every field”, but that “classical music snobs can be some of the snobbiest snobs of all. They assert their superiority by showing off their knowledge and declaiming opinions. Often their snobbery masquerades as helpfulness, but snobs have a way of making ignorance appear to be shameful.”

Which brings us back to the original question: how do we listen to a classical concert today? I think the answer comes down to sheer common sense. We would do well to comport ourselves in a way that 1. allows us to be at as attentive and concentrated as we can; and 2. is not distracting to those around us. Everything else follows from these two fundamental principles.

We derive the maximum benefit and enjoyment (yes, entertainment, even) and education from a good concert performance if we give it all our attention. True, some music was written for entertainment; divertimenti, serenades, cassations are good examples. But even here, attentive listening will reap further rewards.

The operative words for us are attention and concentration. In a world of texts, tweets, and emoticons, attention spans have shrunk considerably. All too often, our phones themselves are the biggest culprits, distracting us and those around us.

Attention spans have even affected concert programming. If one looks at concert programme lengths from even about a century ago, three hours or longer were not unusual. Today a concert exceeding 90 minutes might seem interminable. There are other considerations that affect concert lengths today, like factoring in commuting time for audiences after the concert. Without becoming a Sitzfleisch advocate, it is to our advantage to make the most of the hour or so of an average concert by savouring the moment. This involves, apart from sitting attentively, either switching off or silencing our devices so they neither distract us nor others around us. Rustling plastic bags or other items are a no-no too. This is not being fussy, but acknowledging the fact that in classical music especially, the notes and the music need the contrast of the quiet and the silences to be at their most eloquent. Composers like John Cage might well celebrate and bring ambient noise to centre-stage in some compositions, but for the vast majority of music, the silence is quite necessary. To quote Debussy, “music is the silence between the notes.” Mozart had made the same point even earlier.

What if we get bored in places during a concert? It happens. It helps to focus also on the visual element of a live concert. It could be the intensity of emotion on the faces of the musicians as they play or sing, or the way a theme, motif or melody is passed from one instrument or section of instrument to another. Or it could be the cues and baton technique of the conductor.

Cameras and camera-phones to record concerts have become a modern bane. Not only does one lose the live moment, but it distracts others, often including the performers themselves. SLR cameras, video-cameras, and several phones make clicking, whirring and beeping noises, further adding to the distraction. Add to that the flash element, and it becomes an audio-visual invasive intrusion. Furthermore, the recorded material is almost invariably terribly unfaithful to what your ears would hear and eyes would see in real-time. And lastly, it raises huge copyright infringement issues and many performers get terribly upset by this, and if they remember in advance, often explicitly forbid this.

At Child’s Play concerts featuring our children (our monsoon and Christmas concerts), we do try to avoid this, barring a videographer/photographer sometimes, and as unobtrusively as possible, to get archival footage necessary for our website, social media, and publicity purposes.

As for the clapping-between-movements police: many musicians do not really mind that much; I know quite a few who feel reassured that the feedback means the audience is being appreciative (and awake?). There are other musicians who do mind, and they often make it known in advance of the performance. Having a concert programme can help an audience ‘track’ the progress of the concert, and such concerts often find their applauses at the ‘right’ moments. Programme notes, or even better, a brief introduction by the musicians themselves, explaining the background to the work, and what to listen for, can immeasurably heighten the engagement and enjoyment of a concert.

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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