Friday Links: Let the Conductors Do the Talking

In the links below, two conductors, David Robertson, offer their thoughts on music and audiences.

David Robertson on Live Performance

David Robertson talks about some interesting, unintended consequences of recording technology: a mental shut-off valve. For all but the last several decades, music only existed in the moment unless you had the skill to “hear it in your head.” Having the stimulus of music around us constantly, when we don’t want it, has dulled people to the magic of what music can be:

When radio came in, someone said to Arnold Schoenberg, “This is wonderful, people can listen to music any time they want to.” Schoenberg said: “I’m not so sure it’s a good thing. They can also listen to music any time they don’t want to.”

This exchange gets to the heart of why the concert experience is so important.

Something happens in the concert hall that doesn’t happen anywhere else. You are let off the leash in a neutral, unscripted environment. That’s essential for the health of the human spirit. You can choose to listen and become absorbed in that communication of meaning through sound in any way you like. You can even choose to not pay attention.

The things that you can get from that experience cannot be obtained in any other manner and that, in the end, is the final response to whether a classical music concert is relevant to us. (Robertson)

Robertson veers close to the issues of classical music accessibility and the alleged elitism in the classical market — but the aspect of popular music he highlights as a deal-breaker for membership “western classical tradition” is that more and more of it is being produced in such a way that it cannot be experienced as a live performance by human beings. He notes that, of course, much “popular” music meets the standard and may be assimilated into the tradition. And I might add that the reverse is obviously true: there is certainly music accepted as “serious art music” (especially on the academic front) that isn’t compatible with concert performance. This would include any exclusively electronic/digital music, of course — not to mention acoustic (but unperformable) music along the lines of Nancarrow’s player piano explorations. These are taken very seriously but are virtually unknown outside or hard-core or academic circles.

Benjamin Zander on Imagination and Possibility

Next, the TED website recently uploaded a 20-minute video of a speech by Benjamin Zander, a conductor who is well-known in business circles as a motivational speaker.

This excerpt from “Classical Music with Shining Eyes” is about becoming an inspiration in your own life. The title refers to Zander’s definition of success: not money, etc. but how many eyes you see shining around you. (As a conductor, Zander notes, if his musicians’ eyes aren’t shining, he’s not getting it done.)

One nice tidbit is when Zander walks around, drooping and downcast, in imitation of the classical music pessimists who whine that only 3% of the public actually likes classical music. With an attitude like that, you’re certain to aim no higher than bringing that number up to 4%.  Then, with considerably more spring in his step, he changes his tune to imagine what you could do if you believed that “almost everyone loves classical music, they just don’t realize it yet!”

David Robertson puts the idea a different way:

People are good at being able to hear very complex things when they are given a little bit of direction. It’s like getting a guide to an archeological site: that little bit of extra information helps your critical faculties become awakened to new things. The job of presenting any type of art — in my case, concert music — is about understanding the responsibility of the presenter; that is, to open pathways to greater appreciation and enjoyment.