TAFTO 2006 Contribution: Alex Shapiro

Are you ready for this? Nothing is off limits when it comes to composer and blogger Alex Shapiro when she engages the topic of the classical music concert experience. Alex goes so far as to challenge the notion that there are any notions at all and the result is a thoroughly entertaining TAFTO contribution. Love it or hate it, you’re assured to come away from the piece thinking about classical music from a different perspective than you did beforehand… ~ Drew McManus

Those of us constantly drenched in the wonders of Really Big Sound From A Large Group Of Humans are so used to this great spectacle that we rarely consider what it must be like for the ears of those new to such drama. But sometimes we go too far in the other direction, and are guilty of thinking that this experience is something for which a person must be dutifully prepared.

If this orchestral thing is so enjoyable, why the heck do we need to fortify, inform, pre-warn, pre-inform and generally pre-experience it for someone? Is it actually that scary? That risky? Will body armor be necessary? Are we supposed to treat a new listener like a piece of food and soak her in a rich marinade of background information in order to ready her for the searing flame of the auditorium seats? Ouch!

As with all live concerts in any genre- chamber, jazz, rock, reggae- symphonic music washes over us as a sensual experience. If we insist on viewing it as difficult and challenging (perhaps because that automatically makes those of us who like it look awfully darn smart), we’re missing the point. And equally sadly, we’re sending a message that it’s an awful lot of work to listen to music. With an implication like that, people just might stay home, or opt to do something with their money that they perceive as a more obviously enjoyable experience. Hmmm. Sound familiar?

Drew McManus cares a lot about this topic, and has been kind enough to offer several of us the blog-floor to share our views. So, I’m including each of Drew’s suggested essay questions herewith as the jumping-off point for my thoughts on this subject. Or, as the jumping-off point for ending my budding career as an essayist, depending. Here goes.

What could you do you to make [experiencing a live concert] special?

Party hats. Really. I mean it.

How could a regular patron initiate the idea [of attending a concert] with someone who isn’t familiar with classical music?

They could try an opening line like “what’s your sign.” No, wait, too trite; it never worked on me. Ok, how about something utterly unique, like, “wanna join me at a concert sometime?”

If that still doesn’t do the trick, pair the offer with an invitation to dinner afterward, perhaps followed by a visit to your local rock club’s mosh pit for a little contrast. The perfect evening.

What can the newbies expect to experience?

If those of us in the music-making business are doing our job right, I would imagine that any newbie, no matter how new, can expect to experience…. music. That’s not unreasonable to ask, and given the ticket price, more than fair in exchange.

Beyond some sound flying around the air, there shouldn’t be anything that a newbie should expect. Frankly, it’s all this “expectation” that’s gotten us into a pickle to begin with, because unfortunately too many of those expectations are negative ones. Newbies sometimes fear that going to the symphony won’t be fun, the way going to a club usually is. Which is often why newbies haven’t been to the symphony in the first place. If that’s what you anticipated, would you? Of course not. So anything we can do to change that old impression is a good thing. Short of calling it the sym-fun-ny.

How can a regular patron help newbies interpret the music and/or think critically?

A glass of wine, preferably two, prior to the downbeat. Ok, make that a nice single malt. The concessions at the venues these days often have full bars. What? Your guest doesn’t drink like all those rascally musicians they hear about? Well then, ok, light up a joint before heading out for the evening.

Oh, all right, all right. Here’s my final answer, speaking as a [momentarily sober] composer: the LAST thing a listener should do is to either believe that they need to “interpret” or “understand” the music, or have to “think critically” about it! THIS attitude is exactly the elitism and academic snobbery that has served to intimidate so many music lovers away from concert halls over time.

All a listener needs to do is FEEL. That’s actually the very same reason people like to go to movies, and pointing out the similarity might be a good tactic for lowering any racing pulses due to the anxiety of not knowing when to unwrap that little sucking candy.

How could someone help to guide them through their first orchestra experience?

Aha! Here’s the Big Question. Or, as I prefer, the Big Secret! And I’m going to tell you all the truth now….


…. are you sitting down?

Ok. Here it is: No guidance is necessary. Ahhhh. Exhale.

The only thing necessary is at least one functional ear; preferably two for that nifty stereo effect.

And this is where we get to the crux of my little essay: too many people in the concert music business have effectively stifled the interest of mere civilians (aka, non-musicians) by perpetuating all the silly 19th century constructs which bolster the stultifying formality of Going to the Symphony. No coughing. No talking. No clapping at the wrong times. No flip-flops and beach shorts. No party hats. No, no, no. Like dear Drew’s very well intended questions, people assume that there’s a set of rules and preparations necessary before being able to enjoy this wonderful, sensual pleasure. But take heart: many of us are finally decrying, enough already!

Music should be nothing but one big, thrilling YES!! How in the world did something as yes-filled as the marvel of orchestral music become so mired down in something as negative as all these classist, snooty, anti-proletariat rules? Since when does music have rules once it’s out in the air? Sure, there are plenty of rules a composer and performer learn and adhere to in order to create those powerful sounds. But once those sounds are released, they are set free and can be heard without any need for all the inoculations, passports, visas and heavy baggage that many non-concert-goers associate with…. going to a concert.

The most important belief I have about music- orchestral or otherwise- is that if it’s any good, the least significant organ it should affect is the brain. Wonderful music directly reaches the heart, the body, and the spirit. Interpretations from your talented cerebral cortex are meaningless without your emotions to guide them.

I happen to think an alluring way to get people to want to join us at concerts is to talk about music in the same glowing way we talk about love, sensuality and sex. There is no greater live onslaught of beautiful waveforms vibrating one’s skeleton than that found at a symphony concert. This is uniquely human, and something to be celebrated, never feared. Well, almost never. There are some great stories out there…

So, if you’ve read this far, by now some of you are nodding your heads in approval. And others are shocked, appalled and generally, oh, disgusted that I would deign to take something as revered as Orchestral Music and cut it to the quick with bold references that include rock music, booze, drugs, sex and… fun. Oh, and don’t forget the party hats. There are those who want to protect the formality and reverence of the art form and take enormous offense to anyone who might wish to, in their view, degrade it with exposure to the light of today’s social freedoms. My observation is that those who treat something as egalitarian as music in that way, are fighting their own internal cultural wars. They are not protecting a tradition; they are protecting themselves from a fear of the less familiar.

If the tradition is worth something to people, it will continue on its own merit. Music is made up of lots of notes strung together, and not one of them has an agenda attached to it alongside all those phrasing and dynamic markings. In most cases, social context is ascribed to things after the fact; no composer today sits down to write a symphony thinking, “Aha! Now I will finally be able to exclude all but the most brilliant listener from enjoying my masterful piece!” A composer writes to communicate to fellow humans.

The art form of the symphony lives within us, not on the outside. We may choose to interpret as we wish. Some people will wear jeans and others will don dinner jackets. Some will sit perfectly still in those cramped seats and others will fidget. The music doesn’t care. It washes over us all equally.

I think I may be the sole composer contributor in this year’s Adaptistration TAFTO round (my apologies if I’ve overlooked a colleague). As such, these direct comments are the result of my daily work, in which I focus on music’s ability to reach many kinds of people emotionally and authentically. I live in the Los Angeles area, a wonderfully diverse city that’s home to one of the world’s greatest orchestras. And as you probably know, also home to an astonishingly hip new hall, a terrific contemporary composer/conductor, and an increasingly forward-thinking programming schedule.

One day last year as I was driving, a radio ad for the L.A. Phil came on. A haughty-sounding middle-aged white woman was cooing an oily, British-inflected voiceover into a high-end microphone, telling listeners just how marvelous the upcoming season was and that we won’t want to miss the “divine splendor and magnificence” (or some such combo of adjectives) of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

I was livid. This was “my” wonderful orchestra that was trying to get backsides into the seats, but this truly obnoxious ad “reached out” to only a very small and specialized segment of our population. How was this elitist presentation supposed to build audiences for the future? I love hearing the Phil at Disney Hall, but that radio spot even made me want to stay away, thinking, “gee, I guess this isn’t for regular folks.” These are the kinds of approaches that must be reconsidered, if the great tradition of the symphony orchestra is to continue. It has to do with the attitude we wear- not the clothes.

Talking openly about this shift in attitude with pals we’d like to expose to the fabulous orchestral experience will do two things: it will encourage our friends to join us at the symphony because they might finally believe that it could really be enjoyable, and it will begin to perpetuate a new culture of happy concert attendees who can spread the gospel that the Cold War of stymieing symphonic stiffness has ceased. Say that five times fast!

What tips would you offer on what to do if you get bored or how to handle a situation if the program and/or musicians are “less than what you expected”?

The way I’ve handled the situation in the past is to bring a coupla guyz from Jersey backstage and threatened to have a few kneecaps broken if a poor performance like that ever happens again. Hmm, could be why I don’t get those big orchestra commissions. So nowadays, I just remind any momentarily intolerant companions that hey, this is art and it’s nothing but variables, which is what makes it art and not mathematics. Would they prefer to attend a lecture on algebra?

Music is the real deal, as human as it gets. Being in a hall with 90 people flailing away on their instruments and one person doing something weird with a stick is a sight and sound like no other. Don’t miss out, because even when it’s not perfect, it’s still a helluva lot better than 93 percent of the other things you could be doing.

How would you go about selecting an ideal program for a newbie?

I usually grab the remote control and flip around until there’s something cool on PBS or the cooking channel. Oh, you mean an orchestral program? There is no ideal program, because every listener is different. Too many people think that someone’s first visit to a symphonic concert has to include hallowed standards from Beethoven, Mozart or Brahms. Not necessarily! Don’t underestimate a newbie’s tastes. A friend might be far more likely to be turned on by something contemporary, composed by a living, breathing person who shops at the same supermarket and listens to (and is possibly influenced by) the same rock and jazz as they do.

Anything else you think would be helpful.

World peace. But that’s another essay, for “Take a Friend to Voting Booth” month! Meanwhile, we should all spread peace by spreading beauty, and orchestras around the world help enormously with that important joy.

And a nice single malt doesn’t hurt, either.