TAFTO 2011 Contribution: Proper Discord

Wrapping up the 2011 program is a contribution from none other than the nameless and faceless entity that captain’s the culture blog vessel known as Proper Discord. Known for a singular wit and an obsessive compulsion to point out that the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes and in fact, should really get that thing on his back looked at, he delivers a satisfying conclusion to this year’s efforts. ~ Drew McManus

My Best Friend, Plus One.
By: Proper Discord

I’ve taken a lot of friends to the orchestra over the years. I’m lucky enough to work in music, and I get a lot of concert tickets, so if you know me, there’s a good chance you’ve been introduced to an orchestra’s publicist at some point as my best friend, Plus One.

A lot of the time, there’s a work element to attending the concert. I’m supposed to decide if the soloist is somebody my company should work with.

I’ve always found that difficult. By the time I’ve agreed to come out to see them perform, I’ve already read their bio. I know where they’re from, where they studied, who they normally perform with, and what that normally says about an artist. A lifetime spent sorting and selling classical music has filled my head with little prejudices about what is going to be good.

Our ears aren’t impartial observers. We unconsciously filter out stuff we don’t think is important. We hear what we’re listening for. It’s a fantastic feature when I’m trying to understand a conversation in a crowded restaurant, but it’s terrible in a concert: I can’t turn it off.

That, in turn, means that I can’t be sure that I’m hearing what’s going on, not simply what I expected to hear.

Sometimes that’s ok. If you only expect to sell the artist’s work to people who share your preconceptions, you can just go with it. It’s pretty safe to assume those other peoples’ impressions will be distorted in the same direction as yours. If you only wanted to sell music to snobs, you could save yourself the trouble of attending the concert at all, and just let your prejudices make all the decisions.

What about the rest of the public though?

Well. That’s where my friend Plus One comes in.

To begin with, I tried to share my free tickets with people who like classical music. They’d come along, have a jolly nice time, remark that the free seats were much better than the ones they usually pay for, and go home telling me that the Asian pianist was technically impressive but emotionally cold, that the young conductor displayed youthful exuberance but lacked authority, or that nobody would ever sing it like their teacher in college.

These were the ideas they sat down with, and it would take something really extraordinary to change their minds.

After a while, I started to invite people who didn’t know anything about classical music.

I tried a few times to explain what they were going to hear, but it never helped. There’s literally nothing that will wring the fun out of a live performance quite like being told that you’re not going to appreciate it unless you can understand sonata form.

In the end, I decided it would be more fun for me if I just sprung things on my unwitting victims and observed their reactions. Somebody’s first concert was Danielle De Niese singing Handel. Somebody else got MTT recording Mahler 8. Others got Anne-Sophie Mutter playing the Brahms violin sonatas, something frightening by Alban Berg, something electric by Mason Bates and something loud by John Adams. One person’s first concert was Hilary Hahn playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. That was a good one.

If I told them anything at all about the concert, it would be trivia: “this lady plays a violin that cost two million dollars” or “the soloist is on a gluten-free diet” or, once, “this whole orchestra is staying at the Holiday Inn”. I never tell people when to clap*.

With no context at all, my novices could only form their opinion of the performance based on how compelling the show was – the combination of artist, repertoire and venue.

Invariably, the result was pretty clear: they enjoyed the good stuff, and didn’t enjoy the bad stuff.

Why? Because you don’t need an extensive vocabulary of musical terms to feel the benefit of an orchestra that looks sharp and disciplined on stage, plays the loud bits really loud and the quiet bits really quiet, that paces their crescendos so they don’t spoil the surprises, and plays everything really, really in time. These are the results that conductors and players study, rehearse and practice to achieve, and they’re results that everyone can hear.

The real difference, of course, is that I can explain it. Plus One would say “I didn’t really enjoy that piece” and I’d say “Me neither. I think they probably spent most of the rehearsal time working on the concerto instead. It’s obviously not that they can’t play in time, balance and tune chords, match phrasing, follow the conductor or surprise us with a sudden dynamic change. They just didn’t do any of that stuff in this piece. They either didn’t prepare properly or they’re just not that into it.”

My guest would nod with politely feigned interest. When you’re sitting in a restaurant and your food shows up cold, you don’t care why it wasn’t cooked properly. You just wanted it warm.

The thing I’ve learned by taking friends to the orchestra is that you don’t need to know anything about classical music to enjoy the good stuff**, or to be disappointed by the bad***.

When I fell in love with music as a teenager, it began as an emotional response. Only then did I spend years learning about it. Looking back, though, it’s easy to think it was all the leaning that made me love it.

As we study music, we listen to more of it, and we experience more powerful emotional and aesthetic responses. If I hadn’t studied music, I probably wouldn’t have come to love Mahler, because I probably wouldn’t have come to listen to any Mahler.

A lot of the time, though, we rationalise what we like after we’ve decided that we like it. We make purely aesthetic decisions, and then tell ourselves stories to justify them. Sometimes, those stories are about “youthful exuberance” and “authority”, but often they’re about our own education.

College equipped me to tell you a lot about what’s going on in a Mahler symphony, thematically, harmonically and rhythmically. I can write essays on his orchestration. I’ve played his music in front of thousands of people. In truth, though, none of this would help me explain to you why his symphonies are beautiful to me, any more than it prepares me to write one.

If I were to spend the rest of my life hunched over a huge pad of manuscript paper, the closest I’d come to writing a Mahler symphony would be a well-orchestrated tribute to his compositional mannerisms.

This is what Sir Thomas Beecham was getting at when he said, “A musicologist is a man who can read music but cannot hear it.”

Perhaps the painter Georges Braque got a little closer to the point with “There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.”

If we want people to discover the music we’re so passionate about, we’d do well to make sure they have a good time, and worry less about their technical understanding of what’s going on. Otherwise, we could miss the point entirely or, worse still, throw the baby out with the bathwater.

[box type=”note” border=”full”]* I figure that if you don’t want people to applaud, you shouldn’t play something that sounds really nice for fifteen minutes, honk out a really loud V-I cadence and then just stop. It’s kind of asking for it. I was recently at a concert where about half the audience clapped between movements. The person sitting beside me asked “How is it that nobody in this audience has ever been to a concert before?” with some amazement. “I don’t know,” I responded, “But isn’t that good thing?”. Applause between movements might just be the best and simplest way to measure the success of your audience development activities.[/box]

[box type=”note” border=”full”]** Indeed, there’s some reason to believe that trying to tell people about music actually undermines their enjoyment of it. See [ilink url=”http://pom.sagepub.com/content/38/3/285.abstract”]here[/ilink] and [ilink url=”http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture-society/with-music-ignorance-may-be-bliss-11485/”]here.[/ilink] [/box]

[box type=”note” border=”full”]*** Lying to people about the bad stuff is a really easy way to alienate them. If they didn’t like it, it was bad to them. The response “you just don’t appreciate it” is the very worst thing we can possibly say. They didn’t like it. They’re not confused about that. Concerts aren’t like art galleries. Everybody experiences the art on the same timescale. You can’t walk past the stuff you don’t like, and the only way to make that bearable is to encourage discourse about it. Our whole world gets suddenly very boring indeed when received opinion is the only kind that’s considered valid, and yet it happens all the time.[/box]