Wednesday 17 March 2010

Silent listening

This morning I read an article by classical music critic and historian Alex Ross* that got me thinking about my re-visit this weekend to Janet Cardiff's The Forty-Part Motet at City Gallery Wellington.

In the piece, Ross tracks the history of audience interaction/shows of appreciation at classical music performances. In the 18th century shouting your admiration whenever seemed appropriate was quite okay - today, clap at the wrong time and you're likely to get ssssh'd. Ross writes:

Perhaps it is unnatural to expect utter stillness in a public space. We may be imposing habits of home listening on the concert hall. Seated before our stereos, we've grown accustomed to brief bands of silence between movements. This may explain why resistance to the Rule subsided rather quickly. Increasingly, individuals gathered in one place to have solitary, inward experiences. Where listeners were once swept away by music, they now spoke of music sweeping over them, like an impressive weather system over which they had little control.

During the applause debates of the 1920s, the pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch said, "It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets." There ought to be more give-and-take between performers and audience, he is saying. Passivity is too easily mistaken for boredom. Performers, for their part, overdo the detachment. American orchestral musicians appear to have taken classes in how to show no emotion whatsoever – with the occasional exception of a slight smirk during the composer's bow or a flicker of a smile during the soloist's encore. Music is an art of mind and body; dance rhythms animate many classics of the repertory. But in modern classical music, the body seems repressed.

To recap Cardiff's work for a moment. 40 speakers are strung in a rough circle around the perimeter of the gallery space, broken into small groups. The speakers, supported by black stands, are roughly at head-height. The audience stands, mostly, within the circle, in which there are placed two benches.

From each speaker issues the voice of an individual Salisbury Cathedral Choir chorister. Cardiff recorded the choir performing Thomas Tallis's 1573 composition Spem in alium, pinning a microphone to each singer's front.

As you stand within the circle you first hear the speakers warming up and chuntering amongst themselves. Then the singing starts, and as different parts of the choir sing (the piece is written for eight groups of five voices) the sounds wash over you, advancing and receding depending on where you stand. It is beautiful, and moving. People stay in the room for longer than normal. People start crying.

When I'm in The Forty-Part Motet, my attention tends to be focused less on my own reaction to the music than covertly studying what the other people in the space are doing. The Forty-Part Motet is a strange half-way point between attending a public live performance and listening to a recording privately.

On the one hand, you can do things you normally wouldn't do at a live performance - like stand with your ear right up against the 'mouth' of a performer, shift around the space to track the music, walk in and out halfway through, or listen to the same thing over and over. The conventions of passive listening are broken.

On the other hand, you're a member of an audience that's jointly participating in a time-bound experience of listening to a recording. You can't help but notice each other as you listen to the recording. You share little smiles of complicity, or pretend you didn't actually just make eye contact. You can't help but see how people react, and think about how people might be watching your reaction. This isn't how we normally listen to music either.

What I would love is for - just for one hour, even just one performance - for the speakers to be replaced with live singers, and be able to watch how people behave then.

* I don't know much about music, but I think Alex Ross is awesome. Check out his Unquiet Thoughts blog on The New Yorker site.


staplegun said...

And of course the other tragedy is that music is now only to be 'consumed'... unless you're one of the annointed few who can create 'good' music.

Music used to be a communal thing that everyone participated in - from tribal clapping and chanting, through to sing-alongs around the fire, to singing in church or on roadtrips, etc. Remember "who stole the cookie from the cookie jar" or the bedroom+mirror+hairbrushes?

At some point someone decided there is a definition of good and bad music, and then the people who created the 'good' music were placed on a pedastool, leaving the rest to feel inadequate and unmusical (probably to motivate them to pay money to buy/listen to the music rather than make it themselves).

Except of course most people are musical, they've just been led to believe they're not. Eg. it is my understanding that less than 1% of people are truely tone deaf, so almost all people who think they're tone deaf can actually carry a tune with a little training. Also if the music you create doesn't match the alleged 'good' music, then people are not backward about telling you you're not musical.

There have been attempts (in the West) to make it easy for anyone to join in and make music - eg. acapella improv circles, the drums in the Pacifica section of Te Papa - but unfortunately it seems the music has been drummed out of us and people are too shy to give it a go. The one exception is American Idol :) ...I know, I know, many of the performances are cringe-worthy, but that's because you're evaluating them against the supplied definition of 'good' - those contestants are successfully expressing themselves in a way meaningful to them and their loved ones, plus in most cases they could improve towards what is considered 'good' with some guidance (the judges obviously aren't prepared to put in that effort, they're looking for the ones who have already had it, so are happy to reinforce the 'good' stereotype).

Worrying about how you (people) express yourself through reacting to other people's music seems slightly misguided when you could be actually expressing yourself yourself through music you create.

Catherine said...

I visited this today for the first time, with the three-year-old in tow. It has a an incredibly powerful effect on people, doesn't it? I couldn't quite hold back the tears (don't know why & I noticed others having the same reaction), and yet it had a soporific effect on the kidlet, who at first 'conducted', then sat still and listened and then nearly fell asleep.

Courtney Johnston said...

@Catherine I'm quite surprised at what an effect people are *letting* it have on them - to see such a 'conceptual' piece being so readily embraced. People keep describing the work to me as beautiful - and given it's actual physical appearance, what they're saying is that the experience is beautiful.

I also wonder if there's any kind of biological reason why certain musical effects - like the thunderous swell of soaring voices so common in church music - makes you feel teary. Cos it has the same effect on me.

librarykris said...

I was also covertly watching the others in the space with me and wished I could have RFID tagged them then replayed their movements like a mouse-tracker diagram. The combination of standing, seated, leaning, wandering people was very appealing.
I think that it's an interesting piece because we would never hear it performed like this IRL. The choir is always at the front and the audience watches them. The speakers are head height to the average sized adult - not head height for the singers (which would have had a difference.) There are two columns in the way which block the sound a bit so you do need to keep moving.
A friend in a small singing group said for a long time she thought she couldn't sing. Then suddenly with mass public singing - national anthem, waiata and the like - she discovered she could and that she liked it.
I think I'd like old style applause for the bits you like even if it drowns out some of the music. (Or maybe applause with hands in the air a la sign language?) I went to Peaks of Cloud in the #NZfest and hated keeping very still and quiet during the concert. Actually, I've noticed that the audience always goes crazy before and after similar styled performances and it's only now occurred to me that maybe they do that because they have to be quiet during the singing.

Samson said...

Of course, this kind of restraint and enforced proporiety is dependent on the genre: I've been to Rage Against the Machine, Sepultura, and other concerts in the metal genre where physical and aural participation is the norm. This unrestrained involvement seems natural: the music encourages movement and expression. However, an important difference between metal and classical concerts is the range of involvement at these concerts, which can include moshing at one end of the spectrum and silent, seated listening at the other. So the question I pose here is twofold: 1) does the classical genre lend itself to physical and aural participation, and 2) would such participation enhance the listener's experience?

John Hedtke said...

I've always loved Spem in Alium ever since I was introduced to it in my brief college career. I have several recordings of it now and I adore it. But I got to hear this version in 2008 at the Tacoma Art Museum and it's a new and powerful way to experience it. The one thing that I wish is that one could crank up the volume at some of the 40-voice swells, particularly that incredibly solid 40-voice major chord that is the finale.

I've got goose pimples just writing about this and remembering the sound of it. I think I need to put the headphones on and listen to this piece again. :)