The case for live classical music

6 minute read
890 bugsbunny
In the age of the iPod,
the case for live classical music


Portable music players are yet another miracle of modern technology. There is something unbeatable about listening to a Brahms symphony alone on top of a mountain overlooking a clear lake and a forest. There's something energizing about having strong beats to power your physical workout; something heavenly about lying in the dark before bed, listening to four-voice chorales or Bach fugues. And how could we keep from dying of boredom on long bus rides if we didn’t have a Playlist to shuffle through?

So why attend a live classical concert when you can listen to music on your iPod, car radio or home sound system? There are many reasons— and as even I (an orchestral musician) must admit, many of them actually favor the iPod. On the other hand…

Sitting tight at a concert, where even the slightest ruffle of your mint wrapper will draw the most scalding scolding glares, you’re forced to stay quiet and listen. When was the last time you sat at home and really concentrated solely on listening for more than one minute? It's almost impossible to do unless you're "forced" to. There are too many distractions at home: the computer, other people, the fridge, the TV, the bathroom, etc.

Enforced concentration

I’ve tried to force myself to do nothing but listen at home, but have seldom made it past a movement or two. But in the concert hall, where I do nothing but listen quietly (because if I don't I might get slapped by an old lady) I can appreciate the music more fully.

The greatness of classical music lies in its complexity. You can listen to certain pieces dozens of times and discover new details with every hearing. But the emotional rewards of music require very careful listening, which for most of us requires deep and exclusive concentration.

These rewards may also vary from concert to concert. A concert is like a box of chocolates: You know what you're gonna get, but you might be in for a few surprises. One maestro might conduct a tempo that radically alters the character of the music; another soloist may bring out a phrase in a new sublime rendition. Witnessing a poor performance can be frustrating but also entertaining. And besides: One listener's pistachio may be another's white chocolate.

So discussing the concert at intermission, or after the concert over drinks, can enhance the overall experience. In the concert hall, listening along with a dozen to 2,000 other listeners (whatever the case may be), one enjoys or endures (whatever the case may be) the event in the context of a living community. And that’s what life is all about: experiencing novelties and sharing them with fellow humans.

Watch the music being made

Live concerts have a great festive atmosphere. The performers dress up for you, the listener, and they might even be nervous. You can watch the music being made before your eyes, as it reaches your ears. You can be with the musicians in the flesh as they create amazing sounds that can transport you to different worlds. You can take cues from the performers’ facial expressions and body language.

You can have a great time out: a date, a social gathering, or a family outing— and you won't only be enriching your own lives, you’ll be supporting your local musicians.

Another reason to experience music live is to experience music in a space dedicated for it, a temple for sound. Concert halls vary in acoustical quality, and their material and shape affect the musical performance. Whether they’re made of wood, stone, marble, or concrete, or lined with carpet or metal, each space is a unique experience. Outdoor concerts can be enjoyable in nice weather, but they’re usually poor acoustically because the sound escapes into the open air.

Acoustics, even in second-rate concert halls, are much better live. The unamplified sound of a violin is a result of air vibrating in aged and crafted wood, drawn by a carefully weighted bow, and played by a human with years of training, trying to express his feelings and that of a composer (who’s probably dead). An electronic speaker will never match this quality of sound production.

Performance art as mènage-a-trois

Performance art is a unique art form because it is a mènage-a-trois: composer, performer and listener interact at different levels. The composer leaves a coded message to the performer, who must then work out his own interpretation of the message. The audience must take this interpretation and work out a response, which could affect subsequent compositions and performances.

Music-playing machines throw this beautiful process out of whack.

Nowadays, miracle of miracles, we can go online and download any one of thousands of songs, in many cases for free (though in many cases illegally). Before this, would have to trek to the library or record store to buy our music, or physically copy it from a friend (also illegal). Before portable music players, we would have to sit at home and listen to scratchy LPs. Before that we would have to be lucky enough to catch whatever was playing on the radio. Before that, instrumental music depended on the availability of musicians. In most cases, this availability was scarce, so many people owned instruments at home and functioned as amateur musicians. But nowadays, education budget cuts always ax the music department first. Therefore, few people end up learning how to read music or play musical instruments. Everyone, however, knows how to press “play.”

Mozart as wallpaper

Thus music as an art form is threatened by the very devices that drive its popularity. But what kind of music is popular? Topping the charts is Hip Hop-- music that’s primitive in its monotonic rhythm and its lack of melody, and barbaric in its subject matter (usually about sex and crime). We live in a society where Mozart is the preferred choice for relaxing "background music," good for falling asleep to. But this is rich, powerful music, full of emotion! We might as well use the pages of our encyclopedias, novels and plays as wallpaper.

Recorded music has caused an inflation: Art has become so readily available that its value has fallen. But the situation isn’t necessarily bad. On a planet of 6 billion people, there are so many of us that even if only a small percentage is devoted to sustaining good music, it still comes out to a vast, respectable and dependable constituency. It’s one of the few benefits of overpopulation.

To read responses, click hereand

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation