Friday, April 21, 2006

How much should we hear?

Saxophonist extraordinaire Brian Sacawa has an interesting post about the latest Take A Friend To Orchestra Month. He quotes Margaret Koscielny on the overwhelming demands classical music can make on listeners:
It's another thing entirely to face an orchestra and listen attentively for 90 minutes or more. I can't honestly say that I usually enjoy the classical concert experience as fully as a movie or highly engaging (lots of patter) pops concert.

"If it feels like work for me, how can it be that enticing (i.e., generate repeat attendances) for most newbies?"

I think the real problem is that many people have the wrong expectations of how much they should absorb and understand in a single hearing of art music. Just as a great piece of literature demands multiple readings to understand all of the layers of meaning and reference; or a great painting demands multiple viewings to catch the subtleties of dimension, color, and brush stroke; many pieces of art music demand multiple listenings to perceive all of the formal relationships, topical signifiers, orchestrational colors, text painting, et al. These sources of overwhelming information reward repeated listenings, making every listening exciting. But people used to more one-dimensional art can be turned off, because they are used to comprehending everything about the art in one experience. Feelings of inadequacy and frustration, or judgments of emotionless and irrelevant content are understandably common when listening from this perspective. A simple solution to this problem is to encourage your friend to listen to a recording of the music before taking them to the concert. Talk to them about multiple listenings, and ask what was different about this performance, both because of the live environment and because of the newer expectations from the previous listening.

Along with the problem of single vs. multiple hearings, classical newbies also face the problem of "it's a masterpiece, but I don't like it." But I'll write about that later.


Terminal Degree said...

When I was an undergrad and first started attending concerts, this used to really bother me. For starters, I wasn't used to sitting still for so long while listening to music, and I needed to increase my "stamina" and attention span. But more importantly, I thought I had to soak in every note. Now I'm content to let the sound wash over me from time to time. I've also realized that I usually prefer smaller ensembles--the sound is a little more transparent.

Listening to a recording before attending is a great idea. So is score study, or attending pre-concert lectures.

Very thought-provoking post.

Unknown said...

Good post, Scott. You get at several important points, not the least of which how getting into a piece of concert music is similar to getting into good works of art in other art forms. You left out a very important one in today's world: movies.

Movies share the temporal dimension of music and good ones require multiple viewings to apprehend.

I look forward to your discussion of the masterpiece-schmasterpiece syndrome.

Lisa Hirsch said...

That is excellent, Scott.

I think people respond differently to classical music, and I think that is fine. Not everybody walking in the door has to have the kind of emotional and analytical reactions I have. If they enjoy the music and performance, that is sufficient. Some will want to learn more about what they hear, others won't.

The masterpiece-schmasterpiece stuff also doesn't bother me. A particular piece won't speak to everybody. I have my own idiosyncratic list of works and performers I just can't stand (or can't stand to hear One. More. Time.). I would be surprised if I'm alone in that. ;-)

I agree strongly that repetition and familiarity are important factors in taking in a big, new, or complicated piece. I was able to write as much about Dr. Atomic as I did on one hearing because I know John Adams's style and I took a lot of notes during the premiere.

It is also true that people simply respond to different things in music and get hooked for different reasons. A friend of mine went to the opera for the first time during the 2004-5 SF Opera season, then bought tickets to the Seattle Ring - which he loved. You just never know!