Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Taking music toooo seriously

One of my Facebook friends (yes, I do have a couple) pointed me to a blog post on arts versus sports, by Bill Harley. It's a tongue-in-cheek look at why more people go to sports events than to artistic ones, and makes some good points, though I'm not sure I can agree entirely with the following:
[athletes] are not trying to make the audience feel anything (and the arts is about the communication of feeling and ideas). All they’re trying to do is succeed. And we watch and feel ourselves. While the game (or agon in the Classical sense – from which we get the agony of defeat!) doesn’t matter – the striving is real. We sense their tension and anticipation and despair and joy. And we feel it, too. And all those other people feeling a similar thing encourage it in us. We are, after all, a group animal. Suddenly, we care.

I think that while the athletes may not be trying to make us feel anything, they'd be very disappointed if we didn't feel emotion. The big difference, (well, one big difference) between the arts and sports is that at sports it's the expected norm for the audience to let it all hang out. Sports arenas are very relaxed. You can chat and joke, you can shout and scream, you can insult and abuse and praise (and the players will ignore you anyway). The thing is, there's no need for politeness. With the arts, politeness is the norm - at least these days. When did you last go to a concert of some ancient or modern piece and shout your enthusiasm during the concert? When did you last make ribald jokes about the players? When did you get up and abuse the players or the composer for the appalling piece of trash they'd produced?

Bet you've never done it. Yet, in the past, audiences were nowhere near so polite. They would talk during concerts and operas, and the upper class went more to be seen than to listen. There's a description in The Count of Monte Cristo, as I recall, in which the attendance at an opera consists mostly of interplay between the members of the audience. The performers barely get a look in.

And audiences would cheerfully boo something they disliked or stamp their feet; in fact, if they disliked it enough, they'd have a go at the players: throwing things was just one form of abuse. In the early 20th century, various composers suffered the insults of the audience: Stravinsky (whom we now revere) being just one such.

There's been a great divorce between the way we behave at concerts now, and the way audiences used to. In fact, people get frowned on for clapping between movements of a concerto or symphony, even though their enthusiasm for the playing may have caused them to do so. We force audiences to hold back now, rather than thoroughly enjoy.

Harley says: I’m not saying this never happens in arts – it’s what performers are always working towards – when a group of musicians reach some kind of communion that raises their performance to another level, or an acting troupe presents something in a way they’ve never quite done before, the audience senses and is deeply moved. But it’s harder to reach it, and there’s a critical aspect of our minds that must be dealt with and overcome.

I don't think it's harder to reach it; it's just that we're really not allowed to show our real emotions when we're attending a concert. It happens at the movies far more readily, funnily enough; I've often been reduced to tears during a movie, and sometimes during a play. We get the chance at both the movies and plays to laugh - quite heartily at times. Occasionally a piece of music will cause us to laugh; but we're still fairly polite about it, as though we know the composer didn't really intend us to feel good humoured about what he'd written. Hoffnung broke through the politeness barrier, as did Anna Russell and Victor Borge. All three of these artists took music seriously, but knew it didn't have to be taken seriously.

I don't recommend a return to the old days where audiences treated musicians with a kind of contempt. I like to be able to hear the music clearly if I've paid the usual exorbitant amount to go in the first place; but equally I'd like to be able to feel more relaxed at concerts, along the lines of the way I can be relaxed at a sports event. Okay, I promise not to throw beer cans, I won't shout loud swear words, I won't have an argument with my neighbour (not that these are things I typically indulge in at sports), but it would be good to be able to get up and walk around, go for something to eat if I get a little bored, wave to someone I know. I can't see it happening in my lifetime, but it's not that long ago in the lifetime of the human race that people did just such things at concerts or operas. So maybe there's hope.

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