Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Adagio interrupted

The blog Superconductor has a piece on a most unfortunate interruption of a performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony (via Slipped Disk). The 9th Symphony of Mahler is his last completed one and the last movement in particular is regarded, by Leonard Bernstein among others, as being his farewell to the world. The last movement alone is as long as a symphony by Haydn at over twenty minutes. To give you a sense of this movement, here are just the last four minutes, conducted by Bernstein, with him doing just a bit of voice-over narration:

Now imagine someone's iPhone going off, just as we are drifting off into the infinite--an infinite prepared by nearly an hour and a half of music. Here is how the incident was reported by a member of the audience:
"Mr. Gilbert was visibly annoyed by the persistent ring-tone, so much that he quietly cut the orchestra," the concert-goer reports. She related how the orchestra's music director turned on the podium towards the offender. The pause lasted a good "three or four minutes. It might have been two. It seemed long."

Mr. Gilbert asked the man, sitting in front of the concert-master: "Are you finished?" The man didn't respond.
"Fine, we'll wait," Mr. Gilbert said.
The Avery Fisher Hall audience, ripped in an untimely fashion from Mahler's complicated sound-world, reacted with "seething rage." Someone shouted "Thousand dollar fine."
This was followed by cries of 'Get out!' and 'Kick him out!.' Some people started clapping rhythmically but the hall was quieted down. House security did not intervene or remove the offender.
The ringing stopped. "Did you turn it off?" Mr. Gilbert asked.
The man nodded.
"It won't go off again?"
The man shook his head.
Before resuming, Mr. Gilbert addressed the audience. He said: "I apologize. Usually, when there's a disturbance like this, it is best to ignore it, because addressing it is sometimes worse than the disturbance itself. But this was so egregious that I could not allow it."
"We'll start again." The audience cheered.
There are several thoughts that occur to me about this. I recall a few times during our chamber music festival last summer when a lovely slow movement was disfigured by horrific thumping from a passing car with one of those super bass sound systems. With a string quartet playing pianissimo, even a car half a block away will destroy the mood. So, certain kinds of music, slow movements, quiet passages, seem unsuited to this noisy "interrupt-driven" world we live in. A while back British researchers did a study that showed that those people working in an interrupt-driven environment with text messages, cellphones, regular phones, emails and whatever else constantly breaking in, lost about 10 points off their IQ, or more than if they had smoked marijuana. On the other hand, there is lots of music that seems perfectly suited to a noisy, interrupting environment: pop music is typically so loud and motoric that there is little chance of it being affected; loud orchestral music, or indeed any loud passages for any ensemble; any music by John Cage; and, interestingly enough, most jazz as well.

This kind of incident is pretty interesting. Much more so than other recent events at concerts: the one where a listener got up in a Bruckner symphony and started shouting out criticisms of how bad the performance was as he stomped out of the hall. That could have happened any time in the last few hundred years. But the iPhone marimba ring-tone popping up just as we are finally reaching the end of the Mahler adagio, that is rather a new thing. If you are fully in the music, as the audience seemed to be, the slashing interruption of the mood by something so ordinary, so contemporary, was enraging. I'm surprised his immediate neighbors didn't frog-march him out of the hall.

This is really a kind of metaphor, isn't it? There are certain delicate, transcendental aspects of life and art that are easily crushed by modern circumstances. Do we want to preserve them? Or do they matter enough to us?

I know that whenever I go out of the house, I find myself in many places where I cannot escape the relentless thumping of recorded music. If I am in the middle of writing a piece, as I am now, it is very dislocating because it pushes everything else out of my mind. Even writing this blog has its dangers! After the post the other day giving music examples of aesthetic sins, I still can't get Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory" out of my head!

About that concert. What is the solution? Let no-one into the hall unless they turn off their mobile devices?

Here is the whole of the last movement of the Mahler symphony:


Erin said...

I've been reading about this event on a few blogs, but yours is the only one to contextualize it from this angle.
To me, it really is a pity that it is virtually impossible to escape the interruptions of even those devices that are supposed to work "for" you, even in such a beautiful setting as Mahler 9. It works as a great, if depressing, metaphor.
Thanks for the thoughts, I'm looking forward to more of your writing.

Bryan Townsend said...

Erin, thank you so much. Welcome to the blog. I try to delve a little below the surface.

RG said...

This morning 20120703 the CBC Classical Music show "Tempo" featured a discussion of the idea that "the tradition of silent listening" is an elitist conspiracy against ordinary people and that the Classical Music Establishment (Man!) must quickly create a more welcoming environment that allows a wider variety of behaviours, if it wishes not to die out. The contrary view, based on the Janus-faced statistic that [only] 11% of the poplulation had listened to Classical music in the past year, could be seen as a quite encouraging indication that there is still a sufficient audience for music in the traditional sense.

Bryan Townsend said...

This is an on-going debate. Probably the main proponent of the "we're all doomed unless we get hip" school of thought is Greg Sandow. In fact, he has a blog devoted solely to this issue:

On the other side is Heather MacDonald who claims that we are living in a new golden age for classical music.

This is one of the most complex issues I know of, so you have to look at a lot of details to even get a sense of the issue. Put it this way, people have argued pretty convincingly on both sides.

Bryan Townsend said...

Re "silent listening", this is an interesting separate issue. Yes, there is historic evidence that prior to the 19th century, audiences were more boisterous, thinking nothing of cheering and clapping a particularly good aria in an opera so that the singer had to repeat it before going on. Aristocratic audiences tended to use opera performances (perhaps even chamber music ones) as occasions to renew social ties, chat, eat, drink and perhaps even schedule a romantic assignation!

In the 19th century, as music rose to the heights of its aesthetic power in society, the concert became a more serious occasion and there was a general trend towards quieting the audience so the details of the music could be heard. The role of music had changed: instead of being a colorful entertainment for the nobility, it now became the vehicle of the dreams and aspirations of the bourgeois.

Now, in the later 20th and early 21st century, while elements of both those previous functions of music remain, there is a new context. I doubt that enough research has yet been done, though you could observe that some of the most successful new music commissions recently have been operas set to themes that are, more or less, politically correct, such as Adams' opera "Nixon in China" or Phil Glass' "Einstein on the Beach".

Bryan Townsend said...

So, pace the CBC, "silent listening" isn't an elitist conspiracy, not historically at least, but rather a bourgeois conspiracy.