On the surface, Andrew Clark’s Music and silence article in the Financial Times is yet another plea for traditionalism to keep the barbarians from the classical gate but when you dig deeper into the argument, there’s a lot more going on there.
Clark is obviously serious and heartfelt in his defense of classical music when he complains about a recent trend in addressing the audience DURING a performance. To him, and many other traditionalists, the concert hall is a sacred place, a quiet meditative respite from the madness of the outside world. One of the problems with this argument though is that old school European classical music wasn’t originally experienced in hushed silence but in noisy, boisterous backgrounds. It was only more recently that the hands-on-your-seat reverence took over the classical world and demanded silence during a performance. This has even spilled over to modern and experimental (say minimalist) classical music- having been to several of those kind of performances, I found the same demand for quiet that I did at a Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center.
Clark’s enemies are pop music that distract would be concert goers and the presenters into thinking that a classical performance has to be jazzy and entertaining enough on that level. The fact of the matter is that the Net, video games, DVD’s and such are the real competition for would-be concert goers nowadays. Electronics have made us more and more used to clinging to our home space vegging out to our own hand-picked entertainment in a convenient place and at an exact time of our own choosing.
Some classical companies have decided to incorporate rather than shun these elements to attract audiences, using screens and hand-held devices with information to further the concert experience. Needless to say, these devices have been controversial and Clark probably wouldn’t dig them.
Clark’s fine with books or programs explaining pieces to an audience as long as they’re not read aloud. The golden halo of silence must not be broken as such. If it sounds a little condescending, I think it definitely is. That is to say those audiences are actually not too stupid to hear about a piece and then be able to think for themselves. Just as a video gives us one interpretation of a song, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our own thoughts or feelings or memories associated with a song otherwise.
There is a place and audience for a traditional classical concert that respects the more serious music lovers like Clark. But there’s no reason that anyone who wants their experience enhanced by explanations, visuals and such can’t enjoy a classical concert either. Clark is the type who would probably rather have the genre parish than give in to philistine urges. Not everyone in the classical world agrees with that and it’s not the same thing as having Il Divo make pop-hash out of the music. These little enhancements might be one of the saviors of classical whether Clark likes it or not.