Monday, February 4, 2013

Faculty post - Dr. John Benoit - In Support of the Concert Tradition

In Support of the Concert Tradition

by Dr. John Benoit

            In an essay titled “Music and the Soundscape” (1993), Canadian author and composer R. Murray Schafer offers an provocative reading of Western music history based not upon the history of musical style, but rather upon the history of performance context.  Schafer observes that in most societies throughout human history, people have experienced music in conjunction with other activities, such as dance, work, ceremonial ritual, or religious devotion.  A relative few cultures, of which the West is one, have developed a tradition of listening to music as an autonomous activity, undertaken solely for the enjoyment of the music itself.  And because focused listening is most easily done against a background of silence, these cultures have created a variety of performance venues designed expressly to shut out the sounds of the natural world.

            It is within this anthropological context that Schafer offers his alternate reading of Western music history based upon the predominant venues in which music is performed.  The first predominant venue was the cathedral.  Its massive stone walls and soaring ceilings created a live acoustical environment.  Inspired by this other-worldly reverberance, composers conceived music whose resonant triads and interweaving polyphonic lines seemed to float down from the heavens and envelope the listener in thick, swirling sound.  The next venue to achieve predominance was the concert hall.  Unlike the cathedral in which music seemed to have no definite point of origin, the features of the concert hall were all designed to focus the listener’s attention upon the sounds created by the performers on stage.  The dryer, clearer acoustic of the concert hall facilitated the performance of music with more intricate textures, expressive nuances, and virtuosic flourishes.  As a consequence of concert hall’s heightened focus upon the details of composition and performance, music was elevated to the status of a “fine art” and musicians were elevated to the status of artists.

            Schafer contends that a third period in Western music history began in the 20th-century when the recording studio supplanted the concert hall as the predominant venue for the creation and performance of new music.  Once again, the new venue had many profound impacts on musical culture.  The first has been the separation of performer and audience.  Audiences are no longer witness to the actual performance of much of the music that they listen to.  Meanwhile, performers can no longer directly gage how audiences respond to their performance.  A second important impact has been the fragmentation and isolation of the audience itself.  Thanks to car stereos, mp3 players, streaming audio, and other personal media options, listeners can now choose the time, place, and content of the music that they listen to.  Listening, as a result, is increasingly becoming a private experience.  Finally, recorded music is now available to us virtually anywhere we go.  There are even waterproof iPods designed for swimming!  Increasingly, recorded music is becoming a “soundtrack” to the other activities in our lives.  Thus, Schafer notes, the Western musical tradition seems to have come full circle in that music is once again experienced primarily in conjunction with other activities, as has been “norm” throughout most of human history.

            I believe that those of us in the music academy should find Schafer’s reading of Western music history to be a bit disconcerting.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)  The music curricula of most colleges and conservatories are deeply rooted in the concert hall tradition of listening to music as an autonomous activity.  The academy trains musicians for careers as performers and music educators.  These careers that are predicated upon a model in which the public concert – whether in Carnegie Hall or in a school gymnasium - serves as the culmination of our musical endeavor.  What might happen to our standing as artists if the concert were to no longer hold its place of prestige within Western musical culture?  What could happen to our livelihoods?

            Admittedly, these questions seem a bit alarmist.  Having been central to Western musical culture for over three hundred years, surely the concert tradition is not likely to suddenly disappear.  Even so, history has shown that the tides of cultural change do have the power to alter the musical landscape rather quickly and dramatically on occasion.  Consider two examples from early in the 20th-century during which time technological advancements were rapidly creating new ways to spend leisure time: 

• In the first decade of the 20th-century, virtually every town in the United States of more than a few hundred residents was able to support a municipal band.  These bands were seen not only as a source of entertainment, but as a sign of civic pride and status.  By 1920, however, most of these bands were forced to disband as the public increasingly chose to spend its money on newer, more personal entertainment experiences, such as recordings, movies, radio, and “automo-bubbling.”  

• In the 1920s, grand movie palaces (some seating as many as 4000 patrons) employed theater orchestras to provide live musical soundtracks to silent movies.  In many large cities, these orchestras afforded the steadiest and highest paying work available to professional musicians.  In 1927, however, Warner Brothers had a smash hit with its first “talkie” – The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.  Within three years, the movie industry had completely transitioned from silent films to talkies.  Just as quickly, the theater orchestras were disbanded.

            As performers and music educators, it is important that we not take for granted the concert tradition that sustains our careers.  We must recognize its centrality to our profession and do all that we can to insure that it continues to flourish in an age of increasingly individual tastes and private listening experiences.  How do we do this?  We can start by taking every opportunity to celebrate the unique qualities of live musical performance – individuality, spontaneity, “risk” – and to extol the amount of hard work and talent that a good performance represents.  We should also call attention to the role of concerts in building community among people who gather to share aesthetic experiences.  As performers, we must all redouble our efforts to insure that our programming is interesting and engaging and that our performances are given at the highest standard that we can achieve.  Finally, we must become regular concert goers ourselves so that our patronage will help to sustain the institution that sustains us.  If those of us who depend on the concert tradition do the important work of maintaining it, then there is no reason that it cannot continue to thrive well into the era of the recording studio.

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