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I’ll join in the applause for Alex Ross’s eloquent call to loosen concert conventions. But there’s one way in which he’s still looking backward.
Blogger and composer Greg Sandow has been saying it. A scattered but growing chorus of historians, critics, and consultants have been saying it. And I’ve been trying to add my two cents (for example, here).
But now that Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker and author of an authoritative history of twentieth-century music, has said it — and to the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, no less — maybe it’s finally time to sound the death knell for classical music’s snobbiest holdover from the days of high Modernism: the no-applause-between-movements rule.
Ross’s lecture, given earlier this month and excerpted in a Guardian article — and widely commented on since then — is that rare specimen, a nuanced polemic. He argues that the Rule (his capitalization), along with the other conventions of classical concerts, sends a message that the general public has picked up all too well:
"Curb your enthusiasm. Don't get too excited." Should we be surprised that people aren't as excited about classical music as they used to be? This question of etiquette is only part of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself. But I do wonder about the long-term effect of the No Applause Rule, as I wonder about other oddities of concert life: the vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-centre lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of many professional musicians.
Ross wants to replace the Rule with “a more flexible approach, so that the nature of the work dictates the...nature of the response.” Where the music rouses us to applause, we applaud, whether or not the piece is over. Heck, whether or not the movement is over: Mozart’s audiences used to applaud well-done solos, the way people at jazz clubs do today. ...
The trouble is that jazz and most other vernacular forms of music are almost always produced at least in part by, or through, electronics, even when they’re played live. We don’t usually even notice the interweaving of acoustic and electronic means by which the music comes to us. But it’s that interweaving that lets us hear the music over our own low-grade noise: our beer glasses clinking, our occasional word to the friend next to us, and the ripples of applause that spread across the room after those solos.
Classical music has always prided itself on being purely acoustic and unmediated. (You art museum people will recognize “unmediated” as a cherished curatorial value, also from a Modernist aesthetic.) Ross hews to the standard classical line when he admits that,
[F]or me, the introduction of gadgetry destroys one very distinctive quality of the concert hall – its largely non-electronic nature. In a totally mediated society, where electronics saturate nearly every minute of our waking lives, surrendering to the natural properties of sound can have an almost spiritual dimension.
To me, and I’d bet to many members of the generation raised on earbuds and rock concerts, music is no more or less spiritual just because it’s reproduced by vibrating speaker cones. What matters is that it was originally produced by vibrating vocal cords or cello or guitar strings, and that the humans responsible for those vibrations have something urgent to share with us. We’re technology agnostics now. Classical music needs to become less sanctimonious about amplification.
If it can do that, Ross’s vision of a “more vital, unpredictable environment” in the concert hall and a more physical, natural audience response will be much easier to bring to life. Part of the “straitjacket” he describes is simple physics: if you’re worried that even tapping your foot will compete with the music in the ears of those around you, it’s hard to relax and get into it.
Ross wants us to be able to say “yeah” to classical music sometimes, instead of the usual "ah..." I’d love to. But first we may need to crank up the volume a little. What do you think?
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