The Wrong Trousers

This week, Greg Sandow posted an essay by one of his Eastman students about what’s wrong with classical concert formats. It’s the usual suspects:

At times even I feel uncomfortable in the stuffy atmosphere of the concert hall and sometimes I wish I could just go to a concert in jeans and a sweatshirt instead of feeling like I need to dress up for the event…. Less formal attire for musicians would not only make us more comfortable when we’re playing, but I think it would also let the audience feel more relaxed.

(For the record, I’ve gone to probably several hundred classical concerts in jeans and tennis shoes and never once was refused admission. Is Rochester more hardcore about that sort of thing?) The student goes on:

Throw in some pop/rock lighting experiments and I think we might be talking about real entertainment…. What if the composer also specified that the woodwinds should stand and the lighting should be blue during the second movement? Spotlighting on soloists is also a direction that might be interesting in concerts….

In other words, it’s the veneer, not the actual musical content. Now, the outward trappings of a concert experience are important, but here’s where the trouble comes in: this student (and some of the commenters) think outward trappings to be of primary importance, and they want the trappings to be, well, those of a rock concert.

One of the commenters proposes this program:

How does commissioning a ballet for Ades’ Living Toys and a film for Reich’s Eight Lines with Ligeti’s piano concerto sandwiched between sound to you?

Frankly, to me, it sounds like way too much distraction. But that would be about the level of visual stimulation you’d expect from a rock band. For them, there’s a lot more to compete with: audience members come and go, they feel free to talk, they feel free to sing along. They applaud themselves for recognizing a song, and they spend as much time socializing as listening. A rock act needs a stronger signal to cut through that level of noise. That’s the milieu, and it’s fine—rock music is engineered around it such that it’s still musically worthwhile. But that much simultaneous activity would hardly be conducive to really getting into the sonic world of an Adés or a Ligeti (let alone a Feldman, Lucier, or Webern).

What seems to be missing here is the realization that one of the indispensible and vital pleasures of art music (classical and jazz, I should add, even though the focus of this post is classical) is the immersion in the sound on its own terms—not just rhythm and harmony, but the actual sound of the music. And a lot of the logistics of traditional classical performance—the uniform attire, the comparative silence of the audience, the lack of patter and superfluous stage business—have the salutary effect of not diverting your attention from that sound. I emphasize that I don’t hold any particular brief for current practices, but these types of proposals introduce elements that would interfere with the musical potential of concerts far more than they would promote it. For example, I’m hardly a stickler on applause: if you feel the urge to put your hands together, you should. I wonder, though, if the constant focus on the issue isn’t evidence of a stifling tradition, but, rather, an inability to appreciate the beauty of sound fading into silence—as a collective experience, an entire audience cheering can’t compare with an entire audience holding its breath. Has the predominance of rock and pop aesthetics somehow made that sort of suspended moment an uneasy terra incognita for those such as Greg’s student? Even her plea for new music is misguided:

When was the last time a new ballet caused a riot as in the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?

Not recently, thankfully—a riot is not the best atmosphere for perceiving a new work of art. But note that she’s not highlighting the engagement with something new, the intellectual excitement of coming to terms with an unfamiliar piece, but the crowd’s verdict; the ideal is an instant sensation, a ready-made flow for the listener to go with. Which means that the clothes and the etiquette and the distance of the performers aren’t what’s intimidating, it’s that none of those things give any clear instruction as to what you’re supposed to think of the experience. It ends up being just you and the music. And if you’ve spent your life having marketers and mass media telling you what to think, that freedom can be disquieting indeed.

The student describes a faculty recital with approval:

During the recital they interacted with the audience, allowed themselves to show their strange but hilarious personalities and got the audience involved in their performance. Suddenly their ‘serious’ classical music was not so serious anymore. We laughed, we were entertained and most importantly, we talked about it to our friends the next day.

All concerts can be experienced on the level of personality and stage presentation, but for this student and her friends, that’s the most important aspect. These are all (presumably) music students, and every concert they go to (presumably) has music on it. Why aren’t they talking about all the other concerts? Because then, they’d have to talk about the actual music, which is not easy to do; they’re used to the standard level of discourse surrounding pop music, which is based around celebrity. It’s a fine line between making the audience comfortable and allowing them to never leave their comfort zone. A concert that lets you view and discuss the world the way that you’re used to is hardly an unpleasant experience, but that’s pretty much the opposite of what I’ve always believed good art is supposed to do.

That’s a pretty curmudgeonly thing to say, isn’t it? I’m a curmudgeon about a lot of things. And those people calling for a more rock-like classical experience aren’t wrong to want what they want. We all do. But they’re in danger of closing themselves off from an awful lot. Greg’s student describes a performance:

I turned toward the audience and played one extremely loud note and not surprisingly, a woman in the front of the hall jumped about two feet out of her chair. How often can typical classical music concerts affect an audience member so directly?

Surprisingly often, in my case. But that’s because I finally figured out that it’s not about being knocked out of my chair, it’s about being able to aurally go up to the music and engage it actively, openly, maybe even foolishly. The more that classical music borrows from popular music, the more the artistic content is skewed in a pop direction: towards sensation and away from contemplation, and more crucially, towards expectation and away from exploration. The most important music is the music we don’t yet know that we want. Structuring the presentation along popular lines makes it that much more unlikely that we’ll ever find it.


  1. Wow. VERY well said. You’ve hit the nail on the head and very precisely diagnosed what’s wrong with the direction classical music “consumption” in the US seems has been going. This post is definitely required reading for any musician, student and anyone with a thoughtful pair of ears. Thank you, Matthew.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Very insightful post.About images: Breaks in concert protocol are welcome, but only with the ultimate goal of better engaging the listening faculties. Images, especially film, often have the opposite effect as we are used to hearing music (especially classical music) accompany visuals as a soundtrack and thus experience the music as a mood rather than a detailed construction.Over-reliance on visuals says: “We recognize that sound alone isn’t enough to sustain your attention, let alone create a world in your imagination. In fact, we recognize that you don’t have an imagination. But if you eat your green beans and promise to keep quiet we’ll put on a nice DVD for you.”

  3. <>What seems to be missing here is the realization that one of the indispensible and vital pleasures of art music…is the immersion in the sound on its own terms—not just rhythm and harmony, but the actual sound of the music.<>I could not agree more. That this viewpoint is routinely opposed by Sandow was the primary contributing factor to my decision to stop reading his blog. Given his profession, his crusuade against a preoccupation with “abstract structure” is both humorous and genuinely disturbing. Is this the way to “save” classical music, or something to save it from?

  4. I think you need to bear in mind that Greg’s student is very likely <>young<>. I read her comment about the riot at the premiere of <>Sacre<> as meaning, when was the last time people responded so swiftly and visibly to something new. Why isn’t new music more exciting, she’s asking. Well, take a look at some of the comments: it’s possible she mostly hangs around with people trying to develop great technique in the 18th and 19th century standards. She may not be hearing many premieres of important or exciting new works. Goodness knows, there was plenty of enthusiasm, but no rioting, over <>A Flowering Tree<> in S.F. last week.I join you in surprise that she’s commenting on formal dress, and I so noted on Greg’s blog.

  5. At the risk of leaving too many comments, it’s important to note in the mythology of the Rite riots that many of the people who rioted came prepared to riot (and I’m told more so because of the ballet than the music.) People weren’t upset because they heard the music and it stirred their souls such that they were moved to riot. They came to the concert hoping to find music and dance that would justify bad behavior. Same of course for the riots with performances of Schoenberg and Berg–it takes planning to bring rotten tomatoes! I guess it’s nice in a way that people used to care that much, but it’s hard to miss hostile actions predicated on closed-mindedness and the expectation of hating what one is presented with. The Rite riot is is mostly an indicator of the former cultural importance of classical music and dance norms, not an indication that people used to listen better.

  6. “The most important music is the music we don’t yet know that we want.” What a lovely observation! Still, the audience oftens needs to be nudged this way…or dragged, kicking and screaming.

  7. Excellent and extremely thought-provoking post, Matthew. I’m going to be at a concert on Friday that overtly sets out to break down some boundaries in the way that Greg’s student might wish (although the music is composed to break those boundaries itself), so will bear a lot of what you say in mind.Just one final note on the Riot of Spring – Parisian audiences in the early 20thC used to do this all the time; it was what they did. Likewise audiences at Donaueschingen in the early 1960s and old farts outside Covent Garden in the 1990s. Praising such riots buys into the myth that you can only be enjoying – even actively listening to/participating in – music if you are literally physically moved by it (falling off a chair, hurling a tomato, dancing a jig) and denies the intellect any role whatsoever.

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