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American Idiots: The NSO Experiments With Texting

RadCivlittle.jpgWhat can pop-punk superstars Green Day teach the National Symphony Orchestra about the sanctity of performance? Quite a lot it turns out.

I was at the Green Day/Kaiser Chiefs show at Verizon last night and a better example of the redemptive power of rock and roll it would be hard to find. Were people texting and otherwise using electronic devices during the show? Of course. I think the girl behind me watched the entire Green Day set through the tiny screen on her cell phone as she captured the performance for posterity. I say to her: Honey, you missed a great show.


So: People were texting. It didn't bother me because that's what happens at a rock show. There was so much going on onstage--lights, flames, explosions, a pulsating backlit backdrop--that the phones weren't distracting. But at one point, Green Day guitarist/singer Billie Joe Armstrong said to the audience, "For [naughty word's] sake, put down your cell phones. Live in the moment."

This wasn't a specific request. He didn't expect people to actually do this. He didn't refuse to play any more songs until people complied. He was making a larger point, one that's in keeping with Green Day's recent music: "Don't fall under the sway of the Big Media/Big Government/Big Brother/Mass Hysteria beast. While I've got your attention, let me point out that there's a cost to always having your nose pressed against a screen."

Armstrong can be a bit pushy. I've never before been ordered so many times to sway my arms in the air or repeat back Belafonte/Stingish "Ayyy-ohhs. But at another point in the show, when Armstrong had led us all through another chorus, he noted--sincerely, I think--"This is what it's all about: Thousands of people in one room, singing."

Now comes the news that the NSO will feature Tweeting during its performance of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony tonight at Wolf Trap. I enjoy the work of Post classical music critic Anne Midgette but I don't agree with her view on the subject today.

First, she lumps Twitter critics in with those who are reluctant to apply new technology to the classical world. I am not a Twitter critic. I Tweet myself. (Sounds painful....) I am a critic of the guy in front of me looking at the bright little light in his lap when I'm trying to lose myself in Beethoven. Laser beams on stage during the symphony's "thunderstorm" sequence don't bother me. That's on stage.

Second, the NSO says this "experiment" will be confined to one designated section of Wolf Trap's lawn. Like that's going to work. The history of invasive species is not a happy one. Oooh, let's introduce this non-native vine in this little corner of the park. It's so pretty. Oooh, rabbits are a good source of meat and fur, let's introduce the critters to the Outback. Mark my words: We will someday view the NSO's official embrace of in-concert Twittering as akin to the day that suburban idiot slipped a snakehead into the Potomac.

Do I enjoy a performance more if I know more about it? Usually, yes. And there's a lot I don't know about classical music. Most of it, in fact. But I don't mind doing this rather easy, if old-fashioned, thing: reading about it ahead of time. But people don't like to read these days, critics say. And program notes are usually lousy.

People don't like to read today so we're not going to require it of them? Well let's just give up on the whole reading thing entirely, shall we? And as for program notes being lousy, here's a solution that doesn't require micro-blogging software: Make them better.

It's unclear to me how these Twitter comments are going to work tonight. The Post story says the messages will come from conductor Emil de Cou during the performance. Surely they will be pushed out by some Blackberry-toting NSO flunky who just sends Tweets de Cou has already composed. But I would pay to see the maestro doing them himself. Imagine him up there, putting down his baton every few minutes, tapping out a cryptic note meant to add to our enjoyment of the evening, then picking up his baton again, trying to find his place in the music, members of the orchestra trading confused looks.

Give me thousands of people in one room together, singing, any day. Even better, let me hear them singing Green Day: I don't want to live in the modern world, I don't want to live in the modern world....

By John Kelly  |  July 30, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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Live in the moment--that reminds me seeing the London Symphony Orchestra a concert of "symphonic rock," Beatles, Stones, Queen, etc. But the musicians were living in the moment, having the time of their lives. This was about two years ago and I do not remember a cell phone or texter in the Hall. If the music or performance is memorable enough and the audience is there to be in the moment, then Radical Civility prevails. Would that all audiences were like that one I shared a great evening with.

Posted by: mfromalexva | July 30, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I love this line from the Midgette column:

"...success or failure...will ride primarily on the quality of the tweets, and whether they're interesting enough to compel an audience."

"Compel an audience" to do what--maybe take a wine bottle to the twit on the blanket in front of me (an empty bottle, of course)?

Posted by: capsfan77 | July 30, 2009 4:35 PM | Report abuse

...And the choir said "amen."

Sent this to a friend of mine and she and I both breathed a sigh of relief that made us feel much better than the original article. (The original article does have a point, and I get that, I just don't agree with it.)

And for the record, both the friend and I are in our mid-twenties, so it's not like we're particularly old and just being sticks in the mud. :)

Posted by: | July 30, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Art aficionados spend hours in a gallery, knowing exactly what to look for and how to immerse themselves in the art. I know little but wish to appreciate more fully. So I rely on those little headset guided tours to help me learn more - maybe someday I won't need the help, but I do now. So what's wrong with classical music newbies getting a little real time context?

Posted by: ReneeJeannetteElliott | July 30, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

I can't resist:

"The power of Twitter compels you!!!"

Posted by: capsfan77 | July 30, 2009 10:07 PM | Report abuse

I was at the same show with my 15 year old son (his first real concert) and had a great time. Back in 1994, when their first major label album came out, my husband & I were thinking about seeing them live at the 930 Club, but I had terrible morning sickness and didn't feel up to it.

During the time that they were setting up the stage for Green Day and the video screen was encouraging people to send text messages, my son said that that's why he needed me to unblock the texting on his phone. I told him that wasn't a very good argument!

On a semi-related note - my husband & I went to see "500 Days of Summer" at the Bow Tie theater in Annapolis. Right after the previews, but before the movie started, a recorded announcement came on asking people to keep quiet during the movie and refrain from taking a phone call or texting in the theater. While there were a few snickers, it was probably the most pleasant experience I've had watching a movie in a LONG time! Kudos, Bow-Tie.

Posted by: bdk64 | July 31, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

"So. People were texting. It didn't bother me because that's what happens at a rock show."

That's complete nonsense, John. It's not supposed to happen at a rock show or any other public event. It is just stupid. Pay attention to, and enjoy the band. THAT's whats supposed to happen at a rock show. Not playing around with some stupid toy.

Posted by: rrno62 | July 31, 2009 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Dude, you were in my section! What row? I was in row M.

That was an INSANE show!

Posted by: EricS2 | August 1, 2009 12:54 AM | Report abuse

We were in Row N, seats 1-5.

Posted by: JohnFKelly | August 3, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

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