"New Technology" and How We Listen
I was intrigued (though not surprised) by the range of responses to the NSO/Twitter issue (including this blog post that comes down strongly, and humorously, on the anti-Twitter side; and a comment from Emil de Cou, the conductor responsible for the Tweets and the performance).
I’d like to clarify that in my original article my point was not at all that technology is good and technophobes are bad. Indeed, what I meant to say is that both sides risk sounding kind of dopey until they actually understand what “technology” involves, and that too often neither side quite grasps it. I’m all for anything (and I mean anything) that brings classical music across in an intelligent way, and I’m against anything that makes it dumb (and God knows a lot of so-called technological innovations are used in the service of dumbing down, so I can understand people’s reservations). But it’s foolish to assume that Twitter is necessarily going to be dumb until one understands what the experiment actually entails.
I’m also bothered by adherence to a hard-line view: the idea that Twitter is inherently bad because nobody’s attention ought to be distracted from the music even for a moment. For one thing, this view assumes that there are two alternatives: listening to the music in rapt concentration or being distracted by glowing screens. (Never mind the evidence from those music-lovers I mentioned who found that the Concert Companion made them concentrate more and not less.)
(read more after the jump)
But in any case, I don’t think that the Tweets are meant for those who listen with total concentration; they’re meant for people who aren’t concentrating and would like some help getting in to the music. Like the commenter (scroll down) who said, “Had I access to text-based, real-time descriptions of what's going on in the music, I might have spent much more time at classical concerts." Or the woman who sat in front of me at a performance of the Beethoven violin concerto a couple of years ago and squirmed in evident, agonizing boredom through the whole thing. I was tempted to grab her and say, LISTEN, this passage right here is some of the most gorgeous music ever written -- which is, of course, just the kind of didactic approach that I dislike on principle, and that seldom works. In any case, a couple of peeks at a Twitter screen would have been a lot less distracting to me than her boredom was.
I also have a big problem with the tacit assumption that there’s a right way and a wrong way to listen to classical music, the “right way” being to receive it in reverential silence, undistracted for even a minute. I don’t know many people who actually listen to classical music with that kind of focus. It certainly isn’t the way it was received when it was written: in the late 18th century, the “right” way to listen to music was to sit with a friend, grasp each other’s hands at high points in the music, and exchange meaningful looks. (I take this description from a letter of J. F. Reichardt, one of the more stuffed-shirt highbrows of his day.) Some people listen with their eyes closed, others follow a score (is that inherently less distracting than reading a Twitter screen? I sometimes feel I miss things about the performance when I focus on reading along in the printed music), others focus on the conductor. Some let their minds wander; some actually like to free up their mind by finding other occupations for their hands or thoughts.
This is all pretty obvious. I'm restating it only because I feel that to start making dictates about the nature of listening (thou shalt not be distracted for even one second from the music) is to step away from the creative freedom inherent in active listening: the freedom to approach the music any way we like, and make it our own – which is what keeps it alive. Should that "freedom" include the right to send text messages during the performance? Maybe not. But it shouldn't mean straitjacketing the audience, either.
Edited to add: I couldn't resist posting a link to this story in Monday's Guardian about the same topic.
August 3, 2009; 10:20 AM ET
Categories: random musings
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