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"New Technology" and How We Listen

Enhancement or dumbing down? Elliott Forrest experiments with visual additions to a Lincoln-themed concert by the Little Orchestra Society of New York. (Elliott Forrest)

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.

By Anne Midgette  |  August 3, 2009; 10:20 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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Obviously, people listen to music for different reasons. It is perfectly ok to play, say, the Pastoral symphony in an elevator or while you're put on hold. But a concert is a formal occasion, a social rite. Your presence implies more than just being there. It implies that you are participating in a social ritual, whether it is the Dionysian one of a rock concert, or the more sedate one of a classical concert. Sure, the Esterhazys chewed on their boar, burped loudly and talked, while the musicians played their hearts out to Haydn, but most of us would consider them fatuous boors. There is an aspect of worship to a concert, a commitment to the social contract,an acknowledgment of culture, and an implicit agreement to let the music change us, hopefully for the better. This is not possible unless we listen to it, and unless we know as much as we can about what we are listening to. Otherwise, you may have been there, and you may think that you have heard the music, but you really have not. Something about people who have eyes, but see not, and ears, but hear not.

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 3, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

As the author of the "humorous" link you mention, I should add that I'm not, of course, opposed to bringing classical music to a broader audience. God knows we need it in a culture dominated by American Idol and Housewives of Wherever.

And I will further add that I don't always listen to the Shostakovich Fifth in pristine environs either. Often, I'm in my sweat pants and a t-shirt and vacuuming the house, or perhaps sitting in traffic on M Street in Georgetown.

In fact, for many or most of us, we go to a concert hall or an under-the-stars-venue precisely to get away from the distractions of daily life. We got see humans perform the music we love, as opposed to normally listening to the same work on our iPods. We go to these concerts and performances because we want a human experience.

I went to the 9:30 Club a few months back to see Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders. I could only sigh when Chrissie, a product of a rebellious post-punk music scene, stopped playing for a second and said, "Um, could we cool it with the phones for a minute?"

I've also been to the Kennedy Center and watched as Awadagin Pratt went from playing Bach to circus calliope music after someone's cell phone went off during the recital. Awkward!

It's like that everywhere now, from Springsteen to Wolf Trap. The human being performing live for me is fifty feet away, but all I see is hundreds of cell phones lifted in the air trying to record the show.

So in order to frame this debate properly, I think we need to separate the issue of educating or enhancing the experience of the concertgoer, newbie or not, with new methods (supertitles, Twitter, etc.) from the issue of plain old rudeness. It would be great if the NSO devised a way to take me into the pastoral countryside of Beethoven's Sixth. But could they figure out a way to do it that doesn't involve a damn cell phone?

Posted by: photomat | August 3, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Interesting thought -- the freedom to approach music in any way we like...

OK, let's remove technology for the moment. How about the freedom to move during a concert? Tap your feet? Move your fingers? Hum along? What about that guy at Strathmore in the 5th or 6th row that insists on bringing in scores and following along with the pianists?

Most "serious" concert goers find these behaviors abhorent. But, is it really any worse than a cell phone or even the Concert Companion? Frankly, it seems far more unnatural for me to sit bound in a seat when the soloists and orchestra members are moving along and yet if you deviate from that norm all you will get is scowls.

The reality is that we all choose to approach music in different ways. And, the reality is that how I may choose to approach it may interfer with how someone else chooses to approach it. Conflict is inevitable even if you forget about technology, and technology just adds another variable. Which do you prefer -- the flashing of a cell phone screen or someone next to you swaying to the music? It's really all variations on the same theme.

Posted by: newcriticalcritic | August 3, 2009 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I'm enjoying this discussion and would like to introduce one more notion:
How you listen is also dependent on your familiarity with the music.

I recall from one of Slatkin's earlier years with the NSO a performance of Berio's Concerto for Two Pianos & Orch (with the Labecque sisters, who I suspect got to perform it only because they'd agreed to do Carnival of the Animals at the same concert). Slatkin must have spent ten minutes on a spoken introduction, outlining the structure of the work and some of its high points. I followed that performance about as closely as I have ever followed any performance, and I found my enjoyment enhanced by knowing at least a little something of why the music came out the way it did.

On the other hand, I once found myself attending two performances of the Rachmaninov Second Symphony (not the concerto) with only one week between them. I enjoyed both, but during the second in particular I was listening on automatic. I think you could have driven an 18-wheeler down the center aisle and I'd barely have noticed, simply because I barely needed to hear the performance in order to follow along.

Needless to say, different members of the audience bring different degrees of familiarity to different musics. When in doubt, it's best to assume that your neighbors are tightly focused and don't want to be distracted. Pretend you're all listening to Berio. There's a golden rule for you.

Posted by: BobL | August 3, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

The twitter thing is not really different than program notes with timemarks for what notes the notes were referring to. You could argue that twitter might allow for better accuracy in matching the comments to the music (or not, from what I read). I really see the innovation to be a lot like surtitles. People always had the option to use a translated libretto, but it's dark and you'd miss some of the scenes in doing so. I'm not sure you would be missing much scenery for an orchestra concert. So I just view it as possibly replacing the program.

And who knows, maybe it will encourage people to start their own NSO fan twitter feeds. Now wouldn't this be fun to read during or after a concert:

WETAsux: Where's Midgette? Is the Post even reviewing this?
BSOrocks: @WETAsux Buy a paper, it was there yesterday
NSOfan34: OMG, flautist dropped some music.
frontrooow: Is the bassoon sleeping???
BSOrocks: @WETAsux Not Midgette, forget who?? Doewny?
NSOfan34: so funny
Timpnst: 2 min til moi pt, r u rdy
ionarts: @BSOrocks It was Downey.
BSOrocks: old man in front stop coughing or LEAVE
JBellgroupie5467: Favorite part coming up.

Ok, maybe not.

Posted by: prokaryote | August 3, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I don't think I'd personally want the Twitter, because if I do something, whether it's a movie or a concert, I like to concentrate on it. I don't mind its being there for had better not be distracting to those of us who paid our money and want to concentrate. Maybe they can use technology like the Met Opera titles, which are designed not to distract those who don't want to use them.

And sometimes, those who fall asleep at a concert love and appreciate the music, but it was a tough, long day, not much sleep last night, and a meal eaten just before. If that's me, and I'm next to you, and especially if I start to snore, PLEASE, touch me lightly on the shoulder to wake me up!

Posted by: c-clef | August 3, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I think that the one thing that is not being made explicit in this discussion is the fact that a public performance involves other people and requires adherence to some commonly accepted rules of behavior. You are not alone. If you want to listen to the 6th symphony at home, stark naked and playing maracas, that's not anyone else's concern. But if you attempt the same thing during a concert, people might object. Some of us don't enjoy maracas with the singing brook and, quite frankly, you don't look all that good without your clothes on. So, whatever you think about the music, leave your self-absorbed baby boomer sense of entitlement at home. ("You" is generic-- no intention to offend anyone, especially since I think most people would agree.) And twittering is not a matter of technology, but a matter of whether it's ok to play maracas.

Posted by: gauthier310 | August 3, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

Gauthier310- have you been spying on me? The jolly rustic dance movement in the 6th is SPLENDID for waggling my junk around the living room to a festive south-of-the-border wrangling of my maracas.

My problem with twittering concerts is I hate twitter in the first place, so hardly need to be reminded of it by the little blue glows throughout an auditorium. I don't see how updating twitter is any different from sending a text message to friends working out where everyone will be after the gig (or, indeed, twittering that information).

And I'm 26, so one of those yoof audiences everyone's apparently trying to attract.

Posted by: ianw2 | August 3, 2009 6:36 PM | Report abuse

... true story:

Some years ago my wife & I walked into a well-known restaurant in Alexandria and asked to be seated in the "non-smoking" section. The hostess led us to a table in the middle of the room, removed the ashtray from the table she had escorted us to, and sincerely smiled "There you are, sir." Noting that all the tables around ours still had ashtrays and there was a gentleman smoking at the table next to ours, we didn't bother to sit down. We just laughed and then left without any explanation. It was like a bizarre cross between a Candid Camera setup and an SNL skit.

But neither the hostess nor even the owner would likely have gotten the joke. And shouting (the lesser option) would only have annoyed the smokers who had the restaurant's permission to be doing what they were doing however it affected our selfish desire to enjoy a meal. And in fairness to smokers, there are many who swear that a final cigar is necessary to complete a really fine dining experience -- who am I to deny them that pleasure?

Even though there was by then an ordinance that said restaurants had to provide a non-smoking section, we didn't file a complaint with the city or write a letter to the newspaper. Here is what we did:

We never went back.

Now, you may think it was because of the smoking. No. It was because they had demonstrated -- on a number of levels -- that they were entirely clueless.

As far as music...

There are better ways of serving filet mignon than grinding it up and serving it on a bun with the justification that that will get a new clientele into the restaurant.

Posted by: Steve37 | August 4, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

"Sign posts" on the path through a piece of music can be very helpful, even to someone who knows the piece at hand. This is what Boris Goldovsky (does anyone else remember him?) provided for many years during the first intermission of Met Opera broadcasts: audible incipits to the music and action still to come. A prize-winning program on Mahler's "Songs of a Wayfarer" broadcast on a public radio station in Pennsylvania did that in a "this week at symphony" program: the conductor talked about the work, played a theme on the piano, followed immediately by an excerpt from the performance so that you got not only the theme but its instrumental color in your ears before the full performance. Dallas Opera broadcasts over NPR a few years ago did something similar. And I see no serious difference between those practices and what Maestro de Cou did for the "Pastorale."

One critical thing, whether in twittering sign posts or listening however you want to, is that neither the twittering or personal behaviour be imposed on anyone else. The NSO addressed this by designating a section for those who wanted the twittered guidance. On your own, if you must tap your feet, sway, or "conduct" the performance, go to the back of the hall or listen at home!

Posted by: wsheppard | August 4, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

I was about to comment here, and went looking for a post I thought I'd put up on my blog in order to link to it. Turns out, I never put up such a post although I'd intended to, and so put up a fresh one today on the matter. It can be read at the following URL:


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | August 4, 2009 7:38 PM | Report abuse

At risk of offending some, for seeming lazy or worthless to this discussion, I just wanted to briefly post my little accolade for this extremely witty and insightful dialogue. I have occasionally read other comment threads associated with non-Arts articles at, but usually found them poorly thought out, reactionary, and often downright mean.

The richness of this debate was made richer by voices from the actual community, rather than just voices from the press and the NSO. I always hope that the decisionmakers are clued into this stuff, to get the broader picture.

Posted by: hpmoon | August 6, 2009 5:53 PM | Report abuse

Getting to this a bit late because I just read the long article about the NSO experiment. Two things:

- Is "dumbing down" really the main or only objection you're reading? There's extensive discussion of this issue in multiple postings at Greg's blog, and they covered a range of objections. My own is preferring less going on in the audience to distract me from listening - as you say, there are plenty of distractions, including those inside my head. I don't want the performing group adding more. (I dislike visual accompaniments, also, and have panned them in two concerts over the last couple of years.)

- I really, really want hard numbers, some experiments that provide good survey data about the experience of people using Concert Companion or Twitter or whatever during concerts, the effect on attendance, how other concertgoers feel about having Twitter users in the hall, whether such technology really does develop the audience in good ways. Perhaps the NSO could do this, if they continue with their experiment.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | August 6, 2009 10:20 PM | Report abuse

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