Toward a defense of silence
Alex Ross has a typically wonderful piece about concert mores and the like in the New Yorker.
I generally don't talk much about the whole debate over concerts, historical practice, and music's place in society. I'll do so now, only because Mr. Ross has me thinking about the subject.
Some things deserve to be contemplated and appreciated in silence. Would one read one of Vergil's Eclogues or an ode of Horace in a shopping mall or on a subway train? Only if s/he wanted to look like a pretentious jerk, which might be hard to do considering the abysmal state of literacy in this country today.
Pretense and ostentation can be the only reasons for doing that, largely because it's damned hard to appreciate nuance and beauty when one is bombarded by awful music, bizarre fashions, and parents listlessly telling little Gavin (or whatever) not to do whatever it is that he's decided to do.
The quieter passions really do require quiet, largely because of the protean efforts of concentration that the best of culture can produce. Regardless of his odious politics, about which I can discourse at length, Ezra Pound's Cantos represent - at their best - a work of art with which one must grapple. This is not accomplished in the press and noise of modern society. How, then, should great music be treated differently?
Why, more to the point, should we treat great music differently? If I shouldn't be expected to wrestle with, say, Canto 79 in the midst of a crowd, then why should Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C sharp, BWV 848, require less concentration? The obvious answer is that is shouldn't. The force of intellect required to crack a dense poem and Bach's music really isn't all that different in the final analysis. The difference, of course, is that literature isn't wallpaper and music is. Real silence is rare these days, even in libraries - where sedulous law students labor away at Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 26 and secured transactions - there is a proliferation of iPods and the like.
When music becomes a commonplace, then treating it like a commonplace isn't that big of a deal. No one expects mighty feats of cogitation over lightbulbs and television sets, largely because they're assumed parts of daily life. Music is, more and more, something that you have around so you aren't bothered by silence.
The one bulwark against this dismal tide is, of course, the concert hall and the opera house. Like a liturgy, the rituals surrounding these activities protect against profanation. When one feels the need to put on a coat and tie, to be prompt, to be still, the atmosphere is conducive to contemplation of the materials presented. Or sleep. Assuming prices for reasonably good seats at the CSO is roughly representative, an eighty-dollar nap in a necktie seems excessive, but I'm not going to judge them. It might be bourgeois to take such things so seriously, but these are things that deserve to be taken seriously.
It might not be cool to hold the opinion that serious music requires a certain baseline level of seriousness, but making classical music hip is roughly equivalent to making Latin grammar hip. Youths are as likely to consider Mahler's Kindertotenlieder cool as they are to get excited about the dative of agent and its use with the passive periphrastic. Not very, especially if they want a non-miserable high-school experience. The point is that some things should be held aloof from the ebb and flow of popularity and common standards. It's like a video I once saw showing how the "loudness war" really did its damage: if there is no good culture, then there is no bad culture. We get a greyish mélange of mediocrity, which is only good enough to be spread about indiscriminately.
Oh, wait. There, as the man says, it is.