The Intellectual Situation
The Concert Hall
Cough if you feel nothing
Every year the world of classical music, like the labor movement, gives its devotees some fresh catastrophe to cry about. In this respect, the 2012–13 season delivered a bounty when the players of the Minnesota Orchestra came into direct conflict with its board. The Orchestra’s CEO demanded wage and benefit reductions from the players to fill a $2.9 million budget gap after raising more than $40 million for a hall renovation. A sixteen-month lockout ended in what some called “a truce,” which like most labor truces was actually a concession: wage reductions of 15 percent (rather than 34 percent), as well as a truncated season. This was the latest in a string of orchestra strikes, orchestra closings, and opera company failings during the past several years.
Where classical music is most visibly in crisis is the concert hall, and all the rituals that govern contemporary classical music and make it intolerable, even to people who love contemporary classical music, belong to the concert hall. The prohibitions, the dress code, the shared obligation to stare down misbehaving fellow concertgoers until they cut it out—all are ways of disciplining the experience of live musical performance. At home, in the car, on the streets with headphones, a listener can sing along, laugh, get annoyed and turn the volume down. In the concert hall, one must not clap in between movements; everyone knows that those pauses are for coughing. By coughing, listeners reassure each other: Don’t worry, we weren’t feeling or thinking anything about what we heard—we were only sitting here, trying not to cough.
The rules of concert hall etiquette are so widely understood and reviled that they have produced new rules, such as every classical critic’s obligation to spend one article per year denouncing concert hall etiquette. No one follows up on these denunciations and puts them into practice, but someone should. The stakes are high: classical music is a performance culture. This was true in the 19th century, when opera constituted an important social ritual for European aristocrats and bourgeois interlopers, and it was true in the 20th century, when John Cage’s 4‘33“ derived its radicalism from making people sit in a room with other people and listen to nothing but silence. Composers write for performance. Months, maybe years after that first performance, if the composer is lucky, someone will make a recording. For this reason, recordings lag far behind classical music as a whole, and the concert hall is where the culture happens or doesn’t.
What do we hear in the concert hall? Symphony orchestras, mostly, performing music written before the Great Depression. We’ve heard these symphonies forty-seven times, according to iTunes, where we have three recordings of Schubert’s Ninth, each distinctive and moving, plus we bought spendy headphones to make them sound really good—and yet how rich, how alive, how luminous it would sound in the concert hall, if only the coughing would die down! No symphony hall can open today without some science reporter providing wide-eyed accounts of its acoustic ingenuity, the hundreds of adjustable panels that “shape” an orchestra’s sound, the special wood that lends the brass a special glow. We fetishize this imaginary degree of acoustic sophistication so that we can continue to believe that, in an age when world-class conservatory training is a prerequisite for a classical musician’s full-time employment, each orchestra still has its “signature sound.” The Vienna Philharmonic recently came to Carnegie Hall for a program of Mozart and Bruckner, sandwiching something by a living Austrian, Johannes Staud. The orchestra’s selling point was that its “homogeneous musical style” hasn’t changed in the last 170 years.
The Vienna Philharmonic’s sound isn’t the only homogeneous thing about it. It wasn’t until 1997, on the eve of an American tour the National Organization for Women threatened to protest, that the orchestra admitted harpist Anna Lelkes as its first female permanent member, and even then the vote was not unanimous. No other musical world is so thoroughly dominated by white men, both in performance and in administration, and no other shows such open contempt for those who complain about these imbalances. Last December, Jane Glover became the third female conductor in the 134-year history of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met marked this historic occasion by allowing Glover to lead an abridged, children’s version of The Magic Flute.
Symphony orchestras are risk-averse by design. They have enormous operating budgets, declining subscription rates, and a core of older, wealthy patrons and season-ticket holders on whom they feel financially dependent. It didn’t have to be this way. When the visual arts made an avant-garde, they built MoMA so that modernism would have a place to live. When literature produced Joyce and Woolf, it bided its time and then passed the GI Bill, so that Americans would study those writers forever. Music, for its part, made attempts to program atonal works on the BBC. Later, the US organized cold war concerts of Berg, Schoenberg, and Bartók. But it was too little, too late. By the time the symphony orchestra had professionalized and spread to cities across the US, it had become an instrument for performing an ancient repertory. There were exceptions: Luciano Berio premiered Sinfonia (1968) with the New York Philharmonic, but its quotations from Mahler and Stravinsky and constant refrain from Beckett—“But I must have said this before, since I say it now”—seemed to be indicting the eternal recurrence of the Mozart-to-Mahler axis, whose hegemony over the institutions was deepening.
As an evening at the symphony gradually became little more than a séance for galvanizing Central European composer corpses, living composers tended to move into avant-garde coteries, informal groups in which they could play with the outer reaches of sound. Whether in the Darmstadt School of Stockhausen and Boulez, or the Greenwich Village of Cage and Feldman, or the San Francisco Tape Music Center of Riley and La Monte Young, or the Bang on a Can collective of Wolfe and Lang, or even in university music departments, the musician became, as Milton Babbitt later pointed out in a much-reviled essay, a “specialist,” a sort of laboratory experimenter. Composers entered the avant-garde world through training in classical music but just as quickly had to make their exit. Alvin Lucier’s landmark I am sitting in a room (1969), a simple recording of a narrated text and the resonance of the surrounding room, and Éliane Radigue’s sophisticated manipulations of speaker feedback in Vice Versa etc. (1970) were part of the tradition of classical music, but a part that most classical music institutions (if not necessarily most musicians) refused to recognize.
Rather than freezing the music in place, as some would allege, this fracturing and dispersal of the scene actually pushed new music into different channels of circulation. Although said to be intolerable to the human ear by elite orchestra programmers, Ligeti and Penderecki became beloved to movie audiences through 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, and, more recently, There Will Be Blood. A dialectical relationship developed between pop and its supposed opposite: when pop artists sought renewal, they often turned to the coterie, who achieved wonders despite (and perhaps because) of the fact that they had no market to please. So Lennon and McCartney turned to Stockhausen; the Velvet Underground to La Monte Young; later, Radiohead to Messiaen, Sufjan Stevens to Steve Reich, Beck to Harry Partch. Kimye were recently seen at a performance of Einstein on the Beach. Much of the technical progress in the arts—in electronics and recording especially—came from the fringes of what had once been “classical music.”
But this institutional instability came at a cost. It made musical modernism unintelligible, or just unfindable, to people who would otherwise be interested. “We were deferential,” arch–culture completist Susan Sontag wrote without embarrassment about listening to John Cage’s “squawks and thumps.” “We knew we were supposed to appreciate ugly music.” This attitude remains common among people who make a social point of appreciating abstract expressionism or rarities of the French New Wave. People who came to dig Beckett and Rothko didn’t much care for Feldman (who wrote pieces about Beckett and Rothko).
This philistinism has spread upward to the music’s supposed patrons. Despite the proverbial association of the art with elite power—its role in the social reproduction of the most overmoneyed, phthisic, and wax-pale members of the ruling class—actual elites have begun to reject their inheritance. Even the neoconservatives, once among the most vocal supporters of classical music against the barbarous Jagger and his ilk, have left the fold; no one among them bemoans the abandonment of art music, not in the naturally fierce way Hilton Kramer despised East European dissidents for choosing the Beatles over their own Bartók. Paul Ryan’s unembarrassed predilection for classic rock—“my playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin”—represents the new (kinda handsome!) face of cultural conservatism.
What elites haven’t abandoned is the real estate associated with classical music. These spaces are held by the super-rich not for what happens inside them, but as an entrée to the political ecosystems of major cities. They have become social centers, pretexts for fundraising, held the way plutocrats hold enormous apartments in the middle of London to reside in six weeks a year. In New York, the mistake that finally killed City Opera wasn’t a string of boring productions but the decision to cut costs by leaving Lincoln Center. The Opera staged its 2011 season at venues across Manhattan and Brooklyn, assuming that patrons would follow; instead its funds dried up entirely. What made City Opera worth funding, apparently, was the concert hall that housed it.
The war of the elites against the musicians—and the music—has been a recurrent subject for one of the more interesting writers on the politics of classical music, John Halle. A composer and professor at Bard, Halle has set out to demonstrate, again and again, that the destruction of the art music tradition represents a wider rot within the elites—and that this destruction is something the left should oppose.
In a recent, well-circulated iteration, “The Last Symphony,” Halle defended the striking Minnesota Orchestra as a union fighting a rapacious elite pursuing austerity. He went on, however, to intimate that classical music has acquired a rebarbative or even resistant place within the neoliberal phase of capitalism. “It’s hard not to avoid making another connection,” he wrote, before making an easily avoidable connection: “the decline of musical literacy and the large scale forms which they make possible, the increasing demand for immediately catchy tunes, striking sonorities and flamboyant stage presentations pairs with the impatience of the elite classes in another realm: the demand for investments to show an immediate short-term return.” For many, he argued,
classical music, its refusal to engage in high-volume harangues, its reliance on aural logic rather than visual spectacle, its commitment to achieving often barely perceptible standards of formal perfection, all serves as a repudiation of late capitalism—a refuge from hideous strip malls, the twenty-four-hour assault of advertising copy and marketing hype. Ultimately, it is a protest against the cruder, meaner, and self-destructive society we have become.
It’s easy to poke pedantic holes in a lightly worked out theory (isn’t opera reliant on visual spectacle?), while neglecting the argument’s visceral charge of truth. The act of listening—of following the towering Mahler Sixth to its culmination in a relentless wave of cadences; of trailing a vagrant dissonance in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande to one of many frustrating irresolutions—can seem like a bulwark against a neoliberal attitude that reduces everything to speed, data, and mindless repetition. Where everything else seems to fit, to uphold the course and judgment of the world, classical music is suddenly out of joint. And this is hardly a “Eurocentric” judgment: not a single classical tradition—whether South Indian or Northern Chinese—is holding up well against the global onrush of pop triumphalism.
It would certainly be appealing to think that we contributed a subtle passive resistance to the efficiency experts of the culture industry every time we put on Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” But to do so would be to replace one snobbish self-conception with another. To say that classical music gives pleasure, whether of the cognitive or somatic kind, and that all pleasure is sacred to the contemporary soul is just as weak. Literature offers no better example of the redemptive promise and perils of classical music than the curious case of Vinteuil’s sonata, for violin and piano, in Swann’s Way. Swann first hears the piece a year before he meets his lover, and, Proust tells us, “perhaps because he didn’t really know about music, he experienced one of those impressions that are . . . however, among our only purely musical ones.” He returns home thinking that his life might be launched in a totally new direction. He forgets about it, resumes his habits, until, drawn to Odette, he lowers himself to follow her to the parvenu and snobbish Verdurin salon, where he hears the piece again. His love for Odette and his recovery of this lost feeling of musical ineffability get confused. His attention is fixed on a phrase in the andante movement, only a few bars. Eventually it turns into a kind of kitsch, “the national anthem of our love,” as Odette calls it. The Verdurins will order the phrase played for Swann, when they like him, and will punish him, later, by withholding it from their salon’s repertoire.
For months, or years, Swann never hears the piece through to the end. Then, after Odette ceases to love him, he returns with reluctance to the society of his aristocratic friends, where he hears it again. At first, it tells him only of “the forgotten refrains of happiness.” He feels it as personal loss. But then as he listens to the whole piece—at last experiences it from beginning to end—his thoughts are freed from the prison of his self-reflection. He understands that the music he heard was not, as he once thought, like a perfume, or a caress, or any other sensual accompaniment, but an idea and event of its own. Vinteuil doesn’t belong to the Verdurins, or to Swann and Odette, or to the aristocratic patrons who’ve belatedly recognized the composer’s genius. The music exceeds the frameworks in which it’s performed—which banalize it, strive to render it unlistenable—and yet survives intact. Swann’s unfolding realization isn’t even really ruined by the countess next to him who exclaims that this Vinteuil is at least as extraordinary as the séance she saw the preceding week.
Swann’s experience of the sonata is emblematic of how we experience most classical music, even in the beginning of the 21st century. Listening is a passage through time, not necessarily toward the good, or the pure, or the best, but through confused sensuality, selfishness, snobbery, which yet delivers us to a sense of what an effective sublimation of these negative aspects of experience might resemble. The oddity is lost on no one: a tradition that grew out of the authoritarian conditions of Counter-Reformation Catholicism and developed in the patronage networks of courts and princelings of 18th-century monarchies has come to stand for a fully enlightened human subjectivity.
Isn’t that false consciousness, or just wishful thinking? Yes and no. For one thing, the history of classical music over the past 200-some years is one of the emancipation of musical forms from their ritual contexts, followed by periods of retrenchment within more authoritarian modes. When the Mendelssohn family revived Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in 1829, it wasn’t because they were crypto-Protestant evangelicals but because, as emancipated Enlightenment Jews, they felt themselves to be part of an increasingly inclusive and pluralist community to which Bach’s harmonies and counterpoint could be imagined as a sort of objective correlative. Secularized church music was supposed to provide the heaven in the here and now, much as the modern state was supposed to emancipate all its citizens equally. An analogous fervor, at different periods of the 20th century, has gripped the American, Soviet Russian, Japanese, and, more recently, Chinese middle classes. The promise of musical happiness they pursued, often by apprenticing their children to restrictive methods, wasn’t just the dream of a Gesamkunstwerk of technical mastery and domination of the earth, but an ideal of a freed mind experiencing itself within an order that wasn’t yet fully free, but working on it.
The domination of classical music by the concert hall frustrated this emancipation, by shackling it to arbitrary conventions and vacuous kinds of canonization. So the convulsions shaking concert halls are lamentable for what they do to the livelihood of musicians; but they also point to extra-institutional contexts where the music still persists, if not thrives. These, with any luck, could come to reoccupy the symphonies and the philharmonics gradually being abandoned by the elites; if that becomes the day the music dies, so be it. Having passed through its liturgical phase and now exiting its moment as the background music to enlightenment capitalism, classical music, like twin suppliants Tamino and Papageno, stands at the doors of what might be either newly hallowed halls or a tomb.