July 02, 2011

A dubious pep talk from Norman Lebrecht: The orchestra as “relief” from our “communicative addiction”

Lebrecht, a prolific and provocative commentator on the classical music scene, has written an appropriately sober state-of-the-field piece in a British cultural monthly. The question being raised around the world, he tells us, is “Who needs a symphony orchestra?” His answer is that we all do, because classical concerts “restore balance to over-busy lives.” Maybe, but that argument is part of the problem.

Lebrecht’s summary of recent good and bad news in classical music draws from Europe and Asia as well as the US, so it provides some helpful context for us provincial Americans. But his reasons for believing that “that the symphony orchestra will always survive” are pretty familiar:

[I]n a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness.

Sure, that’s an interesting twist: we become “reachable” in an emotional or spiritual sense only when we become unreachable in a technological sense: when our gadgets are turned off.

And I’m struck by how similar Lebrecht’s diagnosis is to Martha Lavey’s, which I blogged about here recently. Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, argued that sitting quietly in the dark with our devices put away forces us to internalize and process our responses to the artwork, whereas putting those responses into words for a tweet or a text shortcuts that inward reckoning and diffuses the moment. Clearly Lebrecht would agree.

But at bottom this is the old notion that classical music is a retreat from contemporary life, an antidote to its poison, rather than a vibrant part of it. As I’ve argued here before, it’s a self-defeating position: you can’t argue for classical music’s relevance to contemporary culture while also insisting that its virtue lies in how set apart from that culture it is. ...

“We, as a society, need the symphony orchestra now more than ever before,” Lebrecht writes, and “that need becomes ever clearer as the world speeds up.” If only more people could slow down for classical music, he implies, they’d enjoy its salutary effects…and they’d want their governments to subsidize it.

There’s a deep and unfortunate nostalgia here. “A country that once discussed culture with somber reverence,” writes Lebrecht, referring to the Netherlands, “is now resorting to the rhetoric of Sarah Palin and the Governor of Kansas, who recently eliminated all state funding for the arts. Culture is no longer a sacred cow.” He seems unaware that treating culture with somber reverence — making it sacred in the first place — was what created the segregation from everyday culture that it’s now struggling against.

I’m not questioning Lebrecht’s historical accuracy. When he writes that in the 1930s and ’40s “the perception of symphonic music as an improving grace was widespread,” I’m sure he’s right. But I’m equally sure that things have changed since then, perhaps especially with respect to phrases like “improving grace.” In today’s culture, that’s not how we think. The music people care about and form relationships with isn’t floating above them, waiting to lift them up like some divine hand. It’s inside them, intimate and informal and on their own level. Even when we are looking for improvement, we don’t sanctify the task — we try to make it fun.

Photo: Cleveland Orchestra blog

I think Lebrecht, like some other traditionalists in the cultural sector I can think of, is speaking from 20th century assumptions about 21st century challenges. On the other hand, he does mention approvingly the street-level work that some orchestras and musicians are doing to connect with people whose lives are a little rougher than those of the typical classical music patron, from inner-city youth and recent immigrants to soldiers, hospital patients. (Above, members of the Cleveland Orchestra playing in a homeless shelter in Miami.) It’s exactly that kind of work, and the redefinition of the musician’s role that it implies, that conservative musicians in the Detroit Symphony were fighting against in their recent strike.

So let’s take Lebrecht on his merits, which are considerable. Read his article and let us all know what you think.

Cheryl Slover-Linett — July 03, 2011

Good points, though maybe it’s not either/or but yes/and. I love it when classical music is in my everyday life (e.g. on the car radio, or when my daughters practice their instruments), and that doesn’t diminish the power of being in a concert hall for two hours without contact with the outside world.

The distinction between sacred and everyday reminds me of the way many people think about nature. Rather than make the outdoors part of one’s daily life, some people reserve it for that one week of camping or fishing or visiting a national park. It can be a peak experience, but the downside is it’s pretty rare in their lives. Yet there have been many studies on the benefits (physical, emotional, spiritual) of making nature part of your daily routine. I think the nature organizations are facing the same kind of question you raise for symphonies.

Will — July 05, 2011

Speaking specifically to the point about being artistically reachable only when we become technologically unreachable: I suspect this is true for some and not others. My fiancee tends to think "out loud," processing information by having a conversation about it. I tend to process quietly, and I'm distracted by talk and tweets. I wonder how much of this debate stems from one type disagreeing with the other, with neither side recognizing that it is a question not of art being a part of life or apart from life, but rather that different people, with similar views of the place of art in their lives, might nevertheless engage differently.

Anne Arenstein — July 07, 2011

Although listening to music may be viewed as an introspective activity, music itself is always a shared experience and capable of withstanding the assaults of thoughtless audience members as well as technology. Lebrecht forgets that in the 18th century, concerts and operas were frequently drowned out by conversations and yoo-hooing in the galleries; audiences applauded symphonic movements, and in the 19th century, operas became blood sports. Composers want to get responses from their audiences, whether thoughtful or incendiary.
Music has to respond to where audiences are. concert:nova in Cincinnati is a chamber ensemble that presents familiar and unfamiliar music in unique locations (a warehouse, a department store) along with spoken word, video, dance, and drama. Their performances frequently sell out and the audiences are dream demographics.
And sometimes, you do have to "force" the audience to come, as we did when we took our younger son to see "Peter Grimes" at Indiana U. He wasn't happy about it but after the first intermission he said, "I really like it--it's ambiguous." Ta da.

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