February 23, 2009
It’s next time again.
It is a pleasure to live in a once great steel-making city which, curiously enough, has some of the best art and music in the world. I like to think about the lifestyles of the men who became rich with their industry and then decided to use their millions to buy culture for their town. Much has been written about the smell and the dirt from Cleveland’s “booming” industrial flats – but what about the noise? Have you ever been inside a steel mill or an oil refinery? It is ear-spitting.
I enjoy the irony of John L. Severance’s largess – endowing a temple of silence and music after having inherited and made a fortune with the gargantuan noise factories of Standard Oil and other refineries. The concert hall which bears his name was begun in 1929. I imagine him visiting one of his greasy, noisy paint and varnish plants by day and then enjoying some peace and quiet and music at night. As he looked out of his velvet-lined box at the walls of his symphony hall, bedecked in a gold plaster pattern borrowed from one of his wife’s evening gowns, he must have enjoyed the contrasts in his life. The silence must have been delicious, to his still ringing ears, in the hushed moments before the maestro took the stage.
The collective silence of the attentive crowd never ceases to amaze me. Who was it (perhaps John Berendt in his book about Venice?) claimed your night at the symphony or opera really starts back in your bedroom as you begin to dress and that all the events leading up to the rise of the curtain; the arrival at the hall, the lobby, the anticipation, are all a part of the overture of the experience. I like that little ritual.
I enjoy hearing the crowd noise, and then the shudder of applause for the first violinist and the tuning noises and then the quiet of hushed anticipation. All of this is “positioning” of the audience. The mob needs time to settle down and pay attention and I never fail to be astonished at how a giant room of thousands can actually sit still and listen for an extended period of time.
Contemporary artists have used this idea of positioning the viewer. Some actually hide their art in an installation so you have to assume a particular body position (like looking through a key hole) to see it. Great churches also understand this concept. The congregation is put in its place. We crane our necks to see the fresco on the ceiling and our body language, quite unconsciously, becomes a gestural petition to a higher power. Silent prayer leaves us alone with our thoughts and feelings. Churches and concert halls make certain demands on the elimination of noise to facilitate our concentration. They require us to sit still, and there is an implicit promise that if we do, something quite magical might happen.
What actually happens to you when you sit still and listen like this? What is your experience? Sometimes, for me, just having a half hour of doing nothing but listening is such a welcome respite I just like to let my mind wander. I don’t even really care if the music does not hold my attention – as long as it is not terrible. Much better, of course, is when the performers take over and rivet your attention. Time becomes something they control and you lose your self in some mystical musical mind meld. Getting lost in the experience is perhaps the goal. I’m curious about how you would describe what happens to you when listening to music that really touches you? What music thrills you – and why?
My own thoughts about this are all caught up in India. I lived there for a year in college and I spent a lot of time listening to and exploring Indian music. If you sit on the floor for five hours at a live concert and listen to world class sitar, sarod, and tabla musicians play as they are going in and out meditation, something happens to you which forever changes the way you experience music.
Can you imagine how weird it would be to take an arm chair, place it in front of a painting and just look at it with concentration for 25 minutes? What astonishing details would be seen? As I thought more about these ideas this month, I realized with a shock that filmmakers demand the same sorts of time commitments. Our price of admission includes a beg for your precious time and attention as we usher you into a room, tell you to be quiet and leave you anticipating greatness in the dark.
Music demands the element of time. Painting much less so. Contemporary music on the program often quickly exhausts the attention span of the restless modern crowd. When listening to 20th century music, most display the squirmy body language of disoriented time travelers who left their ears and artistic tastes back home in their beloved 19th century. I love to think about fist fights breaking out in the concert hall at the debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Musical tastes, have always been varied. But now, with so many choices and with so much music heard in little snatches throughout the day, we seldom just sit still and listen. I’m grateful to go to a concert to have an excuse to take the time, shut up, and listen
Alex Ross, who writes for the New Yorker, has a wonderful book about all this, The Rest is Noise. The title comes from a quote of John Cage. Ross explains, “What delights one group gives headaches to another. Hip-hop tracks thrill teenagers and horrify their parents. Popular standards that break the hearts of an older generation become insipid kitsch in the ears of their grandchildren . . . The arguments easily grow heated; we can be intolerant in reaction to others’ tastes, even violent. Then again, beauty may catch us in unexpected places. ‘Wherever we are,’ John Cage wrote in his book Silence, ‘what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.’ “
I’m always delighted when the concert program includes something I have never heard before. Who knows when one will "find beauty in unexpected places?" One Orchestra board member told me it was always important to take risks but also program a concert so as to leave the crowd with something they could hum in their heads on their way back to find their cars in the parking lot. I like to think about John L. Severance, after the concert, humming something catchy (a Strauss Waltz perhaps) on his way down the front steps of his concert hall and wouldn’t it be delightful to know what he actually thought of the Stravinsky?