The Demand of the Ears

February 23, 2009


Cleveland’s Severance Hall, built in 1929, is home to the Cleveland Orchestra. Pediment sculpture by Henry Hering, photo by Einar Einarsson Kvaran

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.


Cleveland’s industrial flats were as noisy as they were smoke-filled. Photo courtesy Cleveland Public Library

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.


John L. Severance endowed the concert hall in memory of his wife, Elizabeth. The decorative pattern on the ceiling was inspired by one of her evening gowns. Photo of hall by Hendrich Blessing courtesy The Cleveland Orchestra. Photos of the Severances courtesy The Western Reserve Historical Society

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.


Severance Hall was built for seven million dollars and was restored recently for 37 million. Photo by Hendrich Blessing courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

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.


The recently restored interior of the church of San Stefano in Venice, Italy

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.


Ravi Shankar is the world’s best known sitar player. Click on the photo for a short video concert when he appeared on the Dick Cavett show with George Harrison in 1971.

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


The title of Alex Ross’ book was inspired by master of musical silence John Cage- click the pictures for links to Amazon

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?


  • martina says:

    Joshua’s line “the ear searches” has sent me on an interior dialogue and fugue. Thank you for being the wellspring of such wonderful insights!!

  • Dear Tom,

    just a little, very personal note since I recently experienced a situation somehow linked with your observations on music.

    I am a good skier, used to certain emotions – speed, sliding, wind… – but weeks ago for the first time I skied alone for a couple of hours with my ipod, and doing that very well known thing became something totally different. I am not able to describe the feeling, but I know it’s enough if I say to you “it was like beeing in a movie”.

    Suddenly a funny sport became something sensuous, almost sexual… it was a real physical pleasure.

    If you love movies – if you actually need them – having a soundtrack for your everyday life is very important… most of us need to merge reality and imagination, don’t we?

    See you soon,


    Luca Campigotto is a fine art photographer from Venice who lives now in Milan. His work can be explored at and also on the Telos website – tb

  • steve ellis says:

    Other than seeing “The David” in Florence I can’t recall a strong emotional reaction to something that was purely visual, other than maybe some mawkish piece created solely for that purpose. I may be intellectually engaged but my limbic system doesn’t fire. I contrast that with sitting perfectly composed before Mr. Smith’s orchestra and having tears well up at the “Going Home” passage in The New World, (or even the re-entry scene in Apollo 13 for heaven’s sake.) I know both scenarios almost by heart yet every time the music wells up, something is triggered and my throat tightens and eyes tear. I suspect a silent parade or the “she knows” sequence in The Miracle Worker with the sound off, would be pretty sober affairs, but with music, we shed our “been there/done that” covers and become emotional wrecks.

    And if we want proof that time is simply a construct of our intellect, we only need to immerse ourselves in whatever we think of as great music. I believe no one has ever checked their watch during the fugue of the second movement of Beethoven’s Third. And when we emerge from that kind of concentrated listening, we’re both energized and serene. Glad you posed the topic.

    Steve Ellis is a partner in the law firm of Tucker Ellis & West and is most often the smartest guy in the room – TB

  • Joshua Smith says:


    This entry, and the related one before it, bring up a few questions that occur to me often when I think about what I do.

    I’ve always wondered why (and this is something that Alex Ross also asks) audiences for visual art seem more patient and also progressive when it comes to pushing an envelope than do audiences for music. One answer, I think, has to do with the ritual that you discuss: music, in a sense, holds audiences captive, for better or worse, or at least I think that audiences believe this is so. Once, at a pre-concert speech at MOCA Miami, I hypothesized that viewers can walk by paintings on a wall, stopping at will to study what is of interest, making a choice not even to look…. Yet, in a concert hall, I believe the situation is more similar than people realize, only in reverse: the audience is stationary, and the art is walking by the ears, if you will. The choice of whether or not to tune in is certainly still there, and as long as you are open to the experience, tuning in and out and rolling with the moment is absolutely the right way to go, as far as I’m concerned.

    You’re right, though, that the ear searches, and is maybe more easily disappointed or less easily satisfied than the eye.

    Visiting a museum, does a spectator expect to leave having been entertained in the same way that people leave concerts wanting a tune to hum? Isn’t that just a little bit too easy? I expect to be grabbed, somehow, but I also know that I very seldom will be….

    Joshua Smith is the principal flutist of the Cleveland Orchestra and among the most exceptional performers in the world – TB

  • abe frajndlich says:


    as always, you have made me stop and breathe and note how sensitive and articulate you are to your world. and how open to sharing that sensibility with your outreach community. i applaud your ever so looked forward to glimmers each month. please don’t stop doing this.

    when i started to really look at photographs way back when, my mentor, minor white, would have us look at a photo for a half an hour without saying a word, and then, once observed would have us attempt to communicate it’s interiority to another without ever using words. the rituals of listening to classical music have never been my true world, but yes we can look at a painting or photo for an extended period of time and reach a heightened state of awareness which makes each of us more aware of all the details of the multifaceted world that surrounds us.

    it’s all good, sometimes even the scratchy candy wrappers.

    your friend,


    Abe Frajndlich is a photographer’s photographer. He lives a visually-addicted life in NYC when he’s not opening gallery shows in Germany– TB

  • martina says:

    Dear Tom,

    I loved what you said. I love the idea of “centering” and being silent in order to receive music. I love Mahler, and about a year ago I was in the second row for a fantastic Mahler’s First Symphony. To me, it is like little voices of mushrooms growing in the forest, french horns, hunters in the Vienna woods, lots of musical jokes and conversations with older composers using one of their phrases, and magical, magical music! No one interrupted it, and I was just beside myself with the pleasure, wishing I had someone who loved it with me! Recently, I went to a movie theatre to see a simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera in NY of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. It was fantastic– the big screen, and all the powerful auditory “lift” of the movie theatre to pick up and project their voices to me, straight into me, with so little intervening and madding crowd. I feel for Juan, in that candy wrapper hell– it has ruined my peace in many a concert to have such a person near me. I agree with you about settling the audience in the mode of patience for listening, and that cathedrals and churches also ask us for silence and attention, so that something magical can happen. I also love to play music with headphones, so I am in an interior space with music I love. Morton Feldman’s music should be listened to like that. Recently, I read about a musical experiment in Alaska, where the composer set the instruments to play in response to geoplogical vibrations and weather signals, so it is always changing and new, within certain parameters. I would love to go to that “music room/station” to hear his earthly music. Finally, there is the issue of sitting in front of a painting. If you have never read “the Prodigal Son” by Henri Nouwen, it is a treat, and was written because he sat like that, gazing at the painting by Rembrandt. It is very rich in insight. I love the hyper-concentration music demands, and the volume of time, and possibly because I played the violin as a girl.

    Martina Nicholson is an OB/GYN and also a poet. She lives in Santa Cruz, California. – TB

  • Dear Tom,

    Around eleven years ago, my partner Tom and I went to see the production of CAROUSEL at The Music Center in Los Angeles. We had house seats, and I could recognize some movie stars around us. The excitement of seeing this great production was in the air. When the musical started, out of nothing, magic happened as a Carousel was created out of what seemed to be emptiness. I was transfixed by the whole effect. Later on, once our hero is dead, he witnesses his daughter on earth dancing a delicate piece, very much like a ballet. No sound in the theater besides the music was heard…It was a lovely moment. Suddenly the unwrapping of candy began. It was just behind us. I could detect a similarity with the middle age couple with a likeness of Gary Larson’s “Far Side” caricatures of humanized dinosaurs from the 50’s…(her glasses looked very much like that period). I kept turning and looking politely distressed at her. Once the candy ended up in her mouth, she proceeded to play with the wrapping paper. The lovely and graceful movements of the dancer, plus the magical moment was interrupted by the skish-skash behind me. After a few more attempts of dirty looks, I turned towards her, and very softly I whispered her “could you please, stop doing that?”. Soon after she screamed “GO TO HELL”. She WAS a dinosaur from THE FAR SIDE!! however, I didn’t laugh…next to me, Tom turned around and answered her back, her husband screamed back at us….all while the lovely melody and dancing was going on…Some people think that going to the theater is like watching TV at their homes, and they can actually act as if they were in their own surroundings. I love going to concerts, but I cringe with the idea of sitting next to dinosaurs playing with candy wrappings!

    Juan Bastos is a faithful contributor here. He is a hugely talented portrait painter and lives in Los Angeles. See his work at –TB

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