The Curse of the Recital

February 3, 2010

By Kyle Gann

The immediate future of my blog may well be excerpts from MusikTexte's new volume of Robert Ashley's writings, Outside of Time: Ideas about Music. Damn, he's a great writer. This one's about the conservative reaction that followed the demise of the ONCE festivals in 1968:

Recitals are a curse. Forget for the moment the history of how they came into being. Recitals are a curse. They make the musician into an entertainer, rated, say, on a scale of ten: Ashley = 1; Michael Jackson = 10. They make the audience into a consumer, requiring the equivalent of a restaurant guide: should I go to hear Ives's songs sung by somebody I have never heard of or should I go to hear an Indonesian gamelan, played by people I don't even know about, or should I go to the Philharmonic and hear some turn-of-the-century Austrian music? Dear me.

The political reaction of 1970 was a return to recitals. That the music was called minimalism or the uptown complications of serialism doesn't matter in the least. The reproach to what had gradually come to be the feeling that music was everywhere, that you were part of it and you were actually in it in your daily life was enforced for some cultural reason I cannot understand. The ONCE Group pieces had come more and more to suggest the idea that you were a character in an opera that was bigger than you could understand. That is why we were [physically] attacked at Brandeis and elsewhere. Because we had stopped giving recitals.

Recitals were a perfect format for so-called "world music." Balinese gamelan, no problem. Bong bong bong. How cute. That the gamelan was part of a larger ceremony of cremating the body, drinking the pig's blood and not sleeping for a week didn't enter the picture. Bong bong bong. How cute.

"World music" has been a disaster for America. It doesn't kill people, like AIDS, but it has made us all into consumers, because we are not from Indonesia or South America or China or wherever, and so can only sit there listening to the sounds, wondering where we will eat after the concert, hoping the baby-sitter is behaving and, all in all, wishing we were at home. So we are at the mercy of the "distributor," who makes all things available, but takes the music out of our hands. The distributor, in this case, is the music school and its patrons, who - certainly without understanding what they are doing, what is happening - turn us all into either entertainers or consumers.

That palpable but invisible wall between the entertainer and the audience is a fact of the recital. As a member of the audience you are a consumer and a consumer only. Take your seat. The musicians come on stage. Two or three pieces. Intermission. Two or three pieces. End. You are back out on the street having had an experience, which in most cases lasts only as long as the experience itself. This is a recital. It could have been juggling or a live porno act. Whatever it is, you are not part of it. You have been a watcher. The recitalist hopes that you have been entertained. But you have not been included. You have simply been distracted from what is outside. You do not have more of a musical life. Your life is not more musical.

This is our situation today. And it's not much fun. Because the composer does not have the idea of including the people who come while the music is being enacted. We have lost the idea of the rituals that remind the people who come that what is happening is only a small part, a "surfacing" of the continuing musicality of everyday life.

Actually, those rituals do not exist, except in television and probably in sports events. Everybody plays baseball or football or basketball or soccer or hockey (or wishes they did or thinks they do) so the game is only a "version" of what is part of your life. You are emotionally in it. That is what I mean by ritual. Everybody does not go around singing Mahler or Ives or Feldman or Palestrina. The music is foreign to you. Interesting, maybe, but foreign, like the gamelan. You are not in it. Mostly music students go to recitals. This is true, maybe more so, even if the music is all by living composers. Not that we should expect huge audiences for recitals. But we should expect that the audience is a part of the music, and this is not true, even if the audience is entirely music students. This is the dilemma of contemporary music. The ritual has disappeared. The event is hollow. ["Speech as Music: A Musical Autobiography," pp. 54/56]


Scott Unrein
I couldn't agree more. The elephant in the concert hall is that dumb proscenium arch. It says to us, sit back and receive what we have to give you. To pull from Monty Python, "'What do I do?' 'Nothing, dear. You’re not qualified!'"
One of the best things that could happen to recitals is to completely wreck how they operate. Let the listeners sit in and around the musicians. Encourage conversation and questions during all parts of the event. Breaks in-between pieces are opportunities to interact and converse, not applaud politely and shuffle awkwardly in your seat. Let the audience feel as though they have value and something to offer to what is happening. More often than not, the audience is challenged by what they are hearing. Do we really think we're doing a service to them (or us) by implying through the format of the event that their presence is incidental to what is happening?
My favorite concerts have been in-the-round. It's not always optimal for acoustics, but at least it tends to break down that stupid separation between the listeners and performers.

Lyle Sanford
That's terrific. Thanks very much for posting it. As a music therapist, it both validates and deepens my understanding of what I'm up to.

Joe Kubera
I wish I'd had the opportunity to hear the ONCE concerts in person.
I guess Bob has since come to terms with the proscenium. Every one of his recent operas I’ve seen has been presented in a proscenium-type situation.
KG replies: Actually, I don't think so; the text is from 2000. I've certainly seen his work in non-proscenium settings. What strikes me about the comment in context is what a wild and different mindset the ONCE festivals must have offered, that going back to recital format after living in them for so many years could have been so thoroughly disappointing. In other words, I'm less impressed with what the passage says about our current scene than with what it says about the '60s in Ann Arbor. Besides, just because composers put up with something doesn't mean we’ve come to terms with it. I'm heartsick about some of the conditions my music has continually had to endure.

Ryan Tanaka
Honestly I don't think people generally have a problem with the concert format in itself as long as they get something out of it. Composers often talk about "guiding" the listener toward new sounds and this seems, at least to me, the composer taking on the role as a pedagogue toward his or her audience members. This comes with certain responsibilities, however, that I'm not sure a lot of musicians are not willing to take on. There is the other option, though, which is to go back into past performance-practices and put classical music back into the background for parties and other types of social events. Again, though, for a lot of people this path seems unacceptable as well. So they're not left with a whole lot of options.
Either way, I think that classical music probably needs to reflect on what its purpose is and what it has been producing during the last couple of decades while its influence has been on the decline. Most young classical musicians seem to be thankful for their experiences but they're generally sharp enough to know that there is something horribly wrong with how the current system works so they're not really counting on it surviving. Right now my livelihood isn't dependent on my music so it doesn't affect me much, but I can't help but see a sinking ship where all of its crew members are in denial.

this is why rock concerts are so well-attended - they appeal to the ritualist in us.

Copyright 2010 by Kyle Gann

Return to the PostClassic Blog Archive

Return to the Kyle Gann Home Page

return to the home page