Do You Like the Lights On or Off?

Do You Want the Lights On, or Off?
… when listening to classical music? Do you like to close your eyes, or watch what’s going on? There are, of course, pros and cons to both.

Lights On:
Watching a great performance can be like the olympics. Musicians don’t just sit or stand there. It’s a physically demanding task that requires much control over both subtle and forceful movements . It takes a real physical talent.

If you’ve never been a musician yourself, one might think that all the histrionics are contrived and exaggerated. That’s not usually so. Many classical musicians often see themselves on video and gasp in embarrassment when they view their own contortions. It’s not always pretty to watch, but it still can be very exciting and entertaining.

No doubt, every profession has its drama queens. But, you just can’t get emotional music from your instrument by sitting stoically. Liszt composed very challenging pieces, and certainly let one know it by his performance. He was, perhaps, the flamboyant Liberace’s biggest influence.

A “micro” experience, like a performance video full of closeups, brings you closer to the details of the work. It’s the difference between viewing a painting with a magnifying glass to appreciate every brush stroke, and viewing it from 6-feet away, to take in the whole effect.

A “macro” experience, can leave you feeling like you’ve engaged all your senses. Like fireworks and the 1812 Overture, it adds a larger real-life dimension to the music. It can excite your brainwaves on many levels.

Declining concert attendances are forcing orchestras to think of new, and often visual ways to draw and entertain a crowd. A good music-synched show can brighten the score with flourish and bling.

But, do visuals (other than musicians performing) always bring attention to the music itself? Film and ballet scores have always added to storytelling, but can an accompanying plot enhance the music? Some say, the best film music is never heard, because it promotes the story so well, you don’t even know it’s there.

And then there’s YouTube. Now a primary source of music listening for millions, the classical music video collection is ballooning. Granted, some of them are only still photos of a composer or old album cover.

Unlike pop musicians, classical musicians aren’t always young and sexy, so the videos tend to be less storytelling, and more performance related.

Lights Off:
Shouldn’t music be heard, and not seen? Sounds are not visible, and we only use one of our five senses to hear them. Shouldn’t we isolate that sense, to avoid distractions, so we can enjoy and appreciate the subtleties of the many carefully chosen sonorities floating around our heads? The invisible twelve tones of western music mingle in so many wonderful ways. It’s as if musical notes were objects you could only see in a darkened room with a blacklight.

Much of my early adulthood was spent searching for really good headphones, speakers, tape decks and amplifiers. Now that you know about how old I am, you might understand why I find it amazing that none of that seems to matter much anymore.

Digital recordings are often compressed for sharing and streaming. Ear buds let in a lot of extraneous noise, and home audiophile systems are all but gone.

But, try this sometime:

Take the best headphones you can find, with a nice long extension to reach to your favorite recliner. Put on a quality cd recording of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise. Turn out the lights, so you’re not tempted to open your eyes and stare at something. Then listen carefully to the dozens of beautifully crafted complex harmonies.

Don’t surf, post, or text… just listen! If the lights were on, likely all you’d hear is the melody.

If you really want to discover what makes a Bach fugue or concerto a masterpiece of organization, find a recording of the original Switched on Bach (1968), and listen in the dark, trying to follow each different synth sound, as they play parts of equal importance. You simply can’t do this with the lights on, and objects in the room to steal your attention. It requires too much concentration.

For a Space Mountain style adventure, try this with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Be sure your easy chair has sturdy arms to grip.

To truly eliminate distractions, you might need to arrange some “alone time.” for this. But, even after sitting perfectly still, in a dark room, muted from the world through headphone muffs… if you listen carefully to all the nuances you can find, you might be exhausted after 20-minutes. Exhausted, yet exhilarated by the journey. And, you will have heard the music, not the music show.

Try it!

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Who Are We Applauding, Anyway?

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Who Are We Applauding, Anyway?
Next time you attend a concert, and stand to applaud a great performance, ask yourself, “Who am I applauding?” Is it the talented performer, “with a skillset I’ll never have,” or the creative mind behind that “brilliant piece of music I wish I could’ve written?” Consciously or not, it’s probably both. The composer is rarely in the room to take a bow, so the musicians soak up all the accolades and go home with the bouquets.
A beautiful piece of music can be so moving that you need to cheer, and a performance can be so amazing that you’d throw money, if you hadn’t paid for a ticket. But, take time to consider both sides of the equasion that brought you to your feet.
My dad loved crossword puzzles. One day, I found him starting on a blank grid, with no black squares, only numbers where the words began. Ten-minutes later, he was half done, and had figured out where all of the black squares belonged. That, to me, was amazing and had me thinking for the very first time about the puzzle creators.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings is like no other Adagio for Strings. Bach’s Fugues are crossword puzzles in their own right. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is practically it’s own genre. The architects of such brilliant structures deserve as much applause as the builders.
It’s rare to hear professional musicians make glaring technical mistakes, even on challenging pieces. Unless the work is a classic that you’ve heard a zillion times, like Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, you probably wouldn’t even notice a missed note in an unfamiliar piece. When a soloist takes on an extremely challenging concerto, hits every note where it belongs, and plays confidently, sometimes our applause may secretly be saying, “Wow, you did all that without screwing up once!”
To be sure, interpretation is the key to classical performance. I recently found a recording of Saint-Saëns himself playing excerpts from his beautiful Piano Concerto #2. As he raced through it, showcasing his talents as a performer, I shouted “Slow the f**k down! Play it like Rubinstein,” whose more deliberate interpretation brought out the piece’s enchanting mystery. The same was true of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2, which I’ve heard played at least a thousand equally-wonderful different ways, only to be charged through by Rachmaninoff himself.
When I vented this frustration on someone, they asked, “Well, which one’s right?” Actually, there is no right or wrong. Musical interpretation is like free speech. I guess my point was that great composers create works with flexibility of tempo and dynamics built-in. Going back to the architect analogy, even a 100-storey skycraper sways in the wind, taking on ever-changing dimensions.
So, as you slap your hands together with welled-up appreciation, clap a few more times for the creative and inventive ghost on stage, who put pen to paper, fitting the many pieces together just-so, in a puzzle of complexity and beauty for you.