Watching music


Before any sound recording technology is made available, music is watched as much as listened to. This masks the fact that music is a pure acoustical form that demands the right to be attended to alone in its own sensorial realm. Goethe says in his Wilhelm Meister, that “True music is for the ear alone. I want to see anyone I am talking to. On the other hand, who sings to me must sing unseen; his form must neither attract nor distract me.” Does this mean that Mr. Goethe would be glad to collect CDs without bothering going to any concert?

Arnheim talks about this “most fundamental contradiction between visual and aural phenomena.” When we watch a music performance, we are watching the process in which music—a specific form of sound—is produced; but we are not necessarily watching a visual correspondence of what we hear. “Our eye shows us an arrangement of the musicians on the platform that is only occasionally characteristic of the music performed (since the violins who sit in front have by no means always the lead). The musicians are always seen, even when they have rests. This gives an impression of comfortable inactivity alternating with playing.” A more detailed description is copied as follows, for I really love his style of writing.

No disparity between fifty waiting men, from the violins in front to the kettledrums at the back, and the one modest flute which perhaps has to start the piece all alone. The flute, now sounds really as tremulously little and lost in nothingness, as was the composer's intention when he wrote the beginning as a solo. The flute plays, and no longer sounds like the isolated part of some nice man 'in the act of playing' whose appearance never changes; in some very exciting way, everything static has vanished from the performance. Time passes most perceptibly; nothing of what has just been is left the next moment; only the course of the single line of melody exists; all the action is pure movement. The flute is quite alone and suddenly the oboe joins in, likewise merging from nothingness, unexpected and coming to life only at the moment the composer brings it in, not previously present as 'counting bars'. And so the work is gradually built up. Whoever has nothing to play vanishes completely out of the picture, simply does not exist. If the piece is adagio, then the whole world is adagio; if it is allegro then nothing exists but the rushing course of the rapid motion-no men sitting waiting or suddenly stopping in the middle of the situation. (RAS 145)

This argument makes sense. When I open my eyes in concerts big and round—there are people with eyes closed as if they were in a state of trance—I do find the movement of musicians misleading. These movements are only relevant if one wants to associate peculiar visual information, that is, a specific musical instrument, as well as a specific way that it is played, with a specific sound (the timber). But strictly speaking to appreciate the music such knowledge is not required. And the more one is unable to grasp music in its aural form the more one is inclined to register its source of production—as if the knowledge, that is, the visual depiction of it can be somewhat helpful. Often, when I notice that a member of the orchestra picks up his instrument in order to be ready to play his part, I have an anticipation of the coming sound. Such anticipation is entirely non-musical. If the musical procession prescribes it, you cheat by knowing the answer beforehand; if it doesn’t, you ruin the surprise. Likewise, many would agree that in order to appreciate the beauty of opera one does not have to understand the language it is sang—it is a fact anyway.

But somehow I find such knowledge desirable. One has the expectation—speaking for myself here—that such knowledge would render the experience more complete, that it would give it more depth. This expectation, again to quote from my own experience, is deceptive. Understanding Italian does not make your Puccini more delicious; it does the contrary, since now you agonize over the extreme vulgarity of the libretto.

The act of going to concerts must be explained otherwise. Undoubtedly, in the presence of human agents—and the ritual itself: expensive subscription, dress code, entering into a sacred locus, etc.—we are more assured of the music’s artistic quality. This is what Benjamin calls the aura. It has to be here-and-now and it is not technically reproducible. But does it pertain to what music really is? The simple answer will be no. Otherwise, we would be only pretending that we like Mozart, since there is no chance we can actually meet him. But an art is never simply an art; it is always associated with certain modes of consumption. What is important is that although these modes of consumption are historical, therefore contingent, their presence at any given historical moment is strong. It is impossible to approach music without any mode of consumption. Go to concert, as well as listen to Pandora, is just one of them.

There is no denying that popular music caters to the need of the mass; it makes itself accessible ad infinitum by adapting to a common denominator of its audience. But that is not to say the classical music (I hate this word) never wants to appeal to the mass, or cultivates its own cult. On the contrary, I believe composing for our contemporary musicians has become a task characterized by a constant negotiation between musical heritage, individual talent and intended reception.


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