Sunday, June 03, 2007

Concert Hall? How About Music Museum?

June 3, 2007
Concert Hall? How About Music Museum?

NOT long ago the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra decided to sell off its recently acquired collection of vintage string instruments, including 13 made by the legendary Antonio Stradivari. The orchestra is losing money partly because it bought the instruments in the first place, hoping — artistic value aside — that their glamour would attract donations. After all, if museums can flourish by housing objects that are old and valuable, why not orchestras? Most of the music the orchestras play is old and valuable too. The match seemed perfect.

For classical music lovers, this mismatch, as it turned out, is a parable for our times. Whenever people discuss the familiar plight of classical music in America — financial problems; aging audiences; above all, a loss of cultural authority — someone is sure to bring up the museum analogy. Classical music, we are told, may be old and valuable, but it is as remote from contemporary life as an old fiddle. Its culture is a museum culture. The public doesn’t care about new works, and the old ones have been worn out with reuse like antique coins with faded faces.

But the museum analogy shortchanges both the music and the museum. Good museums today are anything but chambers of solemn irrelevance, and if classical concerts had half the appeal of traveling exhibitions, the New Jersey Symphony would not be losing money. Perhaps it is time to stand the museum analogy on its head. The classical music world may have something to learn from the success of today’s museums, where the art of the present elicits fascination, and the art of the past impresses visitors as the very reverse of stifling, myopic or merely out of date.

Reaffirming the museum analogy makes good historical sense. Classical music and the museum grew up together in the late 18th century. The revolutionary government in France decreed in 1792 that a “Musée” at the Louvre would become the first space for the public exhibition of art in Europe. The decree came just a year after the death of Mozart, the first important composer to have made a public career with instrumental as well as theatrical music. The essential factor in both cases is the idea of the public. By the 1790s instrumental music had been written for concert performance for several centuries; paintings and other objects, including curiosities in “wonder cabinets,” had been exhibited in collections even longer. But the places where the performances were held and the collections too were mostly private and predominantly aristocratic.

Mozart helped change all that; so did the Louvre. Music does not become “classical” until its performance becomes an event addressed to a general public. Paintings and sculptures do not become “art” until they are exhibited in public institutions. This conception was epoch making. It changed the past of the arts as well as their future.

For a long time, to judge from 19th-century descriptions, concert halls were livelier places than museums. Concerts roused passions and helped create the fan culture of modern life. Museums had a reputation for sedateness. When Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska, the would-be illicit lovers of Edith Wharton’s novel “The Age of Innocence,” need someplace dull and quiet to meet in turn-of-the-century New York, they know just where to go: the Metropolitan Museum.

The story of how this state of affairs reversed itself is too long to retell here, but anyone who has felt that the familiar rituals of the symphony concert are outmoded, even a bit surreal, will get the gist. Museumgoers today do not have similar feelings; they obviously feel right at home. Classical music no longer has that effect. But perhaps it can regain a natural place in the lives of its public by courting the museum culture so often brought up against it.

The museum in its original conception was an archive, and so it is still. But it is an archive animated by the activities of public spectatorship: the walking, pausing, looking, talking, meandering and just standing still that goes on there. Perhaps we should think of museums as prop rooms where people can go to try on the past and link it to the present. The maps, guides, tours, services and merchandise that museums provide encourage this attitude. A visit to a museum is the visitor’s own in a way that the concertgoer’s attendance almost never is.

Yet concerts and museums purvey the same experience: revival. As collections, museums house objects — paintings and sculptures, artifacts and the paraphernalia of past life — that people often go not just to visit but to revisit. Many of us have favorite objects in museums. When in Philadelphia I generally make sure to spend a few moments with Thomas Eakins’s “Concert Singer”; in Chicago I try to spend at least part of Sunday in the park with George: Georges Seurat and his “Sunday La Grande Jatte — 1884.” Building an assembly of such favorite things is a primary means of experiencing and sustaining cultural values. In this way a museum visit can refresh our feeling for the meaningfulness of experience.

But that is exactly what classical music is supposed to do, and in the same way. The work of art does not change on the wall, and the fully composed work of music, though it does change from one performance to another, remains recognizably and durably itself. We keep returning to these works as cultural resources. But although we are comfortable with the idea of seeing things differently when we see them again, we have no parallel comfort when it comes to listening.

Despite the changes that performance can bring, our musical perception is supposed to be consistent and disciplined. The concert manners of the performers say so; the demeanor of the audience says so; the program notes say so; the mystique of the great composer says so. We are supposed to hear precisely the same old thing. We are supposed to hold our thoughts still. Normal listening is not too much like looking in a museum but too little.

The museum today offers a space for unhurried and indeed untimed reflection that is hard to find elsewhere; the museum has become a secular cloister. Classical music offers a similar opportunity. Listening to it, at least to its larger, paradigmatic works, is akin to such free reflection. Contrary to the cliché, the dwindling attention spans of contemporary life are no obstruction to this sort of experience. Movies last longer than string quartets; football games last longer than movies. The obstruction lies in the difference between the spectator’s power to loiter at will and the listener’s assumed powerlessness. We are supposed to hear what the music wills. The concert model asks for submission, while the museum model offers renewal.

I have often wondered if our listening is so docile. My own tendency is quite otherwise, and the sheer multiplicity of patterns and textures offered by classical music suggests that the music encourages acoustic loitering. Perhaps we should take the hint without guilt and listen the way we stare at a painting, lost in our thoughts as we could never be at work or in the street. Advocates of classical music have historically discouraged such selective listening, though it may be the most vivid and most meaningful kind. Perhaps we should adopt the museum model as fast as we can.

Reluctance to do that may help explain another of classical music’s contemporary troubles. The museum’s role as a revival house is consistent with its role as a display space for new or unfamiliar work. By concert hall standards museums are hotbeds of experimentation even if some of them, like concert halls, guard their success by overemphasizing the classics.

New classical music notoriously lacks the appeal of new art. There is no classical musical equivalent of the contemporary-art market. Sometimes this is the music’s fault, but more often it comes from context. The concert format imposes the music rather than exposing it. A looser format — some talk, some imagery, some demonstration, some room to loiter — might produce a more convivial sound even though every note remained the same. The more convivial the experience of listening becomes, the less remote the music will appear.

The museum thrives on conviviality. Its galleries are places of distinct civility in which the ebb and flow of others, the hum of their voices and the movement of their gazes blend into the perception of the art on exhibition. This is a way of experiencing public space generally denied outside the cloister. The concert hall ought to be the same sort of environment. If it isn’t, despite the good manners that prevail there, one likely reason is that the concert hall deprives its visitors of the means of personalizing their experience that the museum now supplies in abundance. Museums are stimulus-rich environments; concert halls tend to be the opposite.

The remedy could be as simple as well-placed display cases, video monitors and computer screens, together with some art on the walls, related, ideally, to the music being played. It would be nice, for example, to hear the slow movement of Mahler’s First Symphony, which is based on a weird, whiny version of the folk song best known as “Frère Jacques,” after seeing an interactive display of the movement’s visual inspiration, a woodcut widely reproduced in 19th-century German books for children.

And perhaps instead of relying solely on pre- or postconcert talks (yes, I give them too, and they have their merits), we could have conductors and performers talk with audiences or demonstrate different possibilities of performance during the concert itself. It would be nice to hear the double-bassist play the “Frère Jacques” solo without the orchestra to get a firsthand sense of just how the tune becomes so bizarre. It might even be nice to have a gift shop in which to linger after the concert; no self-respecting contemporary museum would be without one.

But why bother? Museums are robust and concerts unsteady: Why not just accept the inevitable and let one flourish while the other declines? Why, that is, does classical music still matter? With this question too the museum model offers help.

The museum as I have described it — convivial, stimulus-rich, liberal with time and space for reflection — creates a public space in which we can be privately inspired or disturbed. The classical concert ought to do the same thing, whether we are actually present or attending a purely imaginary concert by listening to a recording. Museums are places where a painting may dazzle us; the classical concert is an event in which the music may not only move and excite us, as any music might, but also possibly startle, amaze, challenge and disturb.

Classical music is very good at this. In the right circumstances even a work as overfamiliar as Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony can become a relentless assault on complacency. But for classical music to be taken to heart in an era when its expressive vocabulary is no longer seamlessly integrated with the rhythms and routines of everyday life, the concert must become a virtual museum. It must become the exact opposite of the clichéd museum invoked by the dismissive version of the museum metaphor.

More is involved in this than the public opportunity to pay close, undistracted attention. There must also be a social license to follow one’s perceptions wherever they lead. If you like, forget about everything but that solo double-bass; pick out its whining, and let it grate on you; watch the soloist’s bow arm; squirm in your seat. Listen to Mahler the way you would look at Klimt.

The modern concert-museum is or should be a space of liberty and self-invention. My trouble with the classical music world I try to serve is that it discourages this possibility by its mimicry of the museum of legend rather than the museum of contemporary fact, the old bones rather than the life and color. Classical music should only be so lucky as to have — and keep — its museum culture.

Lawrence Kramer is a professor of English and music at Fordham University and the author of “Why Classical Music Still Matters,” just published by University of California Press.

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