Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Silence is a sounding thing...

...To one who listens hungrily” - Gwendolyn Bennett

How long will it be before I can download silence to listen to on my iPod? I want silence – I like it – I am not afraid of it, or of myself. But I can’t have it: Sonic assault abounds. In bars, restaurants, supermarkets, shops, busses, and now, thanks to the ubiquity of the tizzy leakage from insufficiently well plugged ear buds, on trains too. Background muzak has wafted into our lives just as smoke has drifted out. And in my view, passive listening is just as bad for one’s health.

It’s not the apparent ceaseless need to listen to music that worries me: but that I don’t really believe most people are actually listening at all. We’re inured to media bombardment on all fronts; advertising is almost continuous in one form or another, and it is into this corporate realm that music now tempts and teases us.

Microsoft’s refrain (with its annoying, poorly executed fade) at PC start-up and the repeated jingles on commercial radio are the more overtly irritating anti-musical strains that violate our sensibilities. But the vast panoply of music that is produced, owned, and distributed by giant corporations and which assaults our senses and insults our intelligence is commercial branding, designed to be inescapable rather than listened to. Music provides a backdrop and the soundtrack to the increasingly idealised lives that we are encouraged to buy into. It is not, for the most part, created to stimulate, nor to encourage thought or engagement, but to pacify, calm, soothe and inevitably, to sell.

Popularity’s proximity to conformity encourages and enhances this effect. No doubt the world is brimming with original musical acts, but those who achieve mainstream commercial success will seldom threaten the status quo. This is truer now than ever before – thanks to the rapaciousness of contemporary commercialism, where record companies prize saleability above originality. This quest for popularity for its own sake is conceited and culturally stultifying.

The same insidious conformity threatens classical music too. If we want to know why audience numbers are dropping and fewer people are buying classical music recordings, we would do well to look a bit closer at the products that advertise musicians: namely CDs. The shackles of potent commercialism force classical music into an invidious position. Popularity and demanding art forms are rare companions.

A recording used to be representative of a musician’s concert performance. Indeed, it is widely assumed that the objective of a good classical recording is to re-create the sense of a live performance. But the way records are made has changed; recordings have assumed unwarranted influence, and in doing so, have altered the way musicians perform and, to a lesser extent, the way audiences listen to concerts. CDs - impeccably honed, unthreatening, perfect and as stylised as a supermodel - have become the standard by which musicians are assessed.

It is astonishingly rare these days for musicians to release live recordings. Sure, there are plenty that claim to be live, but they usually involve editing between a number of performances and a series of post-concert patches. The concoction that results from this elaborate hoax is rarely more than a cheapskate substitute for a studio recording bearing few of the human qualities present in real live performance.

Accuracy is of course something of a prerequisite to a fine performance but it is not an end in itself. If a performance – or a recording – is merely accurate, it might at best be considered impressive. If it has no other, more inspired and inspiring qualities, it is worthless because it will communicate nothing. Herein lies the problem. Classical music, like all demanding art forms is not easy, either to perform, or to listen to. But like any human communication, if it is to convey something, it must have humanity: it must have soul. CDs rarely do: they exist to be sold. And in order to appeal to the widest possible public, they must be unthreatening and conform to the norm. Consequently, they commonly have little to offer beyond the academic. This is not because the musicians are soulless or incapable but because they are entangled in a vicious circle that compels them to equal the idealised performances enshrined on disc. As a result, performances are in danger of becoming constrained and narrow: when risk becomes too risky - conformity rules.

We can reclaim music from the corporate giants if we so desire. But we need to use our heads, and we need to give ourselves space to think - and to listen. Once we re-establish listening as an active pastime we’ll have come some way toward this goal. Listening is not doing nothing. Music need not be – and should not be merely background. We can pod-to-our-heart’s-content while we’re 'multitasking', but lets not fool ourselves; distraction is not listening – music and musicians deserve our full attention.

Read Barenboim's The Phenomenon of Sound

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