Thursday, October 25, 2007

Self-expression and the concert experience

A few posts ago, I observed that a cappella music is much more popular today than classical choral music, and asked why. I strongly believe that individual audience members feel better able to express themselves at the former than the latter, and, again, that the fundamental issue lies beyond the popular roots of a cappella music.

When we are in our teens, twenties, even thirties, we are constantly searching for ourselves. The most obvious way to do so is through the reactions of others (i.e. social interaction). We go to clubs and to concerts not only to hear great music, but to meet other people and to assert our individual personalities in the context of the event. It is nowhere more obvious than at the Club, where participants are expected to engage in physical acts of self-expression, persistently asserting who they are through dance.

We may do other things than dance, clap, and sing along at a popular concert, but we are at all times self-conscious about how we are perceived at these events. We assert and express ourselves through acts of non-participation, as well- we may want to convey a sense of mystery and cool through the aloof act of walking away from the stage.

We are usually free to move around the cabin, to socialize, to eat, drink, and even smoke [outside of California] during the event. While concert etiquette still applies in popular music performance, even when confined to assigned seating, one is free to sing along, tap feet wave hands, verbally respond to the presumably charismatic performer, eat, drink, etc. Even when the performer has the crowd completely mesmerized, the individual never loses sense of who they are. Last November, I went to a big U2 stadium concert, and couldn’t help but join tens of thousands of others, losing myself completely to the power of the crowd and of Bono’s charisma, yet never forgetting that it was my whole person, not just a brain and heart having this experience. Being one-in-the-crowd was just as human an experience as being that individual in a club dancing up a storm or bobbing in the corner with ones eyes soulfully closed.

It goes without saying that pop concerts and clubs are fertile social meeting grounds, and are more sexually charged than the classical concert hall. Face it- there is a much greater chance that you’ll ‘get lucky’ at a club or rock concert hall than at the Symphony.

This freedom of expression is, in part, granted through technology. Pop music performances are electronically amplified, so our behavior [usually] does not pose a distraction.. No matter how raucous the audience becomes, the artists always have the upper hand in setting the tone of our experience.

Can one allow individual audience members a similar freedom of expression in a classical music concert? Can this be achieved in live, acoustic performance? Do we have to check our personality at the door? Must we always have a quiet, ‘contemplative’ experience with this music, without interfering in the experience of the rest of the audience or of the artists?

Outdoor festival concerts allow more freedoms than those in concert halls. We are free to spread our picnic blanket, eat our lunch, read our book or newspaper, let the kids run free around the back of the amphitheater, snuggle with our loved ones, ever (god forbid) talk during the performance. While electronic amplification is helpful in this endeavor, these liberties are foremost granted because everyone understands that the tone is going to be more casual. Opera simulcasts afford similar liberties. But, is the only solution to squeeze classical music into the stadium concert experience? Can more liberties be granted to the audience in smaller, more intimate venues?


Anonymous said...

These are interesting thoughts. If you want to change the concertgoing experience, the main obstacle is inertia. Imagine planning a concert and then telling people as they walk in "feel free to cheer, stand up, or dance at any time during this concert. Lighters encouraged." Many typical audience members would probably be too self-conscious to do such things, putting pressure to conform on the few who don't have such inhibitions. Even at outdoor concerts, people don't tend to express their enthusiasm overtly in the way they do at pop concerts. If the performers kind of acted like rock stars, by wearing outrageous clothes, strutting around the stage, and exhorting the audience to action, maybe they could get the audience worked up into excitement. But the traditional format of classical concerts seems to go in the other direction.

Anonymous said...

what? you can't get laid at the symphony?
.....maybe that's what I'm doing wrong!!!

asarwate said...

It's interesting to compare concert behavior at Indian classical concerts, where a particularly virtuostic turn will entice expressions like "wah!" from the audience members.

Of course, part of it is that you're watching improvisation, but the atmosphere often feels quite formal.

And yes, I'm writing a comment 3 weeks late.

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