In our times, concert halls for classical music are strange places. Why do we still frequent them if we could listen to the same piece, in a more superior sound-quality recording, at home? I know, you could potentially say the same for pop concerts. But there, the focus is decidedly on the performing star, whereas in classical music concerts, people at least pretend to be there mainly for the music itself (in New York, there are of course those Upper East Side ladies that come to check out whether Anne-Sophie Mutter looks as stunning in person in her Dior gowns as she does in the pictures – but that’s New York for you).
I was confronted again with this question last week when I went to my first concert at the Lincoln Center since I had returned to New York. I hadn’t been to many concerts in Europe this year and was thirsty for music – that day, they played Mahler’s tortured First Symphony – and drank up every note with my eyes closed. I still couldn’t help noticing the anthropological differences in concert behavior of the New York crowd to Berlin though (or indeed, Beijing, but that’s for another post), not least because New Yorkers are fantastically noisy.
Our grand German writer on Kultur, Thomas Mann, claimed that the Western theatre and concert hall manners are a secularized version of Christian church mass rituals: the performers stand on the sacred stage in the front, the audience is asked to be quiet and reverent, the performance is not to be interrupted by individual outbursts of emotion from the audience, and the at the beginning of the performance, a besinnlich, a kind of reflective and introspective silence is supposed to be taken up by each audience member. All of this is very hard for impatient, impulsive and constantly fiddling New Yorkers, but they really do try (during my visit though, they still couldn’t help clapping sporadically in between the movements).
Most of all, what I realized this time is that New Yorkers and possibly Americans in general, are nervous about their own cultural self-identity in concert halls. Actually, they are not just nervous, they are terrified. They know that they are ‘doing’ a cultural event right now, that this is Old Europe and they are supposed to know it, that there are social norms and rules of restraining one’s usual behavior in this setting, but at the same time, they cannot help feeling out of place in some profound way. Some will flick restlessly through the program notes and study the pages with the fundraising party photos that display botoxed Upper East Side ladies (there they are again!) sipping champagne a tad too long. Others will simply join the Platinum Circle with a hefty yearly donation that makes them feel like they own the place.
I don’t mean to be unkind here. There are also those who carry some of that nervousness to a level where they become open to the music in a naïve, sensual way, and of course, there are those who don’t experience that nervousness at all. I always feel more comfortable in New York concert halls than in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany – exactly because there is so much insecurity about Western identity hovering around, Americans don’t have a rigid conception of who should attend the concert with them. I don’t get strange looks with my Chinese appearance, or if I occasionally turn up in traditional hanfu clothing.
In Berlin, it’s another story. There, I am almost bound each time to get benevolently condescending comments and looks about my ‘Asian’ presence there. At a performance by the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, people will ask whether I am Japanese (despite the fact that Uchida grew up in Vienna with Japanese diplomat parents and speaks perfect Wienerisch), in a way that makes me feel as if I am a cultural tourist at this concert where usually only the ‘real’ Germans are allowed to go. Because I am not white, people will address me in English (from the ticket booth person to the person who seats me and my neighbor in the row) because they assume that the possibility of me living and having grown up in Germany and of me deciding to attend a concert with them and needing to hear this music just as much as they do is a sheer impossibility.
And yet, despite all the sensory and emotional distractions that I await me (and that I dread) each time I visit a concert hall, I keep going back. There is something about being physically present in the auditory range of the music that is deeply compelling, both intellectually and sensually. There is a communication that happens between the musicians and the audience that is hard to put into words. Indeed, Gao Can, a renowned young Chinese violinist and old family friend, told me that when he performed this year in the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, he experienced an incredible kind of dialogue with the audience – they seemed to anticipate and understand each musical turn – that he had rarely encountered in other concert halls before. That’s Old Europe for you, too.
One could of course take a different approach to these distractions and like Sviatoslav Richter, one of the great pianist maestros of the 20th century, demand in his old age that performances should take place in small, darkened rooms where the audience could not see the performer’s facial expressions and movements. But I believe that being able to visualize the moving music through the bodily movements on stage gives us a particular cognitive satisfaction. Recent brain research on the neuroscience of music discovered that listening to (classical) music is vitally connected to mental state attribution of others and our social brain functions, and that the ability to recognize emotional intentions in music can potentially hold off dementia (there will be a dedicated post in the near future about the neuroscience of music, so I’ll stop here). In that light, being able to see who performs the music and how they perform it is an integral part of the social aspect of our musical experience.
When talking about the social aspect of music, I am reminded of the way how music was performed in Ancient China. Apart from the more formal performances in Confucian temples, where music was an integral part of the religious ceremonies, musical performances in Tang Dynasty China, for example, were highly intimate and informal occasions. A handful of scholars and poets would gather around the musician, get drunk on rice wine, philosophize, and write calligraphy and poetry on the spot. The famous Tang poets Li Bai and Bai Juyi, for example, discuss music in many of their poems – music serves as poetic inspiration, melancholic expression of exile and home, and has an undeniable sensual-erotic aspect as well.
This is why when I see someone playing the Ancient Guqin string instrument at ‘Chinese Culture Weeks’ in Western-style concert halls today, I always feel that the setting is way too vast and formal. This problem cannot be alleviated simply by moving the Guqin player to a smaller stage and room, because, if you remember Thomas Mann’s analysis, the dynamics there between the musician and the audience are meant to be more hierarchical and rigid. The Chinese Tang musician, however, has to be able to pick up their instrument, carry it for miles and up mountains, and set foot wherever the next occasion of a meeting between nomadic minds arises…