I heard an all Bach concert yesterday. Bach always feels like a date with the Divine. I adore his music from start to finish. I love listening to him, I love playing him, I love singing him.
More than any other composer, Bach’s music seems to me to be always going on. It’s continually playing in other dimensions and other ages. Performing him or listening to him involves a tiny opening where I breathe the air of timelessness. His music condenses to a pure golden filament that musicians pull out of one world and thread back into another note by note.
So I ask you, does a Bach concert seem like the place to lean over to your husband and say, “Did you take the clothes out of the dryer before we left?” or “You have to pick the kids up tomorrow.” And truly, nobody cares that you heard this concerto at Tanglewood or that Penelope and Julians’s daughter played it for her honors recital. My God, you’re missing the presence of the divine right now. If you apprehended that, you wouldn’t be rustling your candy wrapper during the Preludium.
We need security checks at classical music concerts far more than we do at the airport. Leave everything that rattles or pings or plays Maple Leaf Rag on ring tone in a big plastic tub before you walk in.
There are only two venues where I feel safe from extraneous noises: performances of Wagner’s Ring and performances of Gilbert and Sullivan. The audiences are absolutely fanatical. They would bludgeon you with their opera glasses before they’d miss a single motif or patter. I, personally, have been shushed in both venues, so I know.
I had a French teacher in high school in the 60’s who told us at least once a day, “The television has ruined your ability to listen and comprehend.” I’ll carry that thought into this century and say that CDs have confused our ideas about what music is. When you listen to a CD, you hear music being played or sung the same way every time, and often so enhanced, it comes out like an audible hair-do held in its unnatural shape with half a can of Product.
But music is alive. There is no enhanced. It’s not about perfect. Music wants to breathe and to exhale differently every time. And it wants to communicate. When we get a chance to hear live music, we might want to keep our mouths shut because even with amateurs, even in “awful” performances, somewhere in there is bound to be something both magical and gloriously human.
You know what else is gloriously human? The people behind the instruments. Musicians are people who have spent tens of thousands of hours practicing and hundreds of thousands of dollars on lessons; and who never dreamed that we’d be mistaken for radios or CD players by members of our own race.
Here is where technological advances have not served our society: we have become a nation of CD listeners, not a nation of music makers. As a teacher I can tell you that joy is available in the very first attempt at actual music making. Music is in our bodies and in our souls, not in a box. When we make our tentative squeaks and plunks, we aren’t supposed to sound like perfected recordings or like our favorite performers. We sound like us. We fall in love with our own sound and the resonances in our own bodies. Then we always have enough and there’s always more to have.
Jazz musicians have come to terms with this. They are used to being treated like elevator or restaurant music so they face each other, not the audience. They communicate with and enjoy each other. They know they create their own joy. If you listen to a set, pay attention, express some appreciation, and leave a tip, that’s an unexpected bonus for them. The real losers are the ones that don’t listen at all or who never learn to make music in the first place.
So everyone, repeat after me: “Live music is not background music.” Now go sign up for some lessons, join a choir or orchestra, hug a musician. The laundry will always be there. And don’t mess with the Divine.