In Defense of the Concert Hall
On April 10, 1964, Glenn Gould gave his final concert. He was just 31 years old, and already he was recognized as one of the greats, a genuine master, a musician of both enormous talent and curious eccentricity.
Some background: Gould’s debut recording, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was released in 1955, and it was a tremendous success, particularly by classical music standards. It sold 40,000 copies in five years, more than 100,000 by the time Gould died in 1982, and it has never gone out of print. And let me be honest: Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of Goldberg Variations is, without a doubt, my number-one “desert island disc”. It is my favorite recording of all time, bar none. So yeah, you could say that I’m a fan.
The release of Goldberg Variations made Gould an international sensation, and his subsequent recordings and collaborations only increased his reputation. He was one of the most in-demand musicians in the world, able to perform anywhere, to ask any price... and after nine years, he gave it up. He never played another concert again. Instead, he dedicated himself to recording.
This decision, to leave the stage for the studio, is the subject of Concert Dropout, an hour-long conversation between Gould and John McClure that Columbia Records released as stand-alone record in 1968. (To be honest, calling this a conversation, or even an interview, is a bit misleading. In this case, as with many of his interviews, Gould carefully scripted the entire thing. Eccentric? Yes. Remarkable nonetheless? Absolutely.) To summarize, Gould’s argument goes something like this:
In other words, he felt that giving concerts got in the way of truly making music, and he gave it up in order to become a musician again.
In a way, I can’t argue with this decision. After all, we have benefitted incalculably from his recording career. And yet, I can’t help but feel like he missed the point a little, or at least, I wonder if his argument is becoming outdated. As much as it’s probably a fool’s errand to debate with Gould, and with all due respect to the power of recorded media, I’d like to give a few reasons why I believe that the concert hall is critical to the future of “classical” music.
1. If I would make a time capsule, I’d include a copy of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam. Published in 2000, Bowling Alone is a brilliant study of how groups of people are dying off, about how membership in community organizations is falling sharply, about how people are bowling alone instead of in leagues. Putnam’s research and conclusions are flawless, and yet, a lot has changed in fourteen years. It’s doubtful that he suspected anything like the rise of Facebook, Twitter and earbuds, not to mention other ways that people cloister themselves away from their neighbors. Live concerts are, obviously, not the cure for American isolationism, but neither is listening to music by oneself. Music is something that is wonderful in community, that is only enhanced by being a part of an audience, and I believe it’s something that’s worth investing in.
2. I blame Apple. Or maybe Napster. Or maybe it’s all Celine Dion’s fault. In reality, I’m not sure who started it. What I do know is that, while the album used to be the way people listened to music, now it's the single track. People simply don’t buy (or download) complete albums anymore, and the result is that the album has becoming something of a lost art. While musicians used to make albums that functioned as cohesive wholes (The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, Radiohead’s OK Computer, and Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea are some examples of this), many albums are now merely compilations of singles. In a way, there’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about this. The problem is that “classical” music is not made up of singles. A symphony, for example, is a multi-movement piece that works, and is intended to work, as a single unit. The same can be said, on a larger scale, about an opera. Reducing classical music down to singles is stripping the work of its context, and of part of its purpose. (Don’t even get me start on a “greatest hits” collection of the music of somewhat like Bach, Beethoven or Brahms. Egregious is an understatement.) However, to hear a work live (assuming the music director deserves to keep his job), is to a hear a work in its entirety, to have its context restored. I know I’m a bit of a curmudgeon on this one, but I don’t care. Classical music should be heard as complete works, not as chopped up sound bytes or ringtones, and the concert hall is where this is most likely to happen.
3. Sometime ago, I was given a CD of something called “relaxation music”. I believe it was, essentially, a series of chords played on a synthesizer with ocean sounds in the background. (Or maybe it was birdcalls? I can’t remember.) This was the kind of music that could be played in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, or during a yoga session, or to help cool down after a workout. I’m not being critical of this kind of music, by the way; it has its place. What I am saying is that there’s nothing terribly complicated about it. Compare this to Bach’s cello suites. They’re undeniably beautiful, and relaxing, and unobtrusive, but there’s also a complexity to the music that sets it apart from just about anything else. It’s not relaxation music; it’s great art of the highest order. There’s a very real difference. And yet, somewhere over the past several years, that difference has become blurred. “Classical music” has become synonymous with “relaxation music”, with ”background music”. There’s nothing wrong with background music, per se, but sooner or later, I believe that music deserves to come to the foreground. Classical music deserves to be listened to intently, the same way you’d watch a movie or read a book, but this is hardly ever the case. Which is why the concert hall is absolutely essential, why it is critical, why it is something that music lovers should be championing and campaigning for. It is during a live performance that people will actually listen to the music and make it the center of their attention. And it is only then, when it is at the foreground rather than the background, when the work can be truly appreciated for what it is.
Glenn Gould passed away in 1982, two days after his fiftieth birthday. As presumptuous as it may sound, I can’t help but wonder what he would make of today’s music scene were he still alive. He was completely unafraid of technology, embracing first stereo mixing then digital mastering as the future of music, but I’m not sure he would have felt the same way about portable music, about mp3’s. Maybe I’m wrong, of course, but I like to think that he’d take one look at what classical music has become—at iPods, “greatest hits”, and Beethoven as background music... I kind of hope he’d get back on the stage and start playing concerts again. I think he would recognize that to do so is, in fact, the way of the future.
Chris Massa is a musician based in Pittsburgh, PA. You are on his site right now.