04 April 2019

It's Only Music

In an essay he wrote for last month's magazine, the hi-fi editor of Gramophone bemoaned the habit people have of talking over music.  In his job he attends plenty of hi-fi shows where the latest audio playback equipment is demonstrated, and he is becoming increasingly bemused by “those uncontrollable visitors who seem to have developed a penchant for having a bit of a chat during demonstrations”.  He goes on; “I get that you might want to share one’s enthusiasm for what you’re experiencing, or indeed express your criticism if you’re less than delighted, but surely that’s something that happens at the end of what’s being played, not during it”.  Puzzled that when people are presumably contemplating forking out extortionate amounts on domestic audio equipment (the same issue of the magazine reviews a pair of speakers costing £59,995.00) they can’t even be bothered to listen to them in action, he ruminates on how we have changed the way in which we consume music; “in the age of ‘free’ music online, albums giving way to ‘songs’ and everything reduced to bite-sized chunks, the new normal is that music is in the background, a wallpaper against which one lives one’s life”.  As if to test this theory, he put it to a younger friend; “The response wasn’t, ‘How rude of them to talk over the music’, but ‘What’s the problem? It’s only music”.

I’m not a regular attendee of hi-fi shows – the last one I went to was in Hong Kong in 1991 – and when I recently went out to buy some new audio equipment, the hi-fi dealer I visited in Singapore did not even have a listening room in which I could try it out; luckily the recommendation from Gramophone was good enough, and I have it now happily installed in my own listening room.  But I am an extraordinarily active attendee of concerts – five this week and six more before bedtime on Sunday – and a connected issue affects my enjoyment of those.  People do talk during concerts, but not that often.  What seriously disturbs me are those who spend the entire time while music is playing engaging with their mobile phones.  The disturbing pin-pricks of bright light, the irritating clicking of thumbs on screens, the periodic elevation of the phone in order to take pictures over the heads of those in front, the serried ranks of heads bent over screens when a bunch of hardworking musicians is working tirelessly on stage; all of this is a major distraction to me and a symptom of a society in which music is not an art or an entertainment, merely something which exists.

Audience research statistics in Singapore compiled over the last two months have shown that a majority (roughly 82%) are there to “support” friends and family on stage.  The National Arts Council indicated this with its own set of statistics which, improbably, claimed that;

·         80% “Attended at least one arts event or activity in 2015”

·         40% “are interested in arts and cultural events”.

The obvious incongruity here is that why would so many people attend an arts event when they express no interest in the arts?  Initially, we might be inclined to doubt the veracity of the government’s statistics – after all no government on earth seriously associates statistics with reality – but other commentators than myself have suggested this discrepancy is caused by the habit Singaporeans have of attending something merely to offer support to friends and family involved in it, rather than for their own pleasure.  And the statistics my students have unearthed in their extensive fieldwork researches bear that out pretty conclusively.


So we can, possibly, understand - if not excuse - why so few concert attendees engage with the music being performed.  I still suggest that it is the height of bad manners to support your friends and family by ignoring them and, effectively, forcing others to ignore them, but I am not privy to the social mores of average Singaporean families and perhaps such behaviour is not seen as offensive.  For me, if my friends and family turned up to my concert to support me by pointedly ignoring me and my music-making, I’d ban them from future appearances.  The invidious performance photograph, snatched during the performance to the endless frustration of the over-zealous concert hall staff, the extreme irritation of fellow concert-goers, and the endless mortification of those on stage, is a symptom of this preponderance of “supporters” over “audience”.


However, it is not just the supporters who do not listen.  It has become the norm across all audience profiles.  Whenever I play a musical extract in a lecture to music students, that is an immediate cue for them to start talking.  Imagine; the very people for whom catching and retaining the total attention of a paying public is an absolute professional necessity, do not even begin to recognise their responsibility as audience members to their professional superiors, whether they can see them or not.  “Music is free, music is everywhere…it’s just music, who cares?”  A mantra of society, sadly, but disastrously, a mantra of music students too, who fail to recognise the terminal futility of entering a career in which they themselves have no apparent interest.


Last night I attended an amazing concert in which graduating students curated and presented a highly visually imaginative and aurally spectacular programme.  Such was the incredible standard of performance by all the musicians, that I personally felt deeply disappointed that all we had were tiny bite-sized extracts of larger scores (Oh, to have heard the whole of Schubert’s priceless Octet with such a vivacious and committed ensemble performing, to have heard the other two of Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano with such a fabulously vibrant orchestra and such a perceptive conductor and, biggest regret of all, not to hear ALL of Poulenc’s Un Bal Masqué when the performers had not only got into the style of the music so totally, but delivered it with such polish and professionalism I can honestly say I would have no hesitation in recommending it to any producer keen to bring a powerful new interpretation of this marvellous work into the record catalogues.)  But the bite-sized chunks were an inevitable consequence of having to give so many highly talented young individuals their moment in the spotlight.  What’s more, it harked back to the 19th century concert practice of taking isolated movements and extracts to make a more attractively kaleidoscopic experience to the musically uninitiated; something that went when the gramophone (as a machine rather than a magazine) brought musical accessibility to the masses.  Nevertheless, my hope is that in the not-too distant future, each of these performances might be publicly revisited as part of a more sustained musical experience. 


Looking at last night’s audience, there were probably a good 82% supporting friends and family on stage, taking the inevitable photographs to the inevitable accompaniment of clicking heels as ushers rushed to prevent this (on the grounds of copyright infringement over public inconvenience, I assume). So, if - and hopefully when - these talented musicians put themselves back into the spotlight as performers with music-making of this quality, I suspect they would do better to go outside Singapore where a true audience can be assembled to appreciate their collective brilliance undisturbed by the hordes of supporters who populate most concerts here.  But while the preponderance of concert “supporter” does seem to be a peculiarly Singaporean phenomenon – at least in the proportion of supporter to audience – has the art of listening, as my Gramophone colleague implies, generally disappeared from society at large?


I hold on to my belief that music is something we should nurture and care for by intense and dedicated listening, but I realise that in this I am at odds with society.  Denigrating music to the function of aural wallpaper and an accompaniment to other activities is something I abhor, but throughout history the way we engage with music has never been constant.  I have already mentioned the 19th century practice of bite-sized chunks in concert, and concerts themselves are essentially an 18th century innovation.  Bach’s secular music was often played in coffee shops or out of doors to accompany people getting on with their lives in other ways.  Non-performers’ engagement with music is a continually shifting thing, and if some of us are left behind by the change, the fault is entirely our own.  I’ll never be able to accept that great art is merely wallpaper, but I must not criticise those who do; they are merely keeping up with society.


  1. Can it not be both at the same time ? That is great art to those wto want to give it their undivided attention, and simultaneously a pleasant background to those who don't or can't ? When at an art gallery, one person may be focused on one work while others choose to walk past on their way to see another. I would suggest that this doesn't detract from the greatness of that art.

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