Music does not exist in a vacuum

Benjamin Britten in reflective mood outside the Old Mill at Snape while completing Peter Grimes in 1945. That opera, like all of Britten's output, is a mystical fusion of music and place. We talk of Britten's Aldeburgh, Bach's Leipzig, Elgar's Malvern, and Bernstein's New York, yet the relationship between music and place is only just starting to be explored by pioneering projects such as musicDNA.

That mystical fusion of music and place appeared again a few days ago in an email from Alex Ross -
I first heard that Korngold recording in high school — there was a wonderful art room with a no less wonderful record collection curated by an art teacher who had since passed away. I would play it at maximum volume late at night.
Alex's anecdote resonated with me as I too have an extraordinarily strong recall of music and place, to the point where I can remember where and when I first heard many pieces of music. So strong is the recall that I have sometimes wondered if there is a spatial equivalent of synaesthesia. Support for a link between music and place comes from the influential philosopher and educationist Rudolf Steiner. His living idea concept proposes both that ideas have life of their own, and that living with an idea in one's mind predicates living differently.

Accepting that music and place are living ideas that interact with the listener takes us down some exciting new paths. Already the spatial dimension has provided the only two major music success stories of recent years - multi-channel home cinema systems, with their spatially enhanced sound, and portable media players, which take music to new places. Place is starting to be recognised as an important part of the performace equation and innovative new spaces are being explored. These include live music in a geodesic dome, on a floating stage, on a Cold War bomber base, on a cruise ship, inside a prison, and even in a circus ring.

Classical music desperately needs new audiences. But virtually all efforts to find one have been directed at attracting new listeners to the same music in the same place, which is usually a conventional concert hall complete with all its associated baggage. Is the resistance of new audiences lowered if the music is experienced in a neutral place? Is the key to reaching new audiences location, location and location? Is the concert hall as architectural icon as doomed as the tuxedo? Will traditional concert halls and opera houses be victims of a 'perfect storm' triggered by the collision of economic turbulence, environmental concerns and the demands of new audiences? Is classical music a living idea that can only breathe in the future if it escapes the vacuum of the concert hall?

* Alex Ross also kindly pointed out a book by the American musicologist Denise von Glahn titled The Sounds of Place and provided a link to his own post on the Korngold symphony. From my own bookshelf I have picked out A Musical Gazetteer of Grat Britain & Ireland by Gerald Morris and Musical Landscapes by John Burke, both long out-of-print.

* My headline is provided by Britten's 1964 Aspen Award acceptance speech in which he said -
I also take note of the human circumstances of music, of its environment and conventions ... music does not exist in a vacuum.
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Pliable said…
Email received:

But, of course, vacuums exist in music (and I don’t mean the emptiness of Lady GaGa, either!): Sir Malcolm Arnold’s A Grand Grand Overture, discussed on your blog many many times.


David Cavlovic
On your point about conventional concert halls, I keep coming back to the idea that due to the advent of recorded music, people encounter live classical music performances in fewer and fewer places. There's nothing particularly wrong with traditional large scale venues, but if they're just about the only musical places, then the population at large is going to loose touch with the elements of music that cannot be captured in recordings, such as the full timbres of the instruments and the visceral connection one can feel with live performers. It's like having the capstone to a pyramid without the pyramid.
my sense of music and place is very strong.I remember being glued to the wall the first time I heard RVW variations on a theme by thomas tallis in the old barnes and noble on 16th street. The first time I heard Niles Kind of Blue i was in a building that no longer exists, I can see its tobacco stained walls as I write this.Sad eyed lady of the lowlands is my parents basement[alas now also no more, in a ripped up lounge chair, smoking a cigarette,hunched forward to catch every word.Brandenburg cocerto was in Barnes and Noble,too a saturday afternoon in 1980,it was warm outside and I was in ,literally,and it was Karajans version!
Isn't it the same Marcel Proust has underlined? Fragments of taste, smell, music, noises and all kinds of sense products induce mnemonic bursts and make us recall places and happenings. It's how human mind is structured: full of interactive links.
Pliable said…
That is a great blog you have Maria Jose. Other readers should follow the link -
Version 1.0.1 of musicGPS released:
@WD - If only it had been around in 1980...!

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