Set and setting

Set and setting, the mind set prior to taking LSD and the physical setting in which the experience takes place, seem to be the defining factors in how people interpret the LSD experience.
That extract is from Andy Roberts’ Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain. Hallucinogenics and classical music may differ radically in social acceptance, but the ultimate aim of both is to transport the user to a better place. Yet, although classical music is fazed by its inability to connect with new audiences, it refuses to consider the possibilities offered by the fuzzy area that lies between science and pseudoscience.

Set and setting is one of those possibilities, and the argument for further exploration is persuasive. Access to classical music has been improving for decades. First it was only available in the concert hall. Then came crude phonographs followed by poor quality radios. Then came the hi-fi boom. And in recent decades accessibility has increase at an exponential rate via iPods and the internet. Yet paradoxically, in parallel with that increasing accessibility the popularity of classical music has declined, and that decline has accelerated as the use of mobile players and the internet has increased. As Benjamin Britten - who knew something about engaging audiences – explained: “If I say the loudspeaker is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study, or as an evoker of memories. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding”.

Just one example of the importance of set and setting is the enduring popularity of the BBC Proms. This defies rational analysis; the Albert Hall is a cavernous, acoustically poor and physically uncomfortable venue – which should mean an unsatisfactory concert experience. Yet the Proms increase in popularity and continue to attract a young audience that is increasingly absent elsewhere. This is because the set and setting of a Promenade concert define the experience for those in the hall – an experience that is never fully replicated by radio and TV relays of the concerts.

Could set and setting be the defining factor in how listeners interpret classical music? Would a gourmet meal be the same rewarding experience if eaten standing in a crowded subway carriage? Is the portable loudspeaker the enemy of classical music? Hallucinogenics and classical music may have more in common that we think - the header image shows my 1972 LP of Berlioz’s opium inspired Symphonie Fantastique. More on that fuzzy area between science and pseudoscience here.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain was borrowed from Norwich library. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Anonymous said…
As always, a thoughtful post, and particularly timely as I am preparing to give a performance of classical music (Kreisler, Bach, Rachmaninov, Piazzolla and Elgar) in a "non-classical" setting - a pub, in fact. Setting definitely influences the way people experience music and many newcomers to classical music are put off by the pre-conceived etiquette of the traditional concert hall. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has been particularly good at breaking down barriers between audience and performers, with its initiatives such as The Night Shift. Ditto Classical Revolution. In a way, it's time to return classical music to its original setting - the salon, and to be allowed to enjoy classical music in less formal settings.
That quote of Britten's about the loudspeaker reminded me of something said to me recently by one of the best musicians I know - that to his ear, whenever you use amplification for music, something is lost - those upper partials and the complexity that make live sound what it is.

Also, whereas for now it's mostly in the realm of pseudoscience (ESP?) my feeling is that in time there will be empirical data to explain that connection between audience and performer that can catalyse those "flow" moments we all want more of.

I think you're absolutely right about set and setting. We may find out more about that soon. Some researchers at Johns Hopkins University have somehow gotten the official OK to pick up where Grof had to leave off evaluating psychedelics as a therapeutic agent when it all became illegal (I'm pretty sure Grof was the one who came up with the importance of set and setting)

I've always suspected Tim Leary's massive ego trip did more harm than good for the cause of psychedelics as a therapeutic agents.
Pliable said…
Lyle, thanks for that. I have a post awaiting upload about detrimental effect that technology - particularly digital technology - has on sound reproduction and therefore the classical music listening experience. But I have to feed these posts in slowly as they can prove too much for those readers more used to a diet of industry press releases.

I can also promise more from Andy Roberts' book, which unlike most industry press releases is both informative and well written.
Anonymous said…
Interesting questions! Set and setting is perhaps less important than it used to be - and, certainly, when it comes to attracting new and diverse audiences, taking classical music out of the concert hall can yield very positive results. Just look at how many classical music club nights there are now... and quirky concerts are always attractive. We're putting on a series of Bach performances in a local train station at our festival this year and it's proving to be one of the most popular of all on offer!
Pliable said…
Thanks for that thetwomoorsfestival. I think I should have made myself clearer in the post. My concern is not so much the right set and setting within live music - ie a concert hall being better than a train station for a live performance.

My concern was more the set and setting of live versus reproduced classical music. I am delighted and not too surprised that live Bach in a train station has sold out. Far better that than Bach on an iPod in the same station.

It is a mistake to assume that a conventional concert hall provides the right set and setting - in fact the formality may detract from the experience. The Proms venue at the Albert Hall is a good example - it is not a conventional concert hall but is a very successful venue despite its many shortcomings. Snape Maltings is another example, it is a converted agricultural building in the middle of nowhere that provides one of the most satisfying concert experiences in the world.
casualasbirds said…
Thanks for a thought-provoking post, and for the link in its last word. The effects of context on the way we experience music, and on our perceptions in general, are indeed fascinating and diverse.
There are a couple of things I'm struggling to understand. What is the relevance of pseudoscience here? The question is taken seriously by several fields of scientific study (see among others the Wikipedia entries for Set (psychology), Priming (psychology), Attention, Cognitive bias, Auditory illusion). Science is all about being prepared to be wrong in interesting ways, to be forced out of your cognitive comfort zone by unexpected facts. Pseudoscience is about offering cheap explanations without caring about investigating their truth (there is a technical term for it). There are useful ways of knowing that are not scientific, but pseudoscience is not one of them; there may well be answers that science will never give us, but we will never know unless we try.
Also, with reference to the linked post, what is the relevance of Bell's theorem to this? The "performer, audience, instruments, hall acoustic, physical performance space, climatic and environmental conditions" are all things that the live-music listener is well used to experiencing consciously and directly; why invoke non-local quantum causality?
Meugher said…
Thanks very much for quoting from Albion Dreaming and for the other positive comments about it. You are most welcome to quote from it as much as you like!

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