How long can classical music ignore the glaringly obvious?
Celebrated Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi argues that flow is a mental state of immersive and exclusive concentration that at the highest level can trigger mystical experiences - the state where nothing else seems to matter. Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi explains that music reduces psychic entropy by organising the mind of the listener, and he defines psychic entropy as the disorder generated by information that conflicts with and distracts from the carrying out of priority intentions. Extending his theory of how music reduces psychic entropy, Csiszentmihalyi proposes that greater rewards are open to those who learn to make music, and that even greater rewards can accrue to the great musicians who extend the harmony they create in sound to "the more general and abstract harmony that underlies the kind of social order we call civilisation".
One of my own modest priority intentions was fulfilled recently when I heard one of the Chemiriani dynasty of Persian musicians live in concert. I took the header photo of Bijan Chemirani during his concert with guitarist Kevin Seddiki at the Conservatoire Olivier Messiaen in Avignon. Bijan's father Djamchid Chemirani learnt to play in Iran with the zarb master Hossein Tehrani before emigrating from Tehran to France in 1961, and later formed the legendary Trio Chemirani with his two sons Keyvan and Bijan. The percussion playing of Bijan Chemirani is an example of how mystical states can be experienced by both performer and listener through immersive and exclusive concentration. But despite Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi citing music in his research, there have been only a few notable attempts to apply the flow theory to Western classical music. In fact the strategies adopted to win new audiences are diametrically opposed to the flow theory, and that paradox demands closer examination.
Immersive and exclusive concentration by both performers and audience - Britten spoke of how music "demands as much effort on the listener's part" - has been central to the development of Western classical music. Mihaly Csiszentmihalyi's flow theory, which has widespread acceptance and support in academic circles, explains, to paraphrase the title of his seminal book, how flow contributes to the psychology of optimal experience. Yet almost every strategy to win new audiences involves interrupting the immersive flow and sub-optimising the experience, with no attention at all paid to reviving the lost art of listening. The disruptive initiatives include dismantling concert hall convention, with the latest proposal being to encourage drinking and mobile phone use during concerts. This love affair with the disruptive extends beyond the concert hall to personal listening; with 'classical music to go' via streaming services - the Matthew Passion in an airport departure lounge - and intrusive linking announcements by radio presenters being prime examples.
Classical music is obsessed with, to use the tacky jargon, optimising the listener experience. The widely referenced theory advanced by a respected academic proposes that a mental state of immersive and exclusive concentration is vital to the psychology of optimal experience. Yet all the fashionable audience development initiatives use contra-flow tactics that generate distractions and sub-optimises the listening experience. How long can classical music ignore the glaringly obvious?
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