Is classical music a personal or public experience?

In his 88-part poem Cables to the Air Thomas Merton tells us that 'La musique est une joie inventée par le silence' - music is a joy invented by silence. D. T. Suzuki was responsible for awakening the Zen spirit of both John Cage and Thomas Merton, and Cage took the assertion that music springs from silence to its logical - or should that be illogical? - limit in his 'silent piece' 4' 33". Silence, where music originates, is a personal space; however fundamental changes in technology and consumer behaviour are pushing classical music into the public space. It is this tension between the public and private that may explain why the art form is struggling to gain traction with new audiences.

These musings are prompted by recent listening with AKG N60NC active noise cancelling headphones. Extensive travelling means that headphones play an important role in my listening. But as an adherent to Quad hi-fi marque founder Peter Walker's assertion that "the perfect amplifier is a straight wire with gain" I have shunned noise cancelling, because of the possible degradation of sound quality. But time spent on long haul flights and a conviction that if the music had been through the binary mincing machine little more damage can be done to it, prompted me to audition and then purchase the AKG noise cancelling 'phones, which also have Blutooth capability*. (Mobile devices are now the listening mode of choice for music, and Bluetooth is the standard for short-range wireless data exchange both for mobile and domestic applications. Our cultural commentators take every opportunity to disparage the sound quality of London concert halls. But has a cultural commentator ever written about Bluetooth's degradation of audio quality? Standard Bluetooth streams music at 328kb/s, a rate below MP3 quality.)

AKG's active noise cancelling does exactly what is says on the cans - forgive the pun - and makes listening to classical music a tolerable and sometimes inspirational experience on long flights. But what has surprised and intrigued me is the benefit of noise cancelling away from the drone of turbofan engines - in the photo I am watching the sun set over the Libyan Sea from the south coast of Crete while listening to John Luther Adams' Become Ocean. My time spent with the AKG noise cancellers in a variety of environments has forcibly reminded me of the level of everyday noise pollution that we have come to accept, and the dramatic benefits of reducing that pollution when listening to music - suddenly the music really is a joy originating from the blackness of personal silence.

One of the overlooked impacts of the global love affair with social media is the merging of personal and public space. A recent UK survey showed that the average person checked their mobile phone 28 times a day, which totals more than 10,000 times a year. While another survey reported that almost half (45%) of young people check their mobile phones after they have gone to bed. Yet another piece of research vividly underlines how technology has merged private and public space - 75 percent of Americans use their phone while in the toilet. Music is caught up in this convergence: private listening in public spaces via sonically porous earbuds is now the de facto listening mode. My advocacy of noise cancelling headphones is just another manifestation of this relentless convergence, with smart technology being used to create an artificial personal space within a public one.

Today we live our lives 24/7 in a merged public/personal space. Yet traditionally the native habitat of classical music is personal space - the acoustically perfect concert hall where privacy is guaranteed by a cordon sanitaire of architect-designed silence. Classical music is struggling to adapt to the progressive loss of its native habitat, and this may be the reason why the art form is failing to gain traction with new audiences. Nowhere is this more evident than the BBC Proms, where dribbles of between-movement applause, impromptu quasi-political speeches and other 'relaxations' of etiquette are imposed on the traditional personal space of a classical concert. The result is an experience that singularly fails to satisfy both the new concertgoer and the committed classical geek.

Transformative listening experiences depend on an auspicious convergence of 'set' - the listeners mindset - and 'setting' - the listening environment. When both set and setting are optimised more synapses become active and there is a corresponding increase in neural connections, and hey voilà!, your audience connects with the music. I am only too aware that this article discusses the problem of the erosion of personal listening space, but does not offer quick fixes comparable with the tried and not surprisingly rejected disco lighting, tweeting during concerts and other snake oil. But as Jiddu Krishnamurti taught: " If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come out of it; because the answer is in the problem, it is not separate from the problem". Perhaps classical music's predicament is not the lack of a new audience; perhaps the predicament is a failure to understand the problem for audiences - new and established - created by the convergence of personal and public listening space.

I purchased the AKG N60NC headphones from a Richer Sounds store. My social media accounts are deleted. But new Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


mathias broucek said…
I have a pair of Bose noise-cancellers. I agree that they give all sorts of new listening possibilities! Although I use a wired connection for the reasons you cite

Although I bought them because I fly a lot, I also find that they are a great cure for the general noisiness of modern life...

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