May 04, 2003
How music traps you but how the visual arts don't – thoughts provoked by

On BBC Radio 3 Norman Lebrecht is about to host a discussion under the heading of : "Why Are We Scared of New Music?" (The above link takes you to the topic of the June show, but this is May. I can't find any direct mention of the May show other than the mere title.)

I wonder what they'll say. If the purpose of such programmes is to stimulate thought, then the mere presence in the Radio Times of the title of this programme has done the trick with me. I will be taping this show (while listening to Quote Unquote on another radio set), so maybe I'll have more to say about this after listening to that tape, but meanwhile here are some thoughts on the matter.

I'm going to be mundane rather than profound, because it seems to me that there are some very simple things to be said about the difference, say, between looking at a piece of sculpture and listening to a piece of music that the radio people may miss in among all the profundity they will no doubt (and quite properly for this is Radio 3) plunge into.

When I enter an art gallery and confront a piece of sculpture two things are very different from the experience of going to a concert and starting to listen to a piece of music.

First, I can leave an art gallery at any moment without in any way straying from the etiquette of the event. Walking out of an art gallery is not rudeness. It is simply what you must eventually do anyway, and you can do it whenever you want, without anyone looking askance. With music at a concert, walking out before it has finished is not the idea. You can do it, legally speaking, but it is a deviation from the basic routine.

Second, walking out of a concert before the music finishes is deeply unsatisfactory in another way. Simply, you do not know what you were missing. Music in a concert hall is a profoundly linear experience. You get the experience in a pre-arranged line of moments, and you cannot browse about along that line, and make up your mind whether you want to dig deeper, the way you can with a sculpture or a painting.

On the other hand, when you first confront an item of visual art, you immediately learn a huge amount about it, and about whether you want to view it and reflect upon it more, or to walk on or walk away. In this sense viewing visual art is a hierarchical experience, not in the sense that your father or your boss tells you to view it, but in the sense that you get supplied, in the nature of the thing and in the nature of the way you see it, with a rough outline of what you are being offered, into which you can dig deeper, wherever you like, and in whatever degree of detail you like. You get the big map, and you can zoom in at your leisure at any point on the map. And you are not at any stage in this experience in any way trapped in it.

So, what I'm saying is that – unless you are being dragged around a gallery by somebody else who has no concern for your response, which can happen of course – concert music traps you, while visual art doesn't.

Recordings of music are a somewhat different matter. You can browse through a CD when you are on your own at home, at least in the sense of dipping in at different moments and fast forwarding. But even that is difficult. You don't really get much of an idea about it without subjecting yourself to at least some of the music's linearity, by surrendering at least a little of your attention to it for a while. Nevertheless, it is a common fact of the CD industry that people (I'm most definitely one of them) who will risk a few quid on perhaps unwelcome music in a way that they absolutely refuse to risk time in a concert hall. CD buyers are much more "adventurous" than concert goers. But of course they are the same people! What is really going on is that a concert is much more of an "adventure", that is to say more of a risk of serious unhappiness, in a way that wasting a few pounds on a horrible CD is not.

Incidentally, the written word, and most especially the printed word, is often touted as the ultimate in "linear" artistic experience. (Think Marshall McLuhan.) Not in the sense I mean. When you pick up a book you can work out an amazing amount about it in a couple of minutes, by glancing at the contents page, if any, and by dipping in it at random, which is an inherently easier thing to do with a book than with a sound recording, I submit. And when you read a book, that's an inherently individual experience, and if you stop you don't have to barge past anyone else's legs to get away. It's between you and the book.

Poetry readings, now, they're a different thing altogether. I have the suspicion that if it was considered routine for all novels to be "first performed" by being read aloud at public, shared events, we'd all be pretty scared about that also. And how popular would art galleries be if you had to sit in a particular chair and stare at the stuff, for a prearranged time?

None of this has anything to do with either the intrinsic or the it-just-so-happens-now niceness or nastiness of the visual (or literary) arts as opposed to the musical arts. I have (and have had) thoughts along those lines too ("new" music? etc.), of course, but for here, for now, they can wait.

By the way, I have taped and listened to it intermittently, in among interruptions, and it seems they also covered the "trapped" issue, in among, as I said, more profound things. I'm looking forward to settling down to the whole thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:05 PM
Category: Classical music