Context in the Concert Setting

My seventh grade English teacher told us one day that she thought all books should have black covers, with just the title and author on it.  Why?  Because the imagery provided by a cover defines the inception of what we think the book is about.  How can you judge a book by its cover, or at least have the cover image skew or define the book for you at first, if there is no cover, or no cover image?

This relates to the concert setting greatly.  I realize that we need a “cover” for a concert: the repertoire being played, the ensemble, the time, the reason for it being on a certain date/event, etc.   But, I think this context or “cover” affects our listening to a concert without our knowing it all too often.  In short, I think that although we need context in the concert setting, we should be wary and judgmental of it, and question it.  This is because if we don’t question our pre-concert notions and the context that the concert is placed in, we succumb to the context and preconceived notions and are blinded by them.

Let’s have an example.  What is the difference in context between a prestigious string quartet coming to a conservatory to give a performance of classical string quartets (let’s say the repertoire is Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, just for simplicity’s sake), and a concert of new music put on by freshman (first-year undergraduate) composers at that same conservatory?

The context of the string quartet is one of respect for their prestige, the established-as-“good” music they are playing, the fact that they are professionals on tour, the level of expectation being set very high, the audience being older (generally) and more educated than most citizens, there being music one might have heard before by different ensembles both live and recorded, and that the music will sound similar (between composers), tonal, structured, metered, and orderly.

The context of the new music concert put on by freshman composers is one of not fully developed potential, music that might not be prepared perfectly by the performers, music that might vary greatly from piece to piece, music that may be extremely avant-garde, influenced by contemporary popular music, or very conservative, the expectation of something one has not heard before and may be a premiere, a younger audience whose education is usually still in progress, a reliance on conceptualism and idea over musical content (relative to the string quartet’s performance), etc. (the list goes on and on).

Notice that I don’t want to demean or raise up either of these two concert situations.  However, one has to keep in mind that these are two distinct contexts.  If we don’t recognize these contexts, then we are devoid of information that might make us want to go to the concert, give us a starting point in our evaluation of the performance, and give us questions to ask/discussions to have post-performance.  But, if we blindly accept these contexts, we might automatically: like the new music and only somewhat like the old (or vice versa depending on the person); jump to conclusions about the performers and composers without full evaluation; be unknowingly/subconsciously influenced in our discussion post-performance; and be affected in determining what our next concert to attend will be.

We need to recognize the context we put things in, and analyze it to ensure we are giving each performance its due credit.  For example, if one doesn’t like new music as much as classical string quartets, then one should recognize this aversion.  If one ends up at a new music concert, one should take this acknowledgement of one’s preference and treat the new music concert in the same context as the string quartet–give the players and composers the same benefit of the doubt and respect one would as the prestigious string quartet and Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Every composer wants his/her music to be treated like it’s (respected) Beethoven, whether by the players, audience, or community.

This is the goal:

  1. Know the context of the concert.
  2. Acknowledge what you feel about the concert based on the context.
  3. Challenge what you feel, and remove the context to give the concert a level, unbiased playing field with other concerts you attend.

Why do I encourage this leveling of the playing field?  The simple answer is to ensure that people don’t jump to conclusions and make poor, unquestioned judgments.  Just because the string quartet has played Haydn before doesn’t make the performance inherently dry, and it doesn’t preclude them from doing something new and quite interesting with it.  Just because there is new music on a program by young, living composers doesn’t mean that the players didn’t involve themselves deeply in their preparation, that the music will be “undeveloped”, or that the rest of the audience will be hipsters.

Please recognize the context you put things in when you attend concerts, if you don’t already.  This awareness is key to the continuing of music today with an open-eared and open-minded society of concertgoers and music listeners.



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