Thursday, May 28, 2009

LISTEN without Listening

This week the mail brought me a complimentary copy of the new magazine Listen, subtitled Life with Classical Music. The peel-off cover that included my address and the invitation to subscribe, as well as the Web site, described this publication as "America's bimonthly magazine about classical music in our daily lives." This is all very well and good, but a quick examination of the table of contents reveals an interesting bit of cognitive dissonance around the magazine's title. On the basis of the articles summarized on the contents pages (and, for the articles I read, the summaries did justice to the articles themselves), that fundamental act of listening, which has occupied so much of my own attention in writing about the performance of music, has little, if anything, to do with "classical music in our daily lives." Indeed, I had to wonder whether the editorial bias was more gustatory than auditory in light of some of the items I encountered while visiting the articles in my complimentary issue:

  • A photograph of Gustavo Dudamel posing with a Dudamel Dog in front of Pink's in Hollywood.
  • A "Cooking" section featuring Hilary Hahn.
  • Daniel Hope discussing "My Favorite Things," one of which was the Johann Sebastian Bach bar in Valencia.

Notwithstanding my agreement with Dudamel being quoted that "Music is a social art," I did not need this wisdom to be laced with a comment on "his endearingly broken English." What matters is the music and how we experience that music; and this is particularly important when you have a conductor like Dudamel, who can have such an overwhelmingly positive impact on that experience. Unfortunately a Fluffschrift like Listen seems more interested in bringing the reader closer to such performers by presenting them as "just folks like the rest of us." The problem is that the very nature of their work entails that they cannot be "just folks like the rest of us;" so all that really matters is that "the rest of us" are properly disposed to listen when these performers go to work.

Ironically, creating such a disposition is precisely what Spike Lee just did for basketball in the Kobe Doin' Work documentary, which recently aired (without any commercial interruptions) on ESPN. Perhaps, when the Lakers are not so busy, Lee will find time to wander over to the Walt Disney Concert Hall. If Gustavo Doin' Work could clue us in to some of the things that really go on during a concert performance as well as Kobe Doin' Work made us better observers of basketball, our concert experiences would probably be significantly enriched.

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