Saturday, July 17, 2010

Facing Up to the Audience

I have been reading Claire Messud's review of The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, trying as hard as possible not to brood over not having enough time for fiction, even in the form of short stories. Messud's account of one story particularly intrigued me. "Someone to Talk To" is about Aaron Shapiro, an ex-prodigy pianist whose career is on the rocks, playing at a Pan-American music festival "in an unnamed Latin American country." Between his host, Richard Penwad (a name lacking any sense of Latin American heritage) and a British radio journalist named Beale, he realizes that he is in a setting that has commoditized culture until it is little more than a prop to maintain a despotic status quo. (Those with a broader sense of history may recall the great Persepolis festival that took place at a time when it was finally becoming clear that the days of the Shah of Iran were numbered.) Messud then captures the essence of Eisenberg's story in a single sentence:

The horror of the present is not simply itself, but also its destruction of his [the pianist's] fantasy of the past: Penwad and Beale between them drive home that Shapiro's success was only ever an artifice, that all his audience every encountered was itself.

I wonder if Messud realized the universality of this conclusion and that it applies not only to those whose present has fallen far short of a more glorious past but also to those (such as, say, Messud herself) whose talents are recognized in that same present. For all my own commitment to pursuing Igor Stravinsky's mission in cultivating audiences that listen rather than merely hear, what are the reflections of even the most serious listener? Are they not, ultimately, reflections on self for which the listening experience has been but a catalyst?

These thoughts may have emerged from my current encounter with Friedrich Nietzsche's "Twilight of the Idols." However, where Nietzsche might have seen such reflections as vulgar self-indulgence, I would argue that there is a more positive perspective. The Ancient Greek aphorism γνωθι σεαυτόν (know thyself) still has currency. If, as Plato argues in his "Theaetetus," the very concept of knowledge is tightly coupled to that of being, then knowledge of self might be seen as prerequisite to knowledge of anything else. From this point of view, listening experiences would seed reflections leading to better knowledge of self. It would seem that, if there are objections to such a perspective, they would have to do with the premise that such a sense of self takes priority over both the music and the performers responsible for the listening experience. This would probably aggravate anyone who had made the enormous commitment required to become a capable, if not skilled, performer; but is there any logical reason why the performer should sit on a higher plane than any individual in the audience?

Reflection on self is not, in and of itself, necessarily vulgar. Listening is an act of discovery, and there is no reason why the listener's discoveries should align with those of either composers or performers. If there is vulgarity in the concert hall, it is to be found in those who go for no reason other than to participate in a spectacle of adulation, defining self by the act of applauding louder and longer than the others. This does not require listening, however. One merely needs to hear as Stravinsky's duck does, responding to certain cues to determine when the time for applause has come.

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