A Clean Break?

Edward Said describes in his essay “Pomp and Circumstance” overly wrought and lavish classical music festivals. Therein, Said notes that “…the festival is a structure of alienation by which highly specialized musicians, hair dressers, lighting technicians, etc., distance themselves from the public, which ‘consumes’ music rather than makes it”. This observation of consumerism is a striking one.

Sociologist Ortiz Walton makes a similar observation in his comparison of the Western and African aesthetic. He notices how the concert hall is comparable to the marketplace: “The consumer or concertgoer, like his counterpart in the world of commerce, has been made into a passive recipient of various sounds. He either accepts the product or rejects it, but never is he allowed to add his own creativity to it”. Music is taken as a commodity, a form of exchange.

An audience member buys a ticket for a show, goes to the show, and then leaves. A performer is paid to play the show, performs at the show, and then leaves. These grand scale transactions take place in a location that matches with equal pomposity. They are the Madison Square Gardens and Carnegie Halls: venues that reflect the urban highlife that they exist in. This is music, as sociologist Ferdinand Toennies would see it, as Gesellschaft: society writ large.

In his Introduction to the Sociology of Music, Theodor Adorno makes a case for a form of music making that breaks from society writ large. For Adorno, that is going to be chamber music, that which is usually played by small ensembles in even smaller locations (homes, etc.). As he writes, “Chamber music is  specific to an epoch which the private sphere, as one of leisure, has vigorously parted from the public-professional sphere”.

In Vienna between 1919 and 1921, The Society of Musical Private Performances was such a chamber music gathering that put itself physically outside of the public eye. Besides meeting at an undisclosed location and being a membership only group, the Society also sucked out all of the marrow of publicity that could harken to the “public-professional sphere”.

The prospectus for the Society, penned by Alban Berg, makes this point as clear as day: “The performances must be withdrawn from the corrupting influence of publicity; that is, they must not be inspired by the spirit of competition, and must be independent of a applause and expressions of disapproval”. There is another fascinating layer of physical separation here that should be noted: the conduct of those attending.

Conduct at this chamber music event is not supposed to evoke the rowdy crowds at the “comfortably upholstered extension[s] of the Roman Colosseum” Glenn Gould called concert halls. What Arnold Schoenberg and company wanted to do with this chamber music was outside of the utilitarian purposes that they saw in society writ large. The mindset of “accepts the product or rejects it” brought up by Walton is leveled for one that strives for higher purposes. In order for that to unit to flourish on its own, it must separate itself from the larger one. Performance in privacy or in a domestic environment requires that physical separation from the public.

All of this implies a clean break; as if the public and the private are easily divisible without any mess. The Society of Musical Private Performances worked off of memberships. House shows heavily rely on people bringing money to support the bands and sometimes to pay an entry fee.

Is chamber music as free from the mercantile and hustle of society as we think? Maybe it is not, and perhaps that is not the point.

When Ferdinand Toennies wrote about society and smaller communities, he emphasized that it was not as black and white as people thought. People thought that Toennies was favoring smaller communities in his work. On the contrary, he was just trying to get to know two larger ingredients that were thrown in the pot of human relations during the rising growth of cities in the later 19th century.

Perhaps we can explore what makes up this gray. Taking portions of the black and white (society and private life), we can learn more about each individually and about how they combine and mix.

Sure, we can admit it is a gray world when it comes to music making and human relations. But what good would it do to stop there?


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