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Where Does Music Mean?

The most ‘social’ of our media now seems to be used too often to keep others at bay.

Portable music has been with us at least since the Sony Walkman introduced in 1979.  Forty years later we are completely accustomed to taking a preferred aural environment with us, mostly drowning out the one we are in.  Even so, that isolating effect still seems like a peculiar violation of the idea of music.

Recently, in a supermarket I was competing for space in the detergent isle.  The challenge came from a tall man, perhaps in his 20s, his earphones leaking out sound like hundreds of little straight pins rolling around in a can.  We both wanted to extend our reach to a high shelf blocked by the other. At the same time his eyes seemed to take a cue from his aural isolation; he looked down and away. This shopping trip was strictly a solo effort in his own private space.  My friendly glance to him was ignored or not seen; his body and his head were in different places. And so I was both in the way and also not really there.  Nothing unusual about this in the 21st Century.  We now routinely enter the personal space of strangers without ever acknowledging them.  And yet there was this little insight:  what is arguably the most ‘social’ of our media is now part of the apparatus we use to keep others at bay.

People who study the history of performance remind us that music-making has almost always been a social experience.  Of course the simple idea of “cooperation” does not begin to describe the intense listening and blending that musicians playing together must master.  As for the rest of us, in most of the 19th Century families with any disposable income had a piano, and usually enough kids to assure some duty-bound performances to visitors.  Performances in private salons and concert halls came even earlier.  In England the Hanover Square Rooms holding about 900 people were used in the late 1700s to feature composers such as Joseph Haydn and George Frederick Handel. By the early 1800s halls were built and packed with listeners eager to hear small groups and even full orchestras.  To this day avid music fans thirst for “live” performances of a sort in both massive arenas and more intimate clubs.

All of this makes me wonder if music belongs in the detergent isle at all.  Is part of its essence violated by a cheap ear-sized speaker competing with the commotion of a supermarket?  Is there a sense in which our love of the form has the effect of undermining its traditional powers to foster affiliation?

Communication ‘at a distance’ always exacts a price.

To be sure, isolated listening has increased the time we can spend with this precious art. The mass production of phonographs at the end of the 1800s was only the first step in making music accessible.  And who doesn’t cherish the ability to call up a great performance at will that can be rendered in detail on modern equipment?  Even so, I still cringe at the idea of stopping Andre Previn in mid-performance, or talking over the perfect phrasing of Ella Fitzgerald. Somehow such interruptions seem like a kind of abuse of the idea of ‘public’ performance.

Communication ‘at a distance’ always exacts a price.  When performers and their audiences are separated, something is lost, just as clearly as when a listener is in a reverie that goes unshared.