Earlier this month I visited the beautiful Palau de la Música Catalana for a performance of Vivaldi’s Le Quattro Stagioni (“The Four Seasons”) by German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and her ensemble. It was an excellent concert and soon after the last notes of Vivaldi’s “Winter” were heard, the audience burst into a grand, extended applause anticipating Mutter’s return to the stage.
Sure enough, the famous virtuoso and her select group of skilled instrumentalists were soon back for a bis – a treatment of the thunderous Presto from Vivaldi’s “Summer” concerto. Although this could well have been sufficient, the crowd’s enthusiastic response and continuous cheering resulted in yet another encore. This was when things started to get slightly, ehmm, metamodern.
As soon as Mutter and her ensemble started playing (the piece was an arrangement of Bach’s famous Air from his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major), I found myself surrounded by people reaching out to their mobile phones, cameras and tablets, struggling to capture as best they could every single second of that final performance. And there I was, hopeless and helpless, utterly incapable of enjoying the beauty of such sublime music and the unique setting.
I know what you are thinking: “This is happening in nearly every concert nowadays, so what’s the big deal?” And yes, I (as I am sure you too, dear reader) have also indulged in similar practices on one occasion or another. But here’s the thing: It’s quite different taking a photo (or video) during a rock gig or a large pop concert than doing the same during an intimate performance where music (classical or otherwise) is played on acoustic instruments and all its color, subtleties, and nuances are of the essence.
As Bach’s Air was about to end, I couldn’t help but think that the uplifting qualities of such magnificent music had somehow been suspended, the atmosphere irreversibly ruined; in short, the magic had been lost.
Thinking back on the incident, an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise came to mind, where the author relates a visit to a tourist attraction known as “the most photographed barn in America”:
People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
“We’re not here to capture an image. We’re here to maintain one. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
Although sightseeing is not identical to a concert hall visit, there are certainly some eerie resemblances on how more and more people are experiencing the two. I would like to believe that taking pictures, making selfies or videos, buying postcards and seeing “only what the others see” have not yet displaced the essence of attending a music performance, i.e. nurturing one’s mind and soul with sounds that please, excite and stimulate.
The seasons are changing, and mobile devices have invariably made their way into the concert hall. Still, as much as it is about entertainment, a gig (regardless of music genre) can also be an opportunity for contemplation or the cause of life-changing insights. It can be indeed a religious experience, where one willingly becomes part of a collective perception, to use DeLillo’s words. My hope is that it doesn’t degenerate into “spiritual surrender” or any short of mindless “tourism.”