Violinist Hahn-Bin‘s sold-out debut at Carnegie Hall last night was, in a word, exhilarating. Other words I’d use are amazing, edgy, revelatory (for me). The entire night was mind-blowing – not just because great music was being performed by a phenomenal musician, but because of the audience dynamics. This post isn’t meant to be a critique of Hahn-Bin’s performance, but rather a rumination on how we listen to classical music concerts, and think about the conventions of music.
We sat in the balcony in the last row, which lent itself to a lot of interesting observations, not to mention a prime people-watching spot. And boy, were people restless! I think New York suffers from that wanting-to-be-all-cultured-yet-can’t-sit-still-through-a-concert syndrome. I don’t think I have ever heard that much talking and rustling between pieces, as my friend Brittany pointed out.
Hahn-Bin’s repertoire for the night was, in a word (it’s a night of things in one word), unconventional. He played pieces from Schnittke to Cage to Kriesler, interspersed with some Chopin and Mozart. For those of you who don’t know, Schnittke’s music “was regarded as so radical that his musician friends did not dare to program him in the Soviet Union” (taken from Hahn-Bin’s program notes), and one of Cage’s most famous pieces is called 4’33”, where the pianist comes out and sits at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds without playing a note. The whole idea behind it is to listen to what goes on in the ambiance, then to question whether such a piece is considered music, or some excuse for a cultural studies experiment.
I’m not qualified to talk about the intricate details of the music (that, and I can’t remember the details), but it was clear (at least up on the balcony) most people enjoyed the Chopin and the Mozart the best. Conventional classical music. Expected. Dare I say it…manufactured consent of what “music” and “high culture” are supposed to sound like. People in the row in front of me (four older women) were actually talking to each other during some of the non-Mozart/Chopin pieces. Talking!! Two of them left during intermission, and two others left during his last piece, Ludoslawsky’s Partita. Now, I don’t know if this happens all the time in New York, but I rarely see this happen, and I’ve been to my share of concerts.
The best part, though, was at the very end, when Hahn-Bin played his encore piece – a trope on “Silent Night” by Schnittke. This one I remember a bit more. Two verses of “Silent Night” interspersed with atonal chords, evoking laughter from the audience (you know, the part of the audience that actually “gets” it). One audience member, however, was not impressed. During the piece, I heard “not funny” and “poor taste” coming from this erm…rather large, hair follicle challenged and heterochallenged Caucasian (you’ll see why his race is important) sitting in the row below me. He had to be shushed by his partner and the audience members sitting behind him. When the encore was over and the applause died down, everyone got up to leave, and he and his partner ended up walking out of the concert hall right behind me and my friends. Here’s what I heard (in an almost-monologue, the same phrases repeated over and over indignantly)…and he was ANGRY and very LOUD:
“That was such poor taste. He shouldn’t make fun of other religions? How would he feel if we made fun of his religion? What is he…Buddhist? How would he feel if we made fun of Buddhism?”
Of course, because all Asians are Buddhists.
**Ok, here’s my academic take on the night…feel free to skip – and much thanks to Howard Becker for helping to inform my thoughts on this**
Moreover, the entire night brought up these questions that keep bouncing around in my head about music conventions and how these forms of music and “high culture” as we conventionally know it have become naturalized. Brittany brought up an interesting point that in our society, major keys are generally “happy”, and minor keys are “sad”. This dichotomy seems very biologically determinist to me, and I do not agree that we naturally feel happy when we hear things in a major key and sad when we hear things in a minor key (we had a lively discussion about this during intermission)…especially because concept of major and minor are based on the Western 12-tone scale. Middle Eastern music, Indian music, music from other cultures that do not adhere to the Western classical music conventions of a 12-tone scale don’t even HAVE major and minor keys. Funnily enough, the reason why we think music is so universal – that we hear stories of people in other cultures (usually cultures that are seen as “inferior” to our own) who cry when they hear Mozart for the first time – is probably because of the history of Western imperialism, especially for those of us who live in a Western society. Aren’t these stories simply perpetuating the naturalization of Western cultural imperialism in society? Of course, we’ll never hear of the stories where Mozart is played in another culture, and the other culture goes “WTF?” Not in our society.
I strongly believe that the way we listen to music is learned. We learn that “major” is happy, and “minor” is sad. We learn that Mozart and Chopin are beautiful, melodic, and Schnittke makes us go “WTF?” Our learning gets so internalized that we perceive it to be natural, and we dangerously lose the ability to enjoy things that don’t fit in our little box labeled “Music”. After all “music” is just a definition. What are its limits? Should it even have limits? (no…!!)
The classification of “classical music” in and of itself is a vehicle for an invisible authority of the so-called “high culture”. The setting of Carnegie Hall is another. The fact that we don’t wear jeans to listen to a concert (usually). All of this feeds into this pre-set system of aesthetic values, social status, and high culture that we associate with a certain type of music. When the preconceived notions of “classical music” are shattered, especially in a “high culture” venue like Carnegie Hall, people tend not to like that. It’s traumatic, like trying to make a circular peg fit in a square hole. You might have to shave off some of the peg, and some of the wood, to make it fit. I’m telling you, it’s traumatic. Almost physically. I won’t go too far down this road of how these concepts of venue, musical genre, contextualization, etc play into bigger ideas of authority, power, and credibility, but hopefully you get the point. Or, I’ll leave it to your imaginations.
All in all though, if it were your debut in Carnegie, would you rather play pieces that have been played hundreds, possibly thousands of times in the same hall before? Or would you try to be edgy and play something fresh that challenges the boundaries of classical music conventions – something really memorable? I think Hahn-Bin achieved the latter beautifully.