Saturday, August 22, 2009

Choice comments

The Feuilleton in today's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung led with an article about the phenomena of audio guides in museums.  The article closely mirrors the discussions online and elsewhere about Twittering realtime program notes during concerts.   The critique of concert twittering has mostly centered around annoyance that audience members might be looking at their cell phones instead of "really paying attention" during the concert.  I think that critique is somewhat misplaced, as the deeper issue is not the degree to which Twitterers and those who sit next to Twitterers are distracted but the degree of uniformity and control which the particular narrative medium reinforces.  For popular museum exhibitions, the most important function of the audio guides is probably their ability to regulate the speed of visitor traffic, as earplugged visitors do tend to move to the next room whenever the little voice tells them to move.  I like traffic jams as little as anyone and so I appreciate this, especially when the technology allows the listener to linger or rush to the next gallery at will.   (Actually, I find the choreography of a crowd of gallery visitors suddenly taking flight to a cue inaudible to me to have a certain post-Judson Dance beauty; though there isn't much to be said for a concert audience concentrating on their crotches, there might even be some beauty in the faces of an audience lit by the glow of little cell-phone screens).

However, this practical function for a high-traffic exhibition comes coupled with the packaging of an official-seeming narrative or interpretation of the images they see and, presumably, Twittered concert commentaries will do the same, while not even having the traffic cop function of the gallery commentary.   At present, as far as I can tell, concert twitters and museum audio guides alike represent only single points of view.  (An especially odd case is that of the conductor who pre-programs a Twitter feed to narrate, or even justify, his or her own performance.  There's so much meta-weirdness in that.)  There's no market choice before a concert as to whether the comments will come from a stuffy old-fashioned musicologist with the standard bits about standard forms and a handful of favorite anecdotes or from a new musicologist with some formal deconstruction and semi-appropriate pop-cultural references accompanied by some really juicy anecdotes or from some experimentalist with commentary chosen via chance operations from a library of thousands of possible program notes... the possibilities are endless.  (Much more interesting than the conductor's auto-narrating Twitter is the possibility of audience member's own Twittered messages.)  I want my relationships to art in a gallery or to music in a concert to be intimate, and if I wish to share that intimacy, I want to choose my partners, even my virtual partners.  No, I'm not going to take a Twitter feed in concerts or put one of those earphones on in a gallery until I have some substantial choice about the voices I might hear.    

[Addendum:  I posted this and — with a typical slow uptake — realized that I was not even considering the compositional potential of a live textual commentary to an on-going piece.   A composer who has some facility with text could surely find interesting ways of working in parallel, oblique and contrary motion with the music.  Moreover, there is no necessity that all audience members receive the same Twitter: there could be multiple composed textual counterpoints, perhaps even generated by live chance operations.  This could be a useful way of bringing new life to the open, polyvalent work of music we that was so celebrated in the '60s. EVEN BETTER THAN THAT:  Let's combine the museum guide and the concert twitter.  How about a labyrinthine work of music, the parts of which are distributed through a series of halls and galleries, through which audience members are individually guided, each getting their own sequence of musical materials and text? The possibilities are exciting.]  


kraig grady said...

i can't read without hearing some voice in my head. It is a sound of its own. It interferes with my listening.

Sarah said...

Kraig, like you, I can't read and listen to music at the same time. When I hear music, my mind analyzes what I am hearing...and if it's music I know, the score seems almost visible in my mind's eye. Tweeted program notes would drive me crazy! When I'm listening to music, I prefer to pay full attention to the music and the musicians.

Samuel Vriezen said...

Well of course it would only work in a piece that is especially crafted for the purpose; a piece that actually supposes that your mind might wander at times. The first thing that comes to my mind is Tom Johnson's "An Hour for Piano" in which repetetive patterns gradually change all the time into other patterns and then come back later; there's a text which he wrote, to be read while listening, which does more or less the same thing. So you're free to shift your focus from text to music and back, if you enjoy that; and the text invites you to consider that experience as such. However, I admit that when I heard it live myself, I was just listening to the music all the time.

Daniel Wolf said...


the only other texts I know which function like this are the synopses for Cage's Europeras and the program notes for Boudewijn Buckinx's 1001 Sonates. Also, the composer Steed Cowart once prepared a program full of third-party readings intended to accompany the pieces -- I remember that these included some favorite Morrocan recipes and passages from Ulysses.