Saturday, September 27, 2014

Beethoven in the supermarket?

Music is all around us. This trite, commonly used phrase is trite and commonly used for a reason. There is music in the footsteps of pedestrians, the laughter of children, and the sounds of the many motor vehicles on the road in our heavily industrialized present. Music is also being piped through the speakers at my local Star Market, at just about every restaurant one could think of, spas, salons, chiropractors’ offices, clothing stores, coffee shops everywhere, and any number of other trafficked establishments just about anywhere and everywhere in the United States. To be frank, I never thought twice about this until until I read an article entitled The Dangers of Secondhand Music by Mikel Rouse on New Music Box, a publication from New Music USA. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s a lot of blame to spread around for our music appreciation downgrade: illegal downloads, corporate record companies missing the digital curve, overly compressed music resulting in fatigue and “digititus,” and the low-res quality of mp3 files, to name only a few factors. All of these things contribute to the devaluing of music as a distinct primary experience. But I think there’s a single phenomenon that’s working harder than all the others: The constant bombardment of music functioning as an aspect of an environment, in spaces from restaurants to government offices to bars to shopping malls, reducing music to just so much sonic wallpaper.

As I read that last sentence, the phrase sonic wallpaper seared in my consciousness. I never was offended that my local Star Market on Mt. Auburn Street occasionally plays the second movement of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio over the loudspeakers. I thought it an odd choice, and unnecessarily creepy for my Sunday morning shopping experience. However, Rouse has caused me to think more. What about the people who don’t know this piece? What about the people who don’t know it’s Beethoven? To them, it’s just some eerie music playing over the loudspeaker at Star Market. Perhaps it’s arguable that shopping to the tune of the “Ghost” trio is better than not hearing it at all, but perhaps it’s just dangerous. It’s like hanging a copy of a Monet or Renoir painting in the dairy aisle. Some people might stop and admire the painting’s beauty. Perhaps a select few will know the painting, know its artist, and feel surprised or privileged to experience thoughtful art in an unexpected place. Some people, however, will start to just think of it as dairy aisle art. If this tradition continued over generations, then art galleries would be put out of business. And worse, the public would learn to take this art for granted. Perhaps they won’t even see it anymore, and not stop to realize that a fellow human being spent hours, days, or even months of his or her short life carefully making decisions for each brushstroke. If art can regularly be experienced in the supermarket, hardly anyone will value it anymore. In order for the public to take time out of their lives and money out of their pockets to see art, they must value it. The same applies to the art of music.

I am an enthusiastic advocate of music-making in the most unusual places and have been known to take part in chamber music at playgrounds around the Cambridge area. If asked to perform at my local Star Market, I would jump at the chance. In my eyes, there are a couple differences between hearing a recording of Beethoven at Star Market and seeing a performance at Star Market. The first difference is that word, seeing. Music, especially chamber music, is a partly visual medium. I think it’s important for audience members to see people physically playing instruments, because it confronts them with the reality that a person is making the music. People connect with other people. Seeing another person perform live gives the audience an opportunity to connect with the music through the performer. Secondly, a supermarket or playground concert is unusual and grabs people’s attention (whether positively or negatively). Even if some local musicians started playing weekly concerts at Star Market, perhaps some shoppers would start to make sure they come at that time every week to hear and see the music (perhaps would plan to avoid shopping at that time, but every success comes with a failure). Then, at least, someone is making an effort to experience the music. I think Rouse is right that allowing music to become part of the public’s everyday environment will cause interest in music to dwindle. It already is becoming true--many people are more likely to spend $20 on lattes during the week than to make coffee at home and spend that $20 on a concert ticket. Unfortunately, I must admit that I am a culprit as much as the next Cambridge resident. I hope both Rouse’s article and my outpouring of thoughts in this entry will cause someone else to think a little deeper about this issue.

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