October 26, 2013

Would you want to go out to a concert of Bach Suites in a space that is kept completely dark?

I mean, wouldn't recorded music be better? And it would be a lot less trouble than going out, your chair at home is probably comfier, and there would be no one rattling a program/opening a candy wrapper/coughing. No one other than you. At home, you're free to sneeze, take you music device into the bathroom with you, eat all manner of smelly foods, and even sing along, making up your own words that don't even have to rhyme or make sense. The room was humming harder/As the ceiling flew away.... You can call out for another drink. Because you're alone and no one cares about your outbursts. Or someone else is there, but they've resigned themselves to putting up with the likes of you. You with your coughing and sneezing and nonsense lyrics. What happens when you call out for another drink? Does that long-suffering wife/husband of yours bring a tray?

But let say you do want to get up off your sofa and amble down the sidewalks of New York City to the Goethe-Institut Wyoming Building at 5 East 3rd Street. I love the combination of Goethe and Wyoming. Especially on 3rd Street. That's not 3rd Street in Brooklyn, where, you may remember, I lived back in the early 80s. That's positively 3rd Street in Manhattan, where you've got a lot of nerve to enter a concert hall in the dark:
After of years of investigation, the Suites are removed from the concert hall and placed in an unilluminated space, in which the cellist repeatedly plays them over a period of ten days. Through the extended timeframe and the elimination of any visual input, the listener and the playing musician are unified within the same visual and musical space.
Scurry over there — would you? — if you're within scurrying distance, and let me know if you became unified with the musician by virtue of your presence in "the same visual and musical space." The "visual space" is nothingness. You can close your eyes while listening to your iPod, and imagine the cellist playing with his eyes shut. But he's not there, and it's not happening now, so unification requires more imagination. Still, this mystic state might be more achievable in the absence of the distraction of finding your way around in the dark.
Uncertainty about the original creative intentions of the Suites invites perpetual debate and allows imaginative free reign for redefining the environment in which they are played. 
I'm distracted reining in my imagination and reigning over my imagination about the old rein/reign pedantry. But proceed:
Bach Suites in the Dark removes the Suites from the concert hall [and] explores their malleability and the notion of practice in which they are rooted. 
Most people know the Suites from recordings — like this — so the notion of removing them from the place where you never needed to go invites us into the even-more-imaginary place in the past when people had no recorded music.


pm317 said...

I mean, wouldn't recorded music be better?

oh, I have thought about this question..so have others I am sure. Why do you go to a restaurant when you can cook better (healthier) stuff at home? Why do you go to a movie theater when you can watch a DVD on your 80+ TV (OK this one is a bit of a stretch)..and on and on..Besides, dressing up and going to concert is a status symbol -- look! I have money for discretionary spending like this..It is a social event and listening to music is somewhat secondary because of the distractions you mentioned.

For me watching the orchestra on youtube or in real concert is educational because I can associate the music I hear with the instrument that produces the sound.

rhhardin said...

Brandenburg Concerto for Piano one piano four hands. real audio

They can't do that in the dark.

Ann Althouse said...

"For me watching the orchestra on youtube or in real concert is educational because I can associate the music I hear with the instrument that produces the sound."

Yes, but this is IN THE DARK.

William said...

I used to have the wonderful Switched On Bach LP you show on ths site, but somehow it disappeared in one of the many diaspora(ae?)of my life of the past 35 years. Rats.

Now it's a collectors item – $50 (used) on Amazon.

Oh well …

surfed said...

I had that album "Switched on Bach". It sucked. I didn't even like when toking on some good Colombian Gold bud. But callow youth ended and I discovered John Williams, Christopher Parkening, et al and it was years before I finger picked my way through Mr. Tambourine Man again. It was all Sleeper's Awake: Cantata 140. Gone was the big jumbo dreadnaught, hootenannies and jam sessions and in was the short necked and wide fretted classical guitar and years of solitary lessons...and now I'm full circle back to Bob. Deb and I played in the dark last night to the bare flickers of burning oak outside in the chill. And the neighbors within listening distance voiced their appreciation over the privacy fences in the gloaming light of evening.

YoungHegelian said...

As an ex-string player, not being able to see the performer in a solo piece would drive me bonkers.

Seeing the bowing is a good part of the fun of it all.

pm317 said...

Yes, but this is IN THE DARK.

Sorry about that. I did read that but missed it.

surfed said...

Remember when you had to buy an album to find out what was inside the album? The kind of music it contained. What a leap of faith it was to spend $3.98 on the unknown.

Jim S. said...

If you want a piece to listen to in the dark, listen to the Vorspiel (prelude) of Das Rheingold, the opening to his whole four-opera Ring cycle. It's just glorious. It starts with the double-basses playing a low E-flat, then the bassoons come in a fifth above them, and then it slowly develops. It represents the Rhine River flowing and the universe emerging from it. Really, it's amazing.

pm317 said...

Jim S.. it is beautiful. So unlike Wagner that I quizzed my husband to recognize the composer and he said, Delius, :).

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Most people know the Suites from recordings — like this — so the notion of removing them from the place where you never needed to go invites us into the even-more-imaginary place in the past when people had no recorded music.

"Most people" don't know the Suites at all, of course. Of those that do, I'd wager that a fair proportion have heard at least one performed live, and a not-inconsiderable (though small) minority have played one or more of them. I've played 1 and 4 (an octave up, on viola), and messed around with 6 on various five-stringed instruments.

(At one point I was even trying to make the Prelude to 6 work on viola d'amore. It would be fantastic at the beginning, because the way a D-major d'amore tuning is set up, you could do the first couple bars almost entirely on open strings. Unfortunately the close intervals between the top four strings on a d'amore make some of the later passagework basically impossible.)

YoungHegelian, I disagree. Listening in the dark makes you concentrate on what the bowing might be. As a sometime adjudicator at music festival auditions, I've had to, yes, evaluate the actual performance, but also guess as to the sort of technical difficulty that produces a given flaw. We weren't listening literally in the dark (for one thing, we had to write notes), but we weren't allowed to see the auditioners.

I think such a concert would be very interesting, actually. Wouldn't you be listening more attentively for the elements of the performance that correspond most directly to physical gestures? Imagining what they would look like if you saw them?

OT, but in a way related: The Rite of Spring. For saxophone ensemble. Memorized and unconducted. Fascinating to watch, but also good with your eyes closed. That is some gobsmacking musicianship there.

eddie willers said...

What a leap of faith it was to spend $3.98 on the unknown.

But oh the joy when you stumble upon something sublime like Procol Harum's A Salty Dog.

(because you liked A Whiter Shade of Pale even though you didn't know it was a sideways Bach tune)

YoungHegelian said...


Listening in the dark makes you concentrate on what the bowing might be.

Who's got time to "think" while listening to a performance? I start "thinking" & --- boom! --- the piece is over, people are clapping, and I missed it. It comes in as a gestalt or it comes in not at all.

I just find that among those (early music) performers who take the 18th century string method's bowings seriously (e.g. Leopold Mozart's) the results are are amazingly different from the regular down-up-down-up style of playing. It's to the point now that I can tell you if I would like a performance even if I just saw it while my ears were plugged by counting the number of times the bow leaves the string.

surfed said...

@eddie willers...loved Salty Dog. what a great band. It's like I tell my grown children. I may be old but I got to see all the cool bands.

eddie willers said...

I may be old but I got to see all the cool bands.

I had asked the guy behind the counter at the record store, "What's new and good?"

He handed me A Salty Dog, Crosby Stills & Nash (the incomparable first album) and The Band's eponymous album, (The "Brown Album")

Three Desert Island keepers taken home in one trip.

If I could go back in time, I would walk up and shake that clerk's hand....profusely!

Richard Dolan said...

I enjoy listening to the cello suites in a dark room, but prefer to be the only occupant. My favorite recording is by Pablo Casals, made in the '30s from a live performance. Only have it on vinyl -- don't know if it was ever turned into a digital format. The YYMa recording is quite good too.

As for Switched On (-and Off) Bach, I remember bringing both to college in the late 60s. Still have both, but like a lot of music I liked then,I haven't listened to those albums in years. You date yourself with that album, to say nothing of the fact that you have it in vinyl.

Archilochus said...

pierre fournier, folks!

Largo said...

For some reason Ann, imagining not seeing the performers kept me reading 'suites' and 'suits'. Musicians with dark suits. Musicians whose suits could not be seen because it was dark. Then I imagined the stage lights being turned on as the reverberation of the last chord fades and the applause begins.

The we see the musicians are all wearing clown suits. Not Marceay style clown suits. Bozo style clown suits. You must to admit that that would be a reason for staging an all dark concert, and for attending one. Not a good reason perhaps--but a reason!

JoyD said...

We went to a jazz concert last night at the Great Southern Theater in Columbus. Much to be said about being there, under the gorgeous domed ceiling, being flooded, surrounded, penetrated by the music (spin that any way you like) which is why we've been season subscribers for several years. BUT last night there was this young couple in our row, straight out of Big Bang Theory, good for them, but they were really feeling it, bopping around, stomping out the rhythm, and I could feel it through the soles of my shoes, great, but they were ALL OFF TIME! They kept losing the beat. The only way I could stand it was to choose to think it was hilarious... so yes, if I were to listen to music in the dark, in order to focus my senses, I would, like Althouse, prefer to be at home.