Be quiet at the back!

I’m one of those annoying individuals who, despite my best intentions, will actually sit and listen to background music. Dinner-party conversation quickly turns into a kind of lecture with me on the receiving end: my hosts talk, I nod regularly and raise my eyebrows now and then in a well-rehearsed pretence of listening; and if the music is particularly quiet (in order, presumably, not to distract) I can be caught on occasion rubber-necking my way towards the CD player in an attempt to hear it, confirming my hosts’ suspicions that not only am I incredibly dull, I am also slightly mad. Of course they may be right, but not for the right reasons. In fact I don’t actively choose to listen to their “background” music – I don’t like to be rude – I just don’t have any choice. The music distracts me, whatever its style or genre, and I simply lose the ability to talk. So these days I’m old and bold enough to resort to politely asking for the music to be switched off. Conversation then becomes more conventional as I start to join in with things like words, phrases, and other grammatical tricks of the trade. (Though, it has to be said, the subject is usually the merits or otherwise of background music. Still, it beats “So why are you a vegetarian then?”)

Now, I am as guilty as the next man of this appalling abuse of great music. I’ve chopped garlic to Gesualdo and mushrooms to Mahler, raised a glass to Gluck and many a beer to Meyerbeer. So does everything work? Early Mozart or Haydn seem to; Bach (but not bombastic Bach, though you can always turn it down); moving along the CD collection, we might choose Chopin (nocturnes only); Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, as long as it’s not one of those “interesting” performances; some Beethoven symphonies are ok (but don’t let that Scherzo slip through the net, someone might choke on your cheesy balls). The twentieth century has been good to us too. There’s nothing like some Steve Reich or Arvo Pärt to wash down the fondued peppers with. Then of course there’s that CD compilation I put together on my new laptop. What was the title I scribbled on it? Oh yes –  “Dinner Party Music”. I suppose I must, by definition, have selected a certain kind of music for its undemanding nature; but despite this, I find in my own weird little way that whatever is playing demands that I follow it through to the end. (I’m even a little disappointed when the “holding” music my bank plays me over the phone while they try to track down a real human being is interrupted when they eventually find one, thoughtlessly with only a few more bars to go. Maddening.)

We live in an age of disrespect (it’s funny how we all agree about that.) I get annoyed and frustrated, not to say deafened, by the sound of parents whooping at the school Christmas concert; by the honking of car horns because I selfishly stopped at a red light; and of people talking in the cinema and the concert hall as if they were in their living rooms. We are all too familiar with those television celebrities – Anne Robinson or Simon Cowell for example – whose sole attractiveness is their rudeness, which, contrived or otherwise, has become a characteristic of the times and something we learn to take for granted at our peril. To have music playing in the background with the sole purpose of not being listened to is another symptom of this ubiquitous lack of respect. Yes, I realise that in many cases we’re not giving this music any more respect than it would have received in its day, often with the composer’s acceptance and collusion, but that is no excuse for us to behave in the same way. We are not cavemen any more.

What is the kind of music we are talking about – or should I say talking over? The charts will tell us something: “Baby Einstein – Lullaby Classics”, “Aria – The Opera Album”, and, perhaps significantly at No. 1, “Classic FM – Relax and Escape”. I hope I’m not being a snob here; there is much genuinely beautiful music contained within these compilations and I often find myself with the lonely occupation of defending their value and quality. What I’m questioning is how many people are actually listening to this music. Does it matter, you may ask? Does it really do any harm to experience music in this way, to set a mood, to calm down after a busy day in the office, to use music like the aural equivalent of a Plug-In-Airwick? It would be wrong to be pedantic and inflexible about this – music works in different ways and on different levels all the time, which is one of the most wonderful and powerful things about it; but I would argue that if the dinner-party is the main forum people use to listen to classical music then they are, in fact, teaching themselves the ability to not listen, and, therefore, giving themselves the permission and the skills to not listen in a concert hall too. Which brings me to the real villain of the piece – the live concert.

Now, I know I’m about to set myself up for a fall here, so before the reader objects with a catalogue of life-changing concerts and performances that they’ve experienced in their life, let me say that I’ve been to more than a few myself. Of course they are out there. But I can’t escape the creeping feeling I get that live performances are starting to sound more and more like… well, CDs. It seems to me that concerts and recordings are feeding off each other in a narcissistic frenzy, an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better jousting tournament where the weapons are accuracy, precision and safety, but which wound us with dullness, sameness and ordinariness. Over the last forty years or so, concerts have slowly metamorphosised into something so similar to recordings as to often be indistinguishable from them, and they have achieved this by absorbing not the best, but the worst of their qualities. I am reminded of the end of George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “…the creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.” The fact is, if we talk during concerts it is because we can; because the music, ticking along nicely in the background, allows us to. We “relax and escape” back to our kitchens and living rooms. All that’s missing is a chopping board full of garlic and mushrooms.

I’m not sure anyone is going to feel like inviting me over for dinner after this, which is a shame (for me, anyway) because, despite the foregoing, I like the idea of gentle background music and I really wish I could ignore it. I’m sure I could learn to, especially if the music doesn’t communicate anything. And anyway it would be a bit daft to put on a CD of – say – Furtwängler, Casals, Lipatti, or Callas, because there’s a good chance we’d all end up staring silently into space, not wanting to talk and not being able to… Oh, I hope you don’t think that’s just a contrived coincidence – that those artists all date from an uncorrupted golden era when the recording process hadn’t got the better of us?

© Stephen Frost 2005