“…at dusk when the past begins.” Linda Hogan
A few years ago, my friend Ariel Balevi was telling a Persian story at the Musideum to mark the winter solstice. He was accompanied by a group of Persian classical musicians who played the plucked string tar; the bowed string kemanche; the frame drum daf and the side blown nay flute. Having taken several ethnomusicology courses at university, I was eager to hear this music in a live setting. As the performance went on, I was impressed by the quiet nature of the music, and the audience who just listened harder when the volume diminished. The Musideum was located at the intersection of two busy downtown streets, so there was some traffic noise bleeding through. As we listened to the story and the music, we were transported to another place and time.
I once had the chance to play in the restored Victoria Playhouse in Petrolia, which was originally conceived as an opera house. It was marvelous to play in a hall with great sight lines and acoustics that allowed every nuance from my classical guitar to be heard clearly. While discussing various events with the manager, I was told that a big band from Toronto had shown up with many microphones and a very large sound system. As if the message was, “You are going to hear us no matter what, it is a noisy world, and with the help of the sound system, our music will get to your ears.”
Is the music in the sound or is it a result of the effort put out by the listeners? Once as a student in Paris, I went to see Ravi Shankar, the late sitar virtuoso. My seat was far up in the 2nd balcony at the old Salle Pleyel, a large hall with 2,500 seats. The sound system was top notch, so everything was clear and audible but unmoving. After intermission, I went to the lower level, taking a seat close to the stage. It was a very different experience, deeply moving, as if the artist had a bubble of influence, which extended only fifteen rows out.
This made me think that the musical experience could be a tangible spiritual reality in the right context. For the last 120 years or so, our musical background has been accrued through the mediation of machines. Radios, turntables and now digital devices bring an infinite choice of repertoire to our ears. With headphones on we can feel like dancing on the subway, or be moved by the most sacred of hymns. Alone, we can be held in thrall to the reproductions of fabulous music. Through this recent history, there has been very little research as to how this electronically mediated sound changes us and how it alters our relationship with the social elements of music.
I have been lucky enough to attend numerous house concerts, which tend to be intimate affairs. Being close to musicians feels right. Chamber music was intended for these types of settings, and when restored to small venues, it takes on greater power. The aforementioned bubble of influence embraces both space and time. Think of Dvorak being in that bubble as well, and it becomes wondrous. The doors of time dissolve to carry us away for a while.
Thinking of the Persian music audience, I wonder about the nature of our hearing and understanding. I’d like to think that deep and careful listening makes us more vulnerable and communicative. No matter if the world is noisy, we must listen to each other to let the music blossom.
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