Why I Hate Concerts

Brad Garton

To the left of the stage at Vario Hall in Tokyo, placed on the wall about 15
or 20 feet from the floor, is a giant digital clock.  The passing hours and
minutes are registered in large (about 12" high, I think), softly lit
seven-segment digits.  This clock is the thing I remember most from the 1993
ICMC concerts.  The ICMC organizers had graciously published the approximate
length of each piece performed in the Hall in the ICMC program.  The most
vivid recollection I have of nearly all the music done in Vario Hall is the
memory of watching the minutes tick by and thinking: "only 4 more minutes to
go... only 3 minutes left...".  Occasionally I would play the game of not
looking at the clock for a period of time, hoping that the numbers would
change faster.  They never did.

This clock-watching was a symptom.  I wasn't having a good time at these
concerts.  Why was this so?  Was the *music* so horrible?  No, in fact I
would very much enjoy hearing many of the ICMC-93 pieces again -- somewhere
other than a concert-hall, however.  I think that my bad musical experiences
were more rooted in the concept of a "concert" itself and the intersection
of that concept with the academic computer music community.

In an attempt to articulate the reasons for my concert-phobia, I decided to
try the null-hypothesis technique.  On the way back from the 1993 ICMC, I
listed the reasons why music *should* be heard in a concert setting.  What I
wrote can be grouped into four broad categories.  Here they are:

- cultural reasons

When most people in our culture think of music, they think of the music
being *performed*.  Concerts are the archetypal setting for a musical
performance -- witness the large number of music videos on MTV showing
concert "performances" of recorded music.  I would argue that this is an
essential part of music.  A person listening to a recorded piece of music is
hearing a virtual recreation of some concert or performance situation.
This has been shaped by centuries of music concerts, evolving from the first
organized human societies through the religious gatherings of the middle
ages to the contemporary concert format as established in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries.  Any composer laying claim to the 'tradition' of
western art music implicitly embraces the concert hall.  In the western
world, concerts are where music happens.

- practical reasons

The most obvious explanation for this state of affairs is that the concert
hall (the church in older times) was one of the few places where the resources
for the production of music could be gathered.  In order to hear music, people
had to go to some type of concert.

This reason holds true for computer musicians today.  Especially for
live/interactive pieces involving a heavy computational load, it is
difficult to gain access to the equipment and musicians required for
contemporary computer music.  In addition, it is still necessary to perform
the music in a large hall if more than a few people want to see the

Another practical reason for a concert presentation of computer music is also
tied to technical resources.  Few people can afford a sound system as large
as most concert systems.  For better or for worse, a sizeable array of
loudspeakers in a large space can produce a sense of 'bigness' that is
difficult to reproduce in other environments.

- aesthetic reasons

When a 'big' sound is a desired result, using a concert hall for the
presentation of a new piece of music becomes an aesthetic issue.  To be
sure, the entire pro- vs. anti- concert debate could be recast as an issue
of aesthetics only.  For some listeners, music simply sounds better in a
concert hall.

The aesthetics of a concert hall presentation are obviously apparent if
the diffusion of sound is made an integral part of the performance.  When a
skilled diffusion artist performs on a good concert playback system, the
musical results can have a visceral dramatic impact.

For pieces involving live musicians (computer or otherwise), the performance
is necessarily part of the aesthetic experience.  The physical actions, the
real-time response, the performance tightrope walked by the participants is
a fundamental part of the music.

- social reasons

Watching the performance take place is the audience, a group of people
ostensibly gathered together for a shared purpose -- to hear the music.
Concerts are by definition a social event.  Speaking for myself (but I bet
this is true of others), I go to concerts not only to hear the music, but
also to see friends, to check out who else is there, and frequently because
a sense of obligation tells me that we need to "support" the composers by
attending (just try going to an ICMC and *not* attending any concerts...).

These social reasons take a turn towards the political when the concerts
attended are largely in the domain of academia.  Concert performances count
as "scores" (no pun intended); the points gained go towards the climb up the
academic ladder of success.  Resume-scanners are always on the lookout for
the latest performances of someone's work:  When was a particular piece
done?  Where was it done?  How many times?  The more concerts devoted to a
certain person, the greater the POWER that person has.  Does the last time I
played my tape piece for a few friends at home count in this game?

It is this last group of reasons that forms the core of my dislike of
concerts.  Perhaps this is more a symptom of the selection of
concerts in New York that I have been attending recently, but I often feel
that the concerts exist as nothing more than sorry excuses for reinforcing a
peculiar academic social hierarchy.  Sure, I have a good time; I see
friends, I meet new people, I occasionally enjoy the music.  However, the
whole concert context -- and I'm certainly aiming this criticism at ICMC
concerts, too -- seems infused by a feeling of competitiveness that
nullifies aspects of music I value most.  The music takes place as part of a
mechanism intended to show who is the current Top Dog Hot Shot Composer.

The concert event takes on an aura of some perverse contest: composer vs.
composer, composer vs. performer, performer vs. computer, musician vs.
omniscient/judging audience.  This infected atmosphere so colors my
perception of music in  concert that any intellectual and emotional content
is lost.  Is this the best place for a lasting musical experience?

I don't see these competitive aspects of the concert hall being
intrinsically located "in" the music.  However, the context exerts a powerful
influence upon the perception of the music.  Much music I truly love is
downright embarrassing in a concert.  Sitting in the cramped environs of the
darkened concert hall, I often find myself struggling to get through a piece
that is absolutely marvelous when I hear it at home.  Concerts change music,
and I don't particularly like the results.

If these reprehensible "social reasons" for holding concerts are indeed
poisoning the music, then the solution -- as I see it -- is to change the
presentation (more on this later).  But what about the other reasons I
outlined for the existence of concerts?  The focus of many of the "practical
reasons" can simply be shifted if the premise of a concert hall is removed.
For example, I can imagine a performance venue designed to take full advantage
of a diffusion playback system without the stultifying trappings of concert
society.  The ultimate result might even be much more satisfying from a purely
technical-sonic aspect.  I can also think of several ways to deliver a live
performance to a large group of people without herding them into some
auditorium and forcing them to sit quietly for several hours.  A little
effort in redirecting existing resources to meet practical demands can pay
interesting dividends -- if we can lose our concert hall blinders.

I can't argue too much with those who find the concert itself aesthetically
appealing.  Obviously, my own musical aesthetics are poorly served by a 
concert.  For those who love sitting in a hall and hearing music, I can only
respond with "I am different from you."

As for the "cultural reasons" for concerts, my hope is that the musical
heritage carried through the concert hall endows us with an evolving and
dynamic tradition where the weight of history is more than counterbalanced
by the contemporary creative impulse.  If we do indeed implicitly embrace
the concert hall when we lay claim to the western art tradition, and if a
virtual recreation of that tradition is present in the pieces we as composers
write, then is it really necessary to maintain our strong links to the image
of the concert hall itself?  Can't we to break down the aspects of the concert
experience we dislike, and begin building upon the features of music more
suited to our contemporary aesthetics?  Of course, in these statements I am
assuming a contemporary aesthetics intended to encompass the multiplicity of
music extant in the world coupled with a 'tradition' of musical innovation.
I intend for this position to stand in contradistinction from those who
proclaim loudly that they are "preserving the Tradition" by remaining rooted
in a music of the near-past.  I believe that these neo-traditionalists do
not really want to preserve an on-going tradition, but would rather freeze a
particular moment in musical history; a static snapshot of how music should
go forevermore.  Instead, I would like to see preservation efforts (if you
want to call them that) directed at maintaining a continuity of change and
creative invention.

My challenge to the ICMA, then, is to think beyond the narrow confines of
the concert hall.  We should design performances intended to emphasize the
diversity of musical experience.  The consideration of how a piece is to be
presented to an audience ought to be an explicit part of the composition
rather than an implicit assumption often ill-suited to the compositional
intent.  The not-so-benign influence of the concert hall on composers
becomes especially apparent in the translation to different media.  Does
computer music composed with a concert in mind translate well to compact
disc?  We are in the business of working with new media by the very nature
of what we do -- we should use it!  No longer should we use the concert as
the locus of our musical activity... frankly, I wouldn't mind attending an
ICMC with no concerts planned at all.  A lot of *music* planned, however!

I realize that I'm wielding a fairly polemical paintbrush in this article.
There are certainly many shades of grey missing in my grotesque portrait of
the concert scene.  I thought about passing this article around to others in
the ICMA who probably strongly disagree with me for commentary, but decided
against it because I wanted this to stand as a statement of my own -- I will
take the full blame for this viewpoint myself (plus I'm past deadline already
for this issue of ARRAY!).  If you do have opinions about how our music is
done, however, please write us and speak your mind.  I really do wonder what
other ICMA members think about this.