The Secret of the Silver Ticket
Maybe you read that gossipy piece in the New York Times Magazine not long ago about literary criticism at Yale. If you did, you might think deconstruction -- the favored technique there -- is trivial silliness. Not so: it’s a productive approach to anything based on assumptions that conflict. Since that might be anything in life. deconstruction as a systematic practice can be wonderfully subversive (which is no doubt why it was called a Marxist plot in The New Criterion). In my world, one activity shrieking loudly for deconstruction is classical music, represented by its acolytes simultaneously as a monument and as that same monument come to life. So.…
Suppose we say the experience of attending a concert begins with the trip to the concert hall. We travel on the subway, perhaps, which is dirty, noisy, and possibly dangerous, filled with people who probably aren’t classical music fans. With the token we surrender, we acknowledge the claims of their larger world: budgets, unruly city services, transport workers whose salaries need to be paid. We might take cabs to our concerts, but we’d still come face to face with the street; even if we went by chauffeured limousine, we’d acknowledge the street by the expense we’d sustain to avoid it. The concert, of course, won’t be anything like the subway or the street -- unless we’re hearing pop music, which at least would be comparatively informal. Of all modes of travel, the ride by limousine is the most like a classical concert. Is it true then, that classical music is mainly for the rich?


When we reach the concert hall we get conflicting signs. To enter we need a ticket. a reminder of realities much like the street (money, marketing, the needs of musicians, janitors, clerks). Tickets for orchestra seats at the Metropolitan Opera are silver, an emblem of presumed elegance and distinction -- the limousine combined with the shining glory of “great” music. The musicians wear tails, which tells us we’re certainly not on the street, and in fact not anywhere we might readily identify, since tails are hardly worn these days even in the most pretentious society. The mystery of music is evidently so elevated there’s no equivalent of it anywhere in our lives.
But then there’s the program book, slick paper, as a rule, filled mainly with ads. For much of last year a red-nailed Revlon hand lay opposite the artistic heart of the book, the page that murmurs the names of the pieces to be played. The executive director of one major orchestra told me privately that this wasn’t the tone he’d like his organization to maintain. But one message the ad might convey is that Revlon and his orchestra are both engaged in commerce; from that point of view, Revlon’s symbol -- so much like the ads we see on the subway -- has as much right in the program as anything else.
Concerts take place within a frame that gives conflicting signals: we seem to be kneeling at the combined altars of luxury, commerce and the loftiest art. But what happens inside the frame, at the heart of the concert, when the music is finally played?


Maybe we should ask the three kinds of people whose comments are most readily available: members of the audience, critics, and writers of program notes. Members of the audience usually say they were moved (by the emotion in the music) or excited (by virtuoso instrumental athletics). But here we run into a problem we’ll often have: people might say the same things about soap operas or football games. Presumably classical music offers something soap operas don’t, but just what that might be is still a mystery.
Critics, of course, comment in more detail; confronted, let’s say, by a performance of Brahms, they’ll tell us what kind of Brahms performance it was. But why does Brahms matter? When George Bernard Shaw was a critic he broke the frame, invoking life outside the concert hall to illustrate what music was about (which of course implied that music might not be much more lofty than any other activity in ordinary life): “I have heard public meetings addressed successively by an agricultural laborer’s delegate, a representative of the skilled artisans, and a university man; and they have taught me what all the treatises on singing in the world could not” about the voices required for three roles in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Masetto, Leporello, and Giovanni himself. Moat other critics fall back on adjectives -- “energetic, mysterious, dense, delicate, imperious, witty, arid haunting,” to cite a recent string -- which only dimly hint at any real experience. What can “delicate” tell us if the critic’s writing doesn’t let us know what delicacy might mean to him? How does this “delicate” work differ from others? Worse still: as Roland Barthes wrote (discussing just this problem), “the man who furnishes himself or is furnished with an adjective is sometimes wounded, sometimes pleased, but always constituted,” or in other words safe: “Music has an image-repertoire (a way of being spoken about) whose function is to reassure.…” Critics who describe music with adjectives remain essentially untouched; they reassure both themselves and us that the content of music is vastly important -- or else why write? -- and that we need never be afraid we'll find out what it really is.


Writers of program notes tell us historical facts, which offer spurious assurance that something is, after all, known. These writers also might enumerate -- like authors of a guidebook, listing sights along a highway -- the most easily audible events in the music we’re to hear. “The themes -- three in number -- are plainly stated: the first is in the strings…the second in related mood in violas and oboes; the third, of a bolder nature, in the trombones and horns.” (These are Aaron Copland’s own notes for his Third Symphony.) Do we need these lists because we’re inattentive, deaf, or struck mindless with awe? Or are they like the stories of the birds and the bees told to children who ask about sex, irrelevant displays of data meant to distract attention from a mystery that might otherwise be embarrassing?
Perhaps the answer lies in the empty talk on public television of “great” music and “great” performances, in the part of a concert’s frame that includes tails and a reverent hush: we choose classical music to move and excite us precisely because we think there’s something in it better -- cleaner, loftier -- than the lives we live on the subway or the street. (As opposed, let’s say, to heavy metal fans, who might see rock concerts as particularly exciting fantasies of the lives they might really live on the street.) This would explain why I've met such fury when I say classical music is music of the past (I devalue its all-but-religious function in the present)…why ordinary music-lovers hate critics (because critics say something’s wrong)…why even cynics in the field, who hate nearly everything they hear, keep coming back for more (because, great as the pain of yet another inadequate concert might be, the rewards of at last encountering a “great” performance of such “great” music are proportionally far greater). It would follow, of course, that the truth has to be a secret. Concerts would be rituals, frames with almost random content; as long as “masterpieces” were played, it would hardly matter which ones they were. Even the more serious arguments within the field -- about the worth of contemporary music, for instance -- might be less about the nature of the concert experience than about which music would serve to convey it.


But this isn’t the whole story. Just as the frame itself contains contradictions -- the silver ticket, the red-nailed hand -- so does the experience of hearing the performance, which on one hand might be ceremonial, and on the other is filled (or at least potentially filled) with content, the content of the music itself.
What that might be is largely unexplored, unless you believe scholars who’ll tell you structure is the heart of music (as likely as believing you’re in love with the shape of your lover’s skull), or commentators who say that Verdi’s operas depict “the fleeting -- yet real and profound -- consolations that love can bring, and the upright man’s care for responsibility and duty which alone enables him to endure.” (No acknowledgement there of any difference between the embodiment of those themes in a 19th century opera and in a serious contemporary film, novel, or play.) Even Barthes is surprisingly reticent about the role older music -- and the repetition of the same limited repertory -- might play in concert-goers’ lives. But something surely is communicated. One writer who has something to say about that is Susan McClary, a musicologist at the University of Minnesota, who’s deconstructed a variety of classic works to reveal scenarios -- and, even within masterworks, unresolved struggles -- which any historian would recognize as the likely or even inevitable content of art at the time those pieces were written.
I can identify a story told in every classic symphony or concerto, a journey whose approximate stages might be summarized as “introductionc-ontemplation-
resolution.” In 18th-century symphonies (Haydn or Mozart), the resolution falls more or less easily into place. By Beethoven’s time (the start of the Industrial Revolution), the journey had become an increasingly difficult struggle toward eventual triumph; by the start of our own century, it had either been abandoned (Wagner, Debussy), become a stiffly formal imitation of itself (Brahms), moved to the provinces (Tchaikovsky), or changed character (Mahler), leading just as readily to resignation or defeat. It’s easy to see in all this a reflection of history, above all the history of the idea that individual and social needs can harmoniously coexist, which was intact in 1770 and in tatters by 1910. But for the moment that’s not the point. What concerns me are the thousands of people who hear the symphonic story in concert after concert. Do they know they’re hearing it? It’s as evident as the space battle at the end of Star Wars; it surely registers. But perhaps it doesn’t register consciously. And yet everyone who watches movies or TV knows the good guys win in classic westerns, win ambivalently on Miami Vice, and lose in disillusioned horror films like Night of the Living Dead. How can anything just as obvious in music go unacknowledged?


And what about the other stories music tells, stories from the Middle Ages, from the Renaissance, from modern Europe and America? Concerts are a babel of conflicting accounts of the world, reduced, within the classical music world, to differences in style (“Beethoven expanded the conventions of Haydn and Mozart” -- but to what end?), or adjectival mood (one work more “delicate” than another, another more “craggy”).
What about explicit stories, endless opera plots about warlike men and yielding women, echoed wordlessly in every instrumental work that contrasts forceful music, doubtless in the strings, with transparently "feminine" passages in the softer colors of the woodwinds? They simply don’t register, as they surely would in a novel by Tolstoy or Mickey Spillane; the content of music has in fact been silenced. If it weren’t, we might recognize that the red-nailed hand -- or its multifold equivalents in ages past -- really has invaded not just the program book, but the concert itself. And we’d have to ask why we’re so drawn -- with such unexamined rapture -- to art whose message may in large part contradict values we think we hold today.
This is more complex, more confusing, and surely further from the supposed reality of unchallenged art than the symbolism implied by a chauffeured limousine. The work of deconstruction has only just begun.

 (Village Voice, April 1, 1986)

[The Roland Barthes quotation comes from his wonderful essay “The Grain of the Voice," reprinted in a collection of his work called The Responsibility of Forms.]

Other Village Voice columns from the '80s:

Cage Speaks Faster When the Street Gets Noisy

The Cage Style

Feldman Draws Blood

The Struggle for Form [about Meredith Monk]

Beethoven Howls

A Fine Madness [about Milton Babbitt]