I am greatly encouraged by this initiative of actually bringing into public awareness just what matters about the symphony and what its place in modern cities should be, what its place in the surrounding way of life and the culture generally should be, and how we can support and give meaning to it. What I shall talk about today are some philosophical ideas about music itself, in particular about classical music, and why we think it is such an important thing. And it is a difficult area for many reasons.
People who love music often find it extremely difficult to talk about it, to say what it is that they love in it; and people who dislike it nevertheless think that they have very good reasons to do so. And there seems to be no forum of debate in which people can try to come to some agreement as to why music has the importance that it has in our society. I am going to say a few things about that and also about the theme that I have put in the title.
I think we have to begin from this idea that we have inherited a listening culture. Listening is not an easy thing itself to define. There is such a thing as hearing. We hear music all the time around us, but most of us do not pay attention to it—partly because most of it is not worth paying attention to. But there is also overhearing and that is a very common experience. Wherever we are—in restaurants or in the Metro or wherever—we are overhearing music coming at us from all angles, and we are learning how to ignore it. Music was not originally designed to be ignored. But we live in a society where, if we do not learn to ignore it, we cannot also learn to listen to it. This puts an enormous strain on us and it is one reason, of course, for the existence of these special places like symphony halls where one can insulate oneself from the surrounding world.
I totally endorse everything that Léon Krier said to us about modern architecture and the way in which it has created alienating spaces where it should create spaces where we are at home. And I think of all spaces where we should be at home, the symphony hall is the most important. Many of us have this sense that musical experience is of supreme value and that musical experience of the kind I am going to be talking about—the kind that involves listening—has been extremely important in our civilization.
Western civilization is in many ways a musical civilization. Music has had a place in our civilization which it has never achieved elsewhere. Of course, all people everywhere sing and dance. Dance in particular has a profound social meaning, and without it most societies in the past could not have really held together. But dancing is a very different thing from just sitting and listening, and we have this long—perhaps a thousand-year-long—experience of just sitting and listening for long moments, and doing so in company. We detach music from collective singing and dancing and make of it what you might call a spectacle or auricle, an occasion for simply sitting together and listening. Though detached from those natural social forms of musical order like singing and dancing, it is still a social experience. It is something shared. Even when you are listening on your own, there is an implicit sharing going on. You do not think of yourself as “me, alone, listening to that.” You are, as it were, representing your ideal group of fellow listeners for whom this is a communal experience. You are being returned in some way to a deep social experience within you.
There are many threats, however, to this listening culture. In particular, there is growing around us a habit of merely hearing music, or merely overhearing music, and of having to fight music off so that you can listen. The music that you hear in most restaurants today is not music that you could listen to without going mad. Or if you if you did start listening to it then of course the whole purpose of the restaurant would be defeated, too. It is there simply to fill in the silence that would otherwise, people fear, be engendered between the people sitting at the tables by the fact that they have forgotten how to speak. That is only one place in which music intrudes, but it intrudes in so many other ways and so many other places that we do have to learn the habit of ignoring it. And that gives us a real sense that learning to listen is not something that can be achieved simply by doing it. We need to rehabilitate ourselves to a particular culture….
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