There are the beginnings of a debate on Twitter on the vexed subject of formal wear for performers at concerts. I go to enough contemporary music concerts that I very rarely see performers in full formal dress any more. When I do, it doesn’t bother me that much – although it does still surprise. What disturbs me more are the peculiar ritual/non-ritual practices that occur before the music begins. (And this, again, is not something that I ever remember having seen at a new music concert except occasionally those involving the major venues and the large ensembles – new music players tend to be pretty slick at getting on stage and getting playing.)
The debate about formal wear is generally couched as part of the wider debate about increasing attendance at classical music events. Such a debate is especially governed by a certain green-eyed view of the audience who go to plenty of other cultural events – arts galleries, the theatre and so on. There are plenty of people who go to the theatre all the time, the argument goes; how do we get them to come to classical concerts too?
Leaving aside for the moment all other variables, let’s assume that part of the issue is the experience of classical music as a weird, closed shop, the experience of which is tied up in peculiar archaisms such as performers in formal dress. This takes me back to a post on Proper Discord from last May, in which many such oddities are enumerated. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- finally somebody gives me a program. I sit down to read it, and they turn off the lights
- the orchestra shuffles on stage as if nobody can see them
- people practice their instruments. In principle, I’m in favor of that, although this doesn’t seem like the time
- a young man in a suit comes on stage and tells us that the program order has changed
- the crowd dutifully applauds. Michael [Tilson Thomas] accepts the applause and walks off. Then he comes back [to conduct the next piece]
To be fair, “For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, [the orchestra] are wearing tailcoats” is in there as well. I would also add instances in which stage managers, sound engineers and so on shuffle around stage during set-up changes looking for something to do.
And here’s the thing. People who go to the theatre, for example, are used to sitting still for long periods, paying attention to something. They’re used to the people on stage dressing differently to those in the audience. They understand the fourth wall. They might agree that tailcoats, as a way of distinguishing them (performers) from us (spectators), are a little anachronistic, but they aren’t going to be completely freaked out by it. But people who go to the theatre also used to knowing, very clearly, when a performance begins and when it ends – where the boundaries around that strange ritual we call ‘theatre-going’ actually lie. Even if you don’t have a curtain, you know precisely when it metaphorically goes up and down.
The only time you might not is when the director is indulging in a bit of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, that distancing, estrangement thing when you reveal the underbelly of the machine, disrupting as much as possible the illusion of the stage itself. This is exactly what’s going on in the complaints listed above. You go to a concert expecting musicians to play to you, from the vantage of a stage, and instead you get shuffling, chair moving, instrument tuning and so on. Why can’t pianists adjust their stools before the concert begins?
Tails, in fact, are one of the few elements that retain something of the illusion of the stage. Are we looking at the issue from the wrong end of the telescope? Isn’t what is needed, to increase comprehension and stop the estrangement of potential audiences from classical music, a greater degree of formality, not less?