Verfremdungseffekt and the symphony orchestra

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?

9 thoughts on “Verfremdungseffekt and the symphony orchestra

  1. A greater degree of formality is only a prescription for more orchestral woes.

    The 20th century was largely marked by the erosion of class boundaries. The vast differences in lifestyle that exist between the wealthy and the poor no longer include many of the social customs that defined class structures for centuries.

    Recently, the Cleveland orchestra went on strike because they were being threatened with a 5% cut to their salaries (which start in the six figures). They picketed in front of Severance Hall in their tuxedos.

    The median pay for one of those musicians is $140,200.

    The median salary for a typical Clevelander? $24,105.

    Severance Hall is situated just blocks from neighborhoods where $24k a year is a fortune. The city of Cleveland shuttered 18 schools this year, and its population has plummeted below 400,000, and its orchestra has the temerity to strike in their formal wear over a pay cut which is half of what most working poor people make in a year?!

    Talk about tone deaf.

    The tux is a symbol of a class structure which has no meaning in our current culture. They’d do well to ditch it.

  2. I can see I’m going to be misunderstood on this one …

    I’m not really arguing for more tuxes. Like I say, I very rarely see them on stage, so they hardly come across my radar. What I am arguing for, first of all, is for less of the messing around that goes on at the peripheries of a symphony concert. It just looks unprofessional, and is bound to put people off.

    I use the word ‘formality’ because when an audience member steps into a concert hall, they are engaging in something that has formality (as in, ‘a form’, rather than ‘poshness’). They abide by certain standards of behaviour, intellectual receptiveness, and so on. By doing so, they’re fulfilling their part of the contract that is public music-making. When you get people shuffling around aimlessly on stage, and stuff going on that should be off-stage, programme changes that should have been ironed out in advance, etc etc – the performer-side of the contract breaks down. One side sets out to do all the right things, the other side looks like it can’t be bothered. It’s like turning up half an hour late, unshaven to a date. No matter how good your conversation, you’ve blown it.

    Having performers dress in a certain way (and it really doesn’t have to be tuxes), act professionally, play within the rules of engagement, put on a show (rather than waft into one) – that’s what I mean by ‘formality’, and it can be presented in a million different ways, but it remains important.

  3. “Its orchestra has the temerity to strike in their formal wear over a pay cut which is half of what most working poor people make in a year?!”

    ZZZZZZZZZZ. And orchestral musicians make a fraction of what banking scumbag leeches, er, I mean “investment” bankers make. Somehow, I doubt you get worked up that some 26 year old with a generic business degree can make millions in a year just by being in the right place at the right time as opposed to those orchestral musicians who have worked/still work their asses off to get to where they are today. To paraphrase Radiohead:

    When I am king
    Investment bankers will be first against the wall
    With their opinions
    Which are of no consequence at all

    And don’t even get me started on professional athletes. When the NFL goes on strike next year, Jodru, I’ll appreciate the link to the rant you write about the obscenity of multi-millionaires playing a kids game striking while the poor exist next door to the mostly taxpayer funded stadiums owned by billionaires that get used 10 times a year.

    Whee! Class warfare is fun!

    As to Tim’s point, I give up, there’s no way classical music can win. It’s either too formal or it’s too informal. It’s either too snobby and clique-ish or it tries too hard to accommodate people that want everything handed to them without them making an effort in return.

    It’s pathetic to see the grasping for straws of performing arts orgs as they try to
    “stop the estrangement of potential audiences from classical music”. When I was a kid, my dad took me to the Hollywood Bowl, told me to be quiet when the music was playing and that was that. It was up to *me* whether the music worked or not. I didn’t freak out about tuxedos or people onstage bringing a piano or not being able to read insipid program notes because that wasn’t why I was there: I was there for the music, everything else *didn’t matter*.

    If someone bitches about the clothes or the attitude of the ushers or the fact that there’s not a light show worthy of a rave or whatever, they’re not there for the music and I have zero sympathy for them. I didn’t bitch in the early 80’s about the violence and macho shitheadedness of the LA punk crowd, because I wanted to hear X and Bad Religion and Black Flag so badly, that stuff *didn’t matter*, only the music did.

  4. The point in bringing up the Cleveland Orchestra’s tuxedoed strike is rather along the same line as Tim’s analogy of showing up unshaven for a date. There’s a disconnect between their goal and their behavior. A picket line is intended to drum up public support, and by striking in their tuxes, the orchestra actually hurt their public perception.

    (I’ve no idea what any of that has to do with the salaries of bankers or athletes.)

    They’re entitled to strike however they want to strike, but as with so many of the outdated protocols of orchestras, their actions didn’t resonate at all with the public.

    That being said, I’m more of your mind about the orchestral concert itself, as the shambolic periphery of the concerts doesn’t bother me at all. When I’m about to ingest 2+ hours of orchestral music, what I see beforehand hardly matters.

    Could they do well by tidying up their show format? Sure.

    Is it a make or break issue? Of course not.

  5. You make some excellent points Tim. I get tired of the pandering to some mythical audience indulged in by some performers – mainly orchestras – as though, if they wear jeans and t-shirts, the hall will magically fill up with “da yoof”. Usually, they end up getting it completely wrong, and just look more awkward in some halfway house of tailored black trousers and polo necks.

    (Why do pianists not adjust their stools before the concert? Two reasons: firstly, unlike other instrumentalists, we don’t have the opportunity for physical contact with our instruments immediately before playing, so this is a way of re-familiarising and ensuring that the body knows where everything is. And secondly, of course the stool has been adjusted in advance, … and then the bloody piano tuner comes along and changes it.)

  6. In response to the warming up on stage thing — and in defense of that, although I think it could be done more quietly — we oboists get on stage and test reeds. I make reeds at home, but I can tell you they behave differently on stage. They behave differently backstage. Shoot, they behave differently in the green room or practice room! (And they also behave differently between pit and stage, which is why I have to have a good number of reeds, being both a symphony and opera musician.) The acoustics of a space (including the hall being full of people rather than empty as they usually are during rehearsals) can really change how a reed feels, how it responds, and what we need to do to make it work. So we go out there to figure out if we need to do some whittling. One principal oboist of a major symphony orchestra said he can only finish his reeds on stage; making them at home and finishing them there would cause them to be under par for the stage. We also go out on stage to set up (every oboist has extra reeds ready to go should something go awry) and have not only reeds to prepare, but we also set out everything else (reed soaker — I use a shot glass, some use an old film canister— swab, papers for collecting water in octave keys, screw driver for the pesky mishap, and often an extra oboe if we are playing principal …).

    I won’t defend those who go out and blast away. I’m not in favor of that (my hearing damage will attest to that as well). But I do think we go out for rather important reasons. We want the first note of a performance — often our A, actually! — to be there, to be in tune, and to sound good. 🙂

    (The only performance I ever played where we weren’t allowed to warm up on stage was a Pavarotti arena concert. We had to file on … single file … and come in from the side so as not to step on his personal red carpet.)

    Sorry to go on and on about this. And maybe I’m entirely in the wrong. It’s happened before. 🙂

  7. My favorite aspect of some of these conventions is the difference between the choir and the orchestra:

    Choir: Walk in briskly together, straight line, wait rigidly for maestro.
    Orch: Shuffle in randomly. Talk to your friends.

    Choir: Applause as they walk in. Regardless of how big the choir is…”They just keep coming!?!”
    Orch: Concert master and soloists get applause.

    Choir: Warmup offstage before the concert. Often this has to be 60 or more min. early in a smaller church-type space b/c of sound bleed, Beethoven be dammed.
    Orch: Warmup on stage. Noodle around on that difficult part for a while.

    Choir: Stand, packed like sardines
    Orch: Relax in chairs. Trombones, bring a book. 🙂

    I once conducted a concert of high school age kids where the choir sang after sitting for an hour listening to the orchestra and the wind band. I put them onstage, walked out, and warmed them up in front of everybody. It definitely felt awkward..not sure I’d want to do that for a professional gig, but the parents of the kids saw how we worked, which was beneficial. Can you imagine taking 5 minutes before every concert to let the choir be warmed up by the chorusmaster. Or better yet, 200 vocalists just walk on randomly and warm themselves up ad lib!

    Of course, these are generalizations.

  8. …choir: amateurs. Orchestra: professionals. And all that that entails positively and negatively!

    The orchestra’s attire is certainly grounded in class structures. But despite appearances they’re actually not dressed as toffs, they’re dressed as the servants musicians have always been.

    Orchestral pre-performance antics were a big part of the concert experience for me when I started attending concerts as a child, and they still are – I’m appalled at the attempts of various concert organisations to choreograph them, instituting complicated codes of behaviour for players on stage before the gig, requiring the orchestra to enter simultaneously, that sort of thing. When the orchestra comes in one by one or two by two, chatting to their colleagues, doing the necessary stuff so that they feel at home for the next couple of hours, they’re doing exactly what the audience are doing out in the hall: they’re visibly people just like the audience. Then the leader and conductor come on and the concert has its ‘frame’. (There is no doubt when the performance starts, surely?) This is all the very opposite of a ‘closed shop’ and is a big part of what got me interested not only in hearing but playing music. If you can relate to the musicians as people I feel you probably have a better chance of engaging with what they have to say as musicians.

    “…you know, it all depends on how you want your Verfremdungseffekt served up.” Any chance to quote this:

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