23 January 2007

Willingly Excluded and Loving It

It seems to me that examining the similarities and differences between classical music concerts and professional sports events could teach us something, or at least raise some interesting questions. Specifically, I'm wondering why we read so much about audiences feeling "excluded" at orchestra concerts when the audience for sporting events is really no more involved. The vast majority of sports fans never set foot on the field (they'd be arrested if they did), have never met their favorite player in person, probably could not relate to this player as a person terribly well in any case, and have a negligible (if any) effect on the outcome of the game. If sports fans readily accept such "exclusion", why do we end up with ridiculous stories like this article from Andante (old news in the musico-blogosphere, I suspect), which reports a case of patrons complaining about the facial expressions of the musicians during concerts?

I can see the musicological platitudes coming down Broadway (think Minneapolis, not New York City; that means that this particular group of platitudes rolls in a beat up Cadillac, not a stretch limo). Nonetheless, I'm not convinced that the two (concerts and sports) are quite as different as one might want to think. More accurately, I guess what I'm saying is that they are not that different to me. Say what you want, but the more I think about it, the more I'm realizing that I'm attracted to music and sports for almost exactly the same reasons, and that I'm upset about trends in both that have a striking amount in common. As with music, my attraction to sports is aesthetic: I find the spectacle of a diving catch or a three-point shot to be aesthetically pleasing. I'm one of those morons who can watch or even just listen on the radio to practically any baseball, basketball or football game, regardless of who is playing, and be entertained. What ruins the experience for me is when the commentators try to explain minutia of strategy or the players' lives during the broadcast in an effort to create a "story line". The game is the story line, dumbasses!

What are the parallels? Sometime ago, classical music organizations decided that it was a good idea to attempt to explain the form of an unfamiliar piece before playing it for an audience. I've never thought this was particularly productive, and now I'm more convinced than ever that I'm right. Of course, I know most of those things already when it comes to music, so I'm not particularly well-qualified to evaluate their efficacy on an audience of dilettantes. In the case of sports, however, I occupy something closer to the place of the now proverbial "non-musician listener", the one who knows nothing technical about music but enjoys listening to it (or thinks they do). The highest level of sports I ever played at was high school, yet as a sports fan, I really don't care which player has a great sense of humor, which coach is a genius, or how the pitcher grips his change-up. I just want to watch the damn game, and I don't need anyone trying to make it seem more interesting or important than it actually is (or perhaps in some cases, painting it as something that it is not).

On the other hand, I'm about as into NASCAR as the average orchestra patron is into Milton Babbitt. There's not a whole hell of a lot anyone could do to get me to watch NASCAR. I don't care about the supposed skill involved or who's using which kind of engine; a bunch of cars driving around in a circle is not engaging to me, and no depth of understanding about the peripheral issues can change that. If we accept this approach to music, we reach the conclusion that there's nothing we can do when someone threatens to boycott the orchestra if the players don't smile more (or if they insist on playing Babbitt). As unpopular an opinion as it is, I say we let them walk away rather than pandering to the dilettante sensibility. We don't need them (or it) any more than NASCAR needs me. The music and the sport speak for themselves.

I've seen it written that the difference is that sports fans are "emotionally" involved, and that they have the freedom to move around, chit chat, and basically do whatever the hell they want while they're in the stadium. However, there are still rules: no running on the field, no throwing object at players, assigned seats, etc. etc. If I had a choice in the matter,of course, I would be on the field competing, or at least sitting in the front row, but the fact that I'm not doesn't really make me feel excluded, nor does the fact that the players don't really acknowledge my presence any more than a musical performer acknowledges their audience at the end of a piece.

What keeps me coming back to sporting events is that I enjoy them on a very basic level, so basic in fact that it is much easier to screw it up than it is be make improvements. What room for improvement there is lies almost entirely in simplifying the experience by eliminating the extracurricular distractions. Whether in sports or music, piling on layers of story lines, technical information, program notes, personal information about the participants, advertising, and so on represents a move in the opposite direction.

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