Sheepish Drumming


Attributed to Giambettino Cignaroli, Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the Age of 13 in Verona, 1770

From Inside Story:

We know from reports and illustrations of concert audiences in the late eighteenth century that once upon a time people tended to talk and eat during performances. There’s Mozart at the piano, and yet half the audience seems not to be paying attention. During the nineteenth century, a different attitude crept into the concert hall. In the Romantic age, audiences were more likely to commune with a performance in a rapt, reverent, one might almost say prayerful manner. And one sees it still, people in concerts — classical concerts, anyway — listening with their eyes shut.

Stravinsky disapproved of this habit. He thought those people were missing something and urged audiences to watch performances as well as listen. He wanted them to see the moments of effort and ease that go into playing instruments and to notice the players’ interactions. I’m with Stravinsky. Live music requires interaction, and that’s only enhanced by the look of it. Musical gesturing embodies sound, and when we watch it closely it brings us closer to the sound of the music.

Just this morning, walking with my dog, I was passed by a car in which the driver was animatedly drumming on his steering wheel. I couldn’t hear the music. It didn’t look like Mozart. Meeting my eyes, and realising he’d been spotted — perhaps only then realising what he was doing — the driver gave me a sheepish grin. Not that he stopped drumming.

My favourite such experience, vivid in my memory, happened thirty-eight years and four or five cars ago. I was driving down a suburban street near Wollongong University, listening to pop radio. Elton John was singing “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” and I was belting it out with him. I remember the moment because behind the wheel of an approaching car was a woman singing the same song. We were lip-syncing. She saw me too, as our cars passed, but there wasn’t time to wave.

“Wrapped in sound”, Andrew Ford, Inside Story

Frontpage image: Detail from Rayner Simpson: A happy spring lamb sunbathing, 2020 (Unsplash)

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