Invisible vs. Visible Music Making

Elaine Fine writes fascinating posts and does it with a regularity that evokes increasing admiration in me.  I read everything, even the recipes, even when they don’t appeal to me.  What can I say?  I’m a fan.

A recent post prompted by Labor Bureau statistics (“what is she writing about now?” I wondered) develops into a wistful meditation on invisibility.

(The Invisible Violist.  Now that could be a great name for a blog. And I know, fodder for innumerable viola/violist jokes.)

I imagine that most people who are not musicians have no idea about how hard “classical” musicians work in order to, as Trey Anastasio puts it, spend “countless hours of work just to be invisible.”

What a fascinating way to put it.

Elaine, like many of our generation and one or two that preceded us, is proud of her invisibility, at its purest when other people play her compositions. She’s a bit dismissive, it seems to me, of others who embrace their visibility, most of whom, in my experience, are younger than we are. Elaine doesn’t frame it as a generational issue, but it seems quite clear to me that it is.  And I have a different sense of where these young musicians are coming from than she does.  My comments in blue italics:

There are “classical” musicians who are trying to break through the cloak of invisibility that covers us most of the time. It’s good Elaine put “classical” in quotes.  Because lots of them don’t think of themselves as “classical” musicians.  They are musicians who play, among other things, the music formerly known as classical, and they don’t like labels. They wear wild clothes and make upplay rock music, and/or go for sex-appeal in order to have respect of the people who they believe (or their managers and advisers believe) need some kind of extra-musical stimulation in order to pay attention to music. They are dressing like their peers, and they embrace rock and other musics not out of insincere calculation but because they like it and often find it not just as engaging and stimulating as classical music, but often more so.  And the “extra-musical stimulation” isn’t extra-musical to them, because their generation hasn’t grown up listening to LP albums in the dark, like we did.  

(Me again.) Learning a new piece? They watch a performance on YouTube.  The visual aspect of human beings making music is, to these younger generation, integral.

The new culture(s?) is/are very visual.  The technological revolution of audio recording created the phenomenon of musicianless music–the invisible musicians of which Elaine writes.  But before radio and the phonograph, that didn’t exist.  And now the ubiquity of video has put the musicians back in the music making.

It was nice while it lasted, I guess.  But, “the times they are a changin’ . . .”




Filed under future of classical music

8 responses to “Invisible vs. Visible Music Making

  1. Youtube (and other digital video and audio media) are indispensable tools for me. Sadly, I can’t physically study with musicians in many of the musical traditions I work in on a regular basis. Sometimes it really helps to see how, say, an trained Arabic cellist physically does ornaments or inflects quarter-tones to be able to reproduce the sound. A notated score (and even audio) is really unequal to the task.

    I tend to be pretty dismissive of musicians that feel the need to ‘make a show’ of their performance and I understand that given the nature of some of the things I do makes that dismissiveness almost disingenuous. “Almost,” I say, just because it’s part of the conceit of embodying a certain performance type which isn’t always strictly a musical one.

    On the whole though, I think the recent series of studies done on the impact of the visual performances of pianists is pretty much spot on with regards to how we all tend to view purely musical performances. Several male and female pianists were video-synced to an audio (basically every video used the same audio) and nearly everyone (musicians and nonmusicians) rated the technical abilities of the pianists differently despite the fact that there was no audible difference. It seemed to be divided along gender lines (men were viewed as more technically proficient and women more emotive but less technically proficient). The gendered difference was explained by the fact that women did tend to ‘move around’ alot more during their performances than the men, who were more *ahem* ‘Starker-esque.’

    I think pit orchestras are the epitome of that invisibility. Whether it’s Broadway, Ballet, or the Opera–the idea that musicians should be heard and not seen is so very different than what wed find in the dramatic musical genres around the world. On the other hand, since musicians in many of the world’s dramatic traditions aren’t hidden there’s less of this incessant need to break out of that mold of artificial invisibility. You don’t see Thai musicians in a Piphat ensemble or Chinese musicians in Chinese Opera or Tazi’eh musicians in Persian Opera feel the need to break out into a ‘rock star routine’ or other similarly visual musical performing style that so many of the younger classically trained musicians are feeling pressured to do, for example. I think it’s as much a cultural as a generational issue.

    • Eric Edberg

      Thanks, Jon. Your comment has me realizing that it really is a difference of cultures I see, with the cultures significantly correlated with generations. And of course Elaine is correct that, as I believe she is suggesting, some people are going to fashion extremes and including rock and other music in a calculated rather than authentic way. But there are a lot of people who live in a post-genre culture where what we used to call “fusion” is fundamental.

      I’d love to know more about that study.


      Sent from my iPhone

  2. I think some of the whole dress issue made headlines after Yuja Wang’s recent appearance with the LA Phil–this review article in the LA Times mentioned a study done specifically with women and their dress

    In a recent article in Psychology of Music published in April 2010 ( ) Noola Griffiths found that female performers were judged to be most appropriately dressed when wearing traditional concert ‘dress’, and least appropriately dressed when wearing a nightclubbing dress, particularly when playing classical music. Jeans and a top was more appropriately rated when playing jazz or folk. However, Griffiths also found that the performances were rated as less musical when the performers were wearing inappropriate dress. Griffiths concludes that “performers that excel musically may find their physical nature devalued” (p. 174) and “women wishing to project a body-focused image should note that this may have a detrimental effect on perceptions of their musical ability”

    As I was looking for pieces related to the above study I came across the one I mentioned in my first post–again using Yuja Wang as a starting point for the discussion:

    Regarding the cultural difference–I’m not saying that younger musicians in other countries don’t do many of the same things that this new generation of classical musicians are doing. The criticisms in those countries, however, reference the influence of Westernization/Americanization in those discussions and rarely are the musicians in those countries involved in the indigenous art traditions in the first place.

    Interestingly, there’s at least one precedent in American Classical tradition that predates all this current concern for the invisibility of classical musicians–Harry Partch–his consistent critique of the Western concert music tradition informed the creation of his musical aesthetic and he always required the musicians to be performers on the stage for his dramatic works. Granted, since he created instruments that were beautiful sculptural works in their own rights to play his 43 note-per-octave system they were also visually interesting, but Partch’s oeuvre is just a footnote in the Experimental tradition of American classical music and has hardly had any influence on this new generation of musicians who are more in tune with popular culture.

    I think I’m probably much more sympathetic to Elaine’s viewpoint than to the current generation’s regarding adopting the new ‘post-genre’ fusion ideal-in many ways, I feel like I got all that frustration with Western Classical performing culture out of my system through my involvement with all the experimental music I’ve done over the years on the one hand; and on the other hand, I’ve felt just as alienated by popular music culture as I was to classical music culture, so always viewed them both as two sides of the same coin!

  3. Imagine my shock at the sudden “visibility” I experienced reading this post! Perhaps it is both a generational thing (as you say) and a cultural thing (as Jon says). I wonder what cultural shift this visually-oriented generation will find themselves reacting to when they reach a “certain age?”

    I really appreciate being able to have a conversation about this, and am totally flattered that you call yourself a “fan” of my blog! What a hoot!

    • I have a post waiting in the moderation queue right now Elaine-I linked to a couple of the studies I referenced above, but I think on the whole many people feel the way you do regarding dress and appearance.

      And yes! When this generation reaches that “certain age” I’m sure they will be having similar discussions about the upcoming generations when that time comes!

      Regarding this being partially a cultural issue, I clarified more of that in the post waiting for moderation as well.

      I’ve only occasionally read your blog, though lately as I’ve been getting more composition gigs I’ve been a more regular reader! 😀

  4. fireandair

    The dismissive nature of the word “visual” is astonishing to me. I can’t believe the attitude I’m seeing. I simply cannot imagine this attitude, and I hope to hell that it dies quickly, because it’s what’s killing the most beautiful music of the past 400 years.

    Cargo cult reasoning.

  5. As one of those musicians who doesn’t particularly like the blanketing of the term ‘classical’ to refer to anything of the older symphonic/art music styles, I find this discussion REALLY interesting. I think that the point about being less ‘visible’ and letting the music simply speak for itself is great. We’re sometimes too concerned with the trappings and surroundings of our art that we forget that all we need to do is let it come from us and it will do the speaking for us.

  6. Pingback: Looking good can make you play worse… | Mae Mai

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