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Monday, May 15, 2017

On Schizophonia

I went to see the gipsy. Or: I went to hear a Nobel prize winner sing. When I announced it on Facebook, one of my FB-friends asked me which one. I answered that I was not sure how recent Groningen-laureate Ben Feringa sings but that in this case I would go to listen to Bob Dylan.

The concert was great. Dylan sang a collection of his own songs, interspersed with songs from the American Songbook. Maybe he did it for Nobel purposes, to make clear why it is completely justified that he did receive the Nobel prize for his lyrics, rather than the writers of the American Songbook lyrics. The difference between the two is obvious and couldn't be greater. Day and night.

One of the other great things of Dylan's concert was that he is still, at 70+, able to infuriate people during a concert. A guy right behind me took pride in boo-ing every American Songbook song and every piano note Dylan hit. And honestly: I am not a fan of his American Songbook crooning, and neither do I think he is a great pianist. But for me, it is the fascinating play of foreground/background that counts.

Dylan has alienated people from him since time immemorial: because he went electric, because he stopped making 'protest songs' (which he never really did, of course), because he changed his voice, because he made lousy records on purpose to stop people treating him like a Saint or a Saviour, because he went Christian, because he went middle of the road jazz. It is, altogether, a great journey, trying to work out a liveable trade off between being a genius and being a person. In his case no greatness without flatness, no foreround without background - and if the foreground is so worthwhile, the background becomes worthwhile simply because of its functionality in 'that complex whole'.

Which is not to say that I amused myself to death at AFAS-live's concert hall. One of the things that bothers me more and more is the contradiction between appearance and reality which is the result of amplification. Here I was, listening to a singer-songwriter with a small band which - although using some electric and even electronic instruments - essentially was simply a full acoustic band. They could play in a living room, or in a smaller theatre hall, without being amplified.

But now they played for an audience of several thousands, with the sound coming not from their mouths and instruments but from a more unidentifiable 'somewhere' through the speakers in the hall. While at the same time - and that is the crux of this little piece - pretending to be playing unamplified in a cosy setting.

Of course, it was not as bad as some other concerts, where persons on a stage have learned to give the impression of personal contact by talking to an anonymous audience as if talking to a group of ten, or simply to you; whereas you know that they can't single out any individual in front of them simply because they are blinded by the spotlights they have to work in. That is outright theatre, pretending human contact through an artificiality that for me is increasingly hard to swallow. I'm simply not interested any more. (By the way: if there is one thing Dylan does not do, it is pretending personal contact. He simply pretends you are not there, he ignores his audience completely. Which adds to the infuriation of some.)

'But anyway'. 'Be that as it may', as Marilynne Robinson would write. In my mind a workable dualism is forming. Either you play amplified, and you do that when amplification is existential: rock 'n' roll, funk, dance, hardrock, punk. Or you play genres for which not being amplified is existential, and then you simply do not amplify: folk, small ensemble jazz, singer songwriters, Lied, string quartets, symphonies.

The in-between for me more and more becomes problematic. Genres meant for intense listening or small-scale interaction become polluted when they are amplified; and because pollution means less value, audience members take the liberty to start doing something else during the concert than listening to or interacting with the music or the musicians. Talk about their holidays or their nasty boss at work, for example.

Which, for an ethnomusicologist and from a scientific point of view, is fine: it apparently is one of the affordances of amplified small scale music occasions these days, and it is the phenomenon that counts in science, not my personal thoughts about it.

But for me as a person, an audience member, and sometimes a musician, it is different. Amplification of what I consider to be at heart face-to-face socio-musical situations is at odds with what I hope those situations have to offer me and others.

Unless Dylan sets up an amplified show with the blues-rock intensity of for example his Highway 61 period or comes to play an acoustic concert in my living room, I think I will leave it at listening to his CDs. Which is another case of schizophonia. But on that, later.

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