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Why do we still have performing arts? July 20, 2006

Posted by federalist in Open Questions, Uncategorized.

I’m not much of a fan of the professional performing arts.  I did see a production of Webber’s Phantom of the Opera a few years ago.  Then I saw his movie version that came out in 2004.  And then I wondered out loud what I had been quietly wondering all along: Why do people still go to see live productions of plays or concerts?  In this case the movie made the live production look like a farce.

And that’s beside all the hassle of the theater: parking, lines, waiting.  You rarely have a perfect view.  You’re packed in with other people coughing, whispering.  You can’t pause or rewind.

How many professional orchestras and theater companies do we really need?  Why not take some of the very best, record them under ideal conditions, and put those perfectly editted recordings out on CDs and DVDs?  Oh wait, they already did that: They’re called movies and music albums.

In a refreshing change, Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer music critic, appeals not for government funding of the arts but for more private funding.

It’s not as if our orchestras didn’t deserve support at the highest level of giving. The U.S. has a larger concentration of great and merely wonderful orchestras than any other nation — a trove worth mindful cultivation. And they need help. For several decades, the American orchestra has almost defined itself by fund-raising against the backdrop of crisis. The implied slogan: Give, or we’ll disappear.

So where is the billionaire so in love with orchestral music that he or she wants to make all the difference in the life of an orchestra?

Where indeed.  Why do we need so many orchestras?  And theater troupes?  I mean, this isn’t the nineteenth century.  Isn’t putting on a live play or orchestral performance more suited for school activities than for ongoing professional engagements that require $100 per attendee just to break even?  The alternative is a grander digitized experience, not confined to a stage, that can be shared across the world for less than $10 per person and still be wildly profitable.

(I carve out an exemption for spectacles like, say, the circus where seeing it in person is what makes it exceptional and (un)believable.  But I really don’t get the rest of these live performance industries.)



1. federalist - January 14, 2007

The same argument can be made for college lectures: On a recent trip I listened to CDs published by The Teaching Company and found them to be at least as engaging and illuminating as any Ivy League lecture on the subject I attended in person. And quite a bit cheaper and more convenient!

2. federalist - January 15, 2007

I also hate laugh tracks on TV programs — I won’t even watch a show with a laugh track anymore.

Maybe there is a strong correlation between people who enjoy live events (and crowds, which I also hate) and people who enjoy laugh tracks.

3. federalist - August 26, 2007

A fellow Yalie who works on Broadway explained,

It depends on the work, but it can be hard to translate a live performance to a recording. You lose the interaction with audience and that is a key part of the experience.

For example, there’s often a “ta-da” sort of moment and it falls flat without an audience to respond to it.

4. federalist - January 28, 2008

More evidence in support of my thesis: James Penrose reviews Kenneth Hamilton’s “After the Golden Age” and notes how recordings have caused the extemporaneous characteristics of live performances to atrophy. Focusing on piano:

The stylistic devices were various. They included “preluding” — that is, offering an improvised beginning to a work or movement. Mr. Hamilton explains that preluding, in a concert hall or salon, had the effect of settling the audience and of reminding it, along the way, that the pianist was a creative artist and not an automaton. … The practice fell into disuse when studio recordings, in which preluding had no place, began to shape the expectations of audiences.

Audiences in the 19th century, themselves less rigidly bound than audiences today, got into the spirit by voicing their enthusiasm when a passage moved them — interrupting with applause or shouts and sometimes demanding, mid-concert, a reprise. They applauded between movements as well.

Too much of live performance art today is a doomed attempt to replicate the rehearsed perfection of recorded performance. The live experience will always come up short in that endeavor.

5. federalist - July 19, 2009

Adding insult to injury: Boorish audience members.

Theatergoers have long been accustomed to a measure of bad behavior: people who think their whispers are inaudible; snackers who open deafening cellophane candy wrappers; latecomers who knee-bump entire rows of settled attendees.


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