Cross-Generic Music and the Politics of Public Listening
Last week, my husband and I went to a concert. We saw the Punch Brothers play at the outdoor amphitheater at the NC Museum of Art. If you don’t know the Punch Brothers, their music is difficult to describe. They play bluegrass instruments: mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle, and banjo, but their music is so much more than straight-up bluegrass. There’s an art music quality to their work; their most recent album included arrangements of Debussy and Scriabin, and an earlier album features a forty-minute suite in four movements. They are some of the most incredibly gifted musicians I’ve ever seen perform live – truly virtuosic. But, at the same time, they aren’t afraid to break it down old school with foot-stompin’ drinking songs and good old-fashioned party music. Like I said, hard to describe.
And that’s what made the concert such a strange experience, I think. Coming from a background that featured art music and popular music in more or less equal measure, I honestly had no idea how the audience would behave at a concert like this. Would people remain quietly seated and intently-focused on every note, or would they be dancing and singing along to every song? As it turns out, it wasn’t really either…
First off, let me describe the scene a bit. The amphitheater at the museum has a few seating areas. There are reserved seats down front, corporate areas for sponsors on raised platforms on the sides, and open lawn seats. We were in the latter. In that area, families had set up picnics (or in one case full-on buffets) of homemade food, most people were in folding chairs, enjoying the wine and beer sold on site, and others were on blankets or towels on the grass. The audience on the lawn was a strange mixture of families, groups of friends ranging in age from their teens to their 70s, and couples. Everyone seemed intent on having a good time, but it seemed that not everyone could agree on what that was.
Some groups seemed to be at the concert to listen. I know we were. We were dressed comfortably for an 80 degree night outside. We were armed with bug spray and sunscreen (for before evening fell). I even packed rain jackets, though the weather ultimately made it unnecessary to bring them. I was so excited to hear this music, that I wanted nothing to distract me.
Others were there for a family outing. Mom and Dad enjoyed what they could and relaxed with a beer or two while the kids did as kids do. Some children played in the grass with glowing toys. Others dragged their parents to the concession booth for ice pops and back and forth to the restrooms.
Still other groups seemed to be at the concert for a party. They relaxed in their chairs or on their blankets with six-packs or bottles of wine and chatted amongst themselves. Some softly, others, not so much.
And that’s where things got tricky. The people in the audience who came with the intent of deep, critical listening were disrupted by constant motion, loud conversation, and, increasingly as the night went on, drunken behavior.
So, was one group in the right and another in the wrong? I don’t know…
And that’s what makes this kind of music complicated to negotiate in the public space. The wide span of styles performed by the Punch Brothers makes knowing how to behave at a concert difficult. On one hand, they encourage the audience to relax and enjoy themselves, while on the other, their performance commands attentive listening. But where does one end and the other begin? That seems to vary from one audience member to the next.
Now, I don’t want you to think I’m being a stuffy, grumpy old “got-off-my-lawn” type of person here. I had a great time. I saw a lot of people who didn’t, though, and that’s what got me thinking about this. Does wanting to really experience the music in an environment such as this make someone anti-fun? Or, on the flip side, does taking the opportunity to hear such exquisitely performed music and spending it chatting with friends, getting drunk, and ushering kids around demonstrate a lack of cultural discernment?
I’m honestly not sure. This is what makes music such a complicated thing, especially when heard in public spaces. Everyone should be entitled to the listening experience that they want, right? But what happens when one person’s enjoyment becomes another’s irritation? In a possibly once-in-a-lifetime event like a concert, it’s hard to say.
And what does that say about the process of listening? Does an experience like this indicate that someone who wants to truly listen may only be able to do so in the comfort and seclusion of their own personal space? Not necessarily, but I do think that musical style plays an important role here.
It seems to me that the clash of intentions I witnessed at the Punch Brothers show was one of expectations that surround musical style. Because the band blends aspects of the artistic and the popular, the audience carried the notions of concert etiquette most associated with the style they perceived most strongly in the Punch Brothers’ music. That is, the art music fans expected an audience that would remain silent and attentive, while the bluegrass fans wanted to kick up their heels or relax. In the end, lots of people seemed unsure which extreme was more appropriate, and some just went with their gut.
I have to say, I feel kind of bad for the people who got so hung up on what other people were doing that they allowed their irritation to take over. The concert was truly amazing. No, I didn’t have an uninterrupted listening experience, but I have CDs for that. I couldn’t see very much, but there was some great people watching!
Ultimately, I think this concert has simply forced me to think about people more than anything else. Blending musical styles creates a blend in audiences, which in turn creates a blending of behavioral norms and expectations. As long as everyone can relax and enjoy, maybe that’s all be can ask.
The Punch Brothers: The Phosphorescent Blues (2015)
The Phosphorescent Blues is the Punch Brothers’ fourth studio album. The group was formed in 2006 by Chris Thile, who also played mandolin and sings with the neo-bluegrass band Nickel Creek.
The group’s sound is described as “progressive bluegrass, classical music, and acoustic music.”
The album is available on CD and vinyl and digital download. It can also be streamed in its entirely from Spotify and Tidal.
What do you make of this blend of sounds? Do they fit together or do they clash? What kind of concert experience do you imagine when you hear it?
Molly M. Breckling holds a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her areas of research interest are the songs of Gustav Mahler, popular music, and music history pedagogy. Her goal is to help others listen to music more actively and to develop a greater appreciation for the music that surrounds us every day.