Music in a Time of Snapchat: Ephemeral Contexts

It’s fair to say that we yearn for more opportunities to enjoy music in less formal spaces. But can you still have a valuable musical experience while ordering a drink, chewing an hors d’oeuvre, or making conversation?

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Photo by Damien D. via Flickr

Early in the evenin’ just about supper time
Over by the courthouse they’re starting to unwind.
Four kids on the corner trying to bring you up.
Willy picks a tune out and he blows it on the harp.
Down on the corner, out in the street
Willy and the poor boys are playin’.
Bring a nickel, tap your feet.
—“Down on the Corner,” John Fogerty

If Lorde wants us to recognize our desire to be royalty, John Fogerty, I think it’s fair to say, engages with the image of the wandering everyman. Not only is the music of “Willy and the poor boys” the cheapest kind of music to consume—later in the song he refers to paying pennies, which even in 1969 would have been a bargain—but it’s happening outside, at the most ephemeral kind of venue. You don’t wear your ball gown to hear music on the street, and you certainly don’t need to shut up to listen. You don’t get a ticket, and that nickel’s going in a hat.

And yet how many of our listening experiences are truly ephemeral? Is Fogerty’s vision a rare bird in the current musical landscape? Let’s examine disposable music and its settings more closely.
ephemeral music settings
So many fun venues, so many question marks. I consider settings to be ephemeral if they allow for a flexible set-up, places where the experience is changeable, both from day to day and within a given performance. The music may or may not be made in the same area of the room—if there is a room—for every group, and the audience is free to circulate around the space and to talk, sometimes oriented towards the music and sometimes not. These spaces are often functional, the music often occasional.
Weddings might be easy to overlook as musical events, despite the fact that almost every individual who considers herself a musician has played at least one. (In fact, I’d venture to guess that many people earn more from weddings than from new music gigs.) A wedding is one of the few types of events everyone encounters that regularly involves live music, whether it’s the typical Wagner and Mendelssohn (a compositional odd couple if there ever was one) or adaptations of Harry Potter and Star Wars themes. (Yes, I’ve really experienced that.)

So, weddings are ephemeral musical occasions (despite the swarm of cameras aiming to capture the experience for posterity). The other ephemeral spaces might be the most obvious examples, and yet are problematic on close inspection. As far as the listening experience is concerned, places like bars and fairs have the distinct advantage that a spectator can go to the bathroom instead of being confined to her seat while someone wails for four hours about magic jewelry. The current paragon for the ephemeral and everyday is perhaps Le Poisson Rouge, a space in New York City that uniquely embodies flexibility both in its physical layout and in its offerings.

But again, as with the monumental, I’m not confident about most examples of this lower right category. Bars are typically not all that flexible; LPR is the exception. Partly because of how bars are constructed, there’s usually a designated performance and seating area. It can take a large capital investment to create a flexible set-up; at most bars, you’re happy if you encounter a Manhattan bathroom’s worth of performance space. Moreover, I suspect that what many hope to hear at bar concerts is the next big thing; they want to get in on the ground floor of a lasting, valuable, potentially monumental trend. Either that or they want to drink.

Whether an outgrowth of Romanticism or changes in dominant musical venues themselves (from sacred to secular, first of all), attentive, “philosophical” listening reigns hegemonic in the popular conception of musical listening. These ephemeral spaces are not only flexible in their use of space and freedom for the audience; they redefine listening itself. One can still have a valuable musical experience, these venues suggest, while ordering a drink, chewing an hors d’oeuvre, or making conversation. Ironically, listeners in these contexts have just as much in common with pre-19th-century listeners as those in some monumental contexts discussed before: they experience music, like Beethoven’s Serenade or Mozart’s divertimenti—or even operas and masses—as occasional ornament. We often forget, when we bring such works into the concert hall, how fundamentally occasional they were.
It’s possible, then, that the reason why ephemeral spaces are difficult to pinpoint is that they are spaces largely without repertoire. Some of the music originally written to be read (rather than performed) in flexible spaces—Lieder, 18th- and early 19th-century chamber music, a great deal of keyboard music—has disappeared. (When was the last time you heard early Mozart violin sonatas or Zumsteeg songs other than on recordings?) Other repertoire of these spaces has been stolen by the monumental, transplanted to larger, more formal arenas.

While it might not be immediately clear what music, aside from that of Willy’s band and similar, works in a place where your audience might not pay full attention, a number of groups and associated composers have, whether consciously or not, begun to fill this gap. This is a list that many of us know: first, Bang on a Can, then the NOW Ensemble, Victoire, and others.
It’s fair to say that we yearn for more opportunities to enjoy music in these less formal spaces—the critical attention that these groups have gotten implies that kind of yearning at least to me. In order to create these opportunities, we may need to become more comfortable with the non-serious listening associated with those places. Give out crinkly candies at the door, with stern reminders about “no shushing” during the performance. We might just be thanked for our heedless hearing with a more vibrant musical landscape.