Pianifestos and Quay-fish.

*Rant Warning* This post contains statements with moderate to severe levels of sarcasm and rage.

In 2008, I encountered my first street piano. Coincidentally, this was the very year that street pianos became a thing officially – an international project by Luke Jerram. Briefly, he (or possibly his minions) acquire old 2nd-hand uprights and place them on the street, where people may play them at will.

Anyway, it was in Sydney that this encounter occurred (I was not living here at the time) on a wander around Circular Quay (pronounced “Circular Qway”); I heard the faint, honky-tonk strains of a piano coming from near the contemporary art gallery. Someone was playing something … I don’t remember exactly what, but I was amazed by the concept. Whenever I’ve encountered pianos in the wild, they either normally come with ‘Don’t play’ signs, are locked, and/or everyone seems to be ignoring them like that old room-full-of-monkeys-cold-water-and-a-banana paradigm. Google the latter if need be.

But this was different. It said ‘Play Me, I’m Yours.’ I do remember playing some Brahms Horn Trio on it, going off to see the gallery and later coming back to play some more. Encouraging public performance. Unthinkable! Liberating! I spent over a week wandering randomly and locating ever more pianos scattered around Sydney, playing little more than a perfect cadence on each to establish its playability before going off in search of more.

See!

I even took a photo!

But there was a dark side. Little did I realise that this seemingly wonderful project would soon inflict a rather unique form of dysfunction upon society. I can’t really think up a suitable name for it (I later did, piano hog-ism), so I will describe it. The street piano ideal is supposed to encourage lots of things; the curious with no musical experience tinkering for fun, children playing things they’ve just learnt, even professionals doing publicity stunts, all the while making music and expression happen in everyday public life. Wonderbar [sic].

What it doesn’t take into account is that often lots of people would like to have a go at a given piano as they pass it by. So they gather around the current performer, adding to the crowd of spectators. Mr Current Performer is playing something that requires two chords of arpeggios and would probably come from Twilight were it not completely improvised. The’ve not had formal training, but watched some Youtube videos of how to recreate favourite hits on piano with only two fingers and a truckload of looking like an affected, romantic musician. They reassure themselves they are being suave.

Yes

Artist’s Impression Stage one…

After doing this for 10 minutes or so they decide to finish and look up. What an amassed crowd! And crowds, habitually at the very least, are biologically programmed to applaud at the end of performances. So they do. Encouraged and emboldened, the current performer decides to give them more of what they want, choses two new chords and launches off again. Some now bored spectators depart, only to be replaced by new ones, drawn by the crowd size, and with a fresh sense of wonderment. Those who still wish to play linger on. The pianist concludes after an eternity. The applause is still fresh and enthusiastic! Well I never!

Evidence 3

Artist’s Impression Stage Two

This goes on for some time. After a while, the pianist notices you. You’ve been there for either 40 consecutive minutes and 3 waves of renewable clapping, or even after much longer time intervals as you return to see if they’ve finished. ‘What could it be that you’re after?’ they ask themselves. The realisation dawns on them. ‘More of my wonderful playing of course!’ Mistaking the daggers in your eyes for captive stares and touched that they have such a dedicated fan, they continue this process unrelentingly until such time that a total absence of audience coincides with that brief, hopeful surfacing for recognition.

Artist’s Impression Stage Three…

Basically, the process is a cycle:

A) Belief that playing the piano to any level is such a rare gift that it is inconceivable that anyone in the crowd would also want to play the piano. (This is unlike swings in the playground for instance, or looking through a public telescope; in these cases a natural queuing system exists and though people may wildly appreciate one’s prowess on the swing set, one would always have an awareness that others may want a turn. The street piano concept represses this awareness.)

… that leads to:

B) Belief that a crowd must therefore only be present as spellbound moths to the flame, and the performer has a duty to keep going as long as there is an audience (unaware that people come and go).

… which eventually leads to:

C) Applause, which means ‘Encore!’ Thus the performer believes they are creating something magical, which leads us back to A).

There are many varieties of the piano hog (there I named it!).

Sometimes they hunt in pairs or packs (as those in my last post), clunking and singing away at Beatles hits before swapping roles, creating the illusion of giving others a turn, when really just keeping it ‘in the family’ as it were, and providing a perpetual, mutually admiring audience of one at all times. An unhealthy, symbiotic relationship.

Sometimes the piano hog is territorial. It is the guy who spends multiple hours on the same piano everyday on his way home from work, repeating the same few pieces. It is his ritual. This species builds up a library of all the passer-by compliments they received over time to cement their position of absolute dominance and validate their authority over the piano and interprets prospective performers as upstart rivals. Anyone who happened to be playing upon his arrival is met with a terse ‘I’ll take it from here, thank-you-very-much.’ Meanwhile, somewhere out in Hampstead, a marriage deteriorates as a partner dines alone. Again.

Occasionally, the rarer breeds emerge. For instance, and for want of a better name, the I-actually-have-playing-piano-anonymously-as-my-career-path-but-i’m-not-getting-paid-osaurus. Often advanced in age, the above specimen is often seen dressed up especially in patched tuxedo or pinstripe suit, playing ragtime and putting on a show, like an amusement park character on a three-hour shift to accompany silent movies. However, this is not an amusement park, but Kings Cross, St Pancras. A relic from a bygone era (not even their own bygone era; silent movies had all but died out by the 1940’s), they rely on pity to a great extent, having gotten all prepped to come in and play they truly look as though they belong there. Asking them to move on would be like telling the sad, loyal old man who continued to make wooden barrels* unpaid on the doorstep of your father’s barrel factory in the decades after it closed down that the demolition team had already commenced countdown, and that the new Krispy-Kreme store that will replace the soon-to-be crater of his former, husk-like life has a strict no-barrel-maker hiring policy, and besides, he’s much too old. As you do.

Logo

My left-handed attempt at the Krispy Kreme logo via a remarkably unresponsive online drawing program.

So in conclusion, I must emphasise my gripes with the piano hog are not with his or her technical proficiencies or chosen repertoire. Indeed the most healthy aspect of the street piano is its encouragement of everyone. Instead, it is that most often those with marginal (as opposed to none)-to-moderate pianistic ability, sometimes have a strong tendency to lose awareness in regards to over-staying their welcome, becoming quickly addicted to positive public receptions. This quashes other peoples’ piano opportunities, not only other passing kenner und liebhaber pianists, but the curious and the to-be-inspired who perhaps had never had a chance to play a piano; the whole point of the project. To the piano hog I’d suggest that the swing-set etiquette analogy may perhaps serve as a useful guide: Have a good swing by all means! Enjoy peoples’ reaction to your impressive heights and death-defying leap off into the sand. But know when to stop, don’t ignore the queue and get right back on. Kthxbai.

*A surprising amount of quandaries regarding things such as classical music’s meaning and role in today’s society can be resolved quite effectively if you replace ‘classical music’ with ‘barrel’ and solve for y.

On The Concept of Postman Pat

I mentioned the Improvisation on the Concept of Postman Pat a couple of posts ago and I think it deserves a little more of a mention/explanation as it’s a thoroughly remarkable piece. While the main performance went un-recorded in my rare and baffling observance of institutional rules, there was some rehearsal footage that survived (below). This one is a fragment from the second parcel.

But first … or second, to recap:

“The piece was ‘written’ by Brisbane percussionist Cameron Kennedy – a musical innovator and performer of rare humour and intellect. It was first entirely improvised for mixed percussion by Cameron at the 2010 Australian Percussion Gathering, and he wrote down the instructions at the request of Hugh Tidy, who performed that ‘version’ in 2011. Cameron then revised and expanded the instructions for this recital to incorporate the piano as the primary instrument.”

And so, dear reader, it is essentially a structured improvisation… on the concept of Postman Pat. And while it is entirely permissible for the original theme song to crop up thence and whence, (and it deliberately opens quoting said material), the postal element of the piece lies more in it’s structure – short individual ‘parcels’ featuring specific spoken fragments from the episode “Postman Pat and the Cranky Cows” (complete with various British accents) and a set of guidelines for each segment’s musical parameters. Thus involved are the emphatic shouting of things such as:

“Would you look at that Dorothy… They’ve started on me broccoli now!”

“The sheep have taken a liking to our green vegetables, Pat.”

“Is there a postman in the house?”

… all while manipulating electronic delay, a percussion battery of very flexible instrumentation and two or more pianos; one prepared in a rather germane* fashion (germane?! Oh no, I’ve become my supervisor!) with a copy of the very program note describing the piece.

My favourite instruction was from the somewhat liberal “Cameleoparcel:”

Mentally identify a member of the audience and create a musical representation of what you imagine their life to have been like thus far.

"Well that's the Ted Glenn Automatic Sheep Disperser"

“Well that’s the Ted Glenn Automatic Sheep Disperser”

And that’s the great thing about the Postman Pat: the hyper-flexible and practical approach it lends to performance: There are no wrong notes or musical decisions, at worst just unconvincing ones. Whether or not it will go down well with an audience is another thing, but ultimately that is down to the performer. In any case, many thanks are due to Cameron for the fantastic music/concept.

*appropriate or relevant. I learn one new word a year and that was 2012’s.

Que Sol-fa, Sol-fa

Solfa and Solfege, or more accurately Sol-fa and Solfège, are the names of the two sides, teams and/or factions currently participating in one of the more one-sided conflicts in musical history. The Sol-fa-ites relentlessly wage a bitter and furious campaign of condemnation upon the peace-loving Solfege community, fuelled possibly and probably by feelings of inadequacy and also the fervour of their revered Hungarian forebears ringing in their ears. This post … I write this post not only in defence of the Solfegers, but in offence at the Sol-fa-ites, those fanatical zealots (as opposed to your indifferent, garden-variety zealots).

This is neither

The conflict is fundamentally between the fixed (Solfege) and the moveable (Solfa) Do (pronounced dough), yet even the spelling of Do (Doh for solfa) cannot be agreed upon. While both parties have distant medieval origins over this note-naming, fixed Do grew naturally and gradually out of this system, while the moveable version began abruptly as the musical love-child of Sarah Ann Glover and John Curwen. Before we go further let’s discuss what it’s all about:

What is a ‘Do’?

Well dear reader, that is the crux of the pickle. In fixed Do, the pitch of C is Do. In moveable Do, any pitch that is the tonic of the key is Do. Are you stirred into a rage by one of these options? If so congratulations – you are a Sol-fa-obsessed, irrational extremist. Don’t care? Fixed Do it is then.

Why does it matter?

Well dear reader, it all comes down to what you want to use it for. And by that I must add the disclaimer that most well-adjusted musicians never really find, or indeed look for, any practical use for such knowledge beyond passing it on.

Cumquat

If you use Solfege (fixed), it allows a simple and rapid singing of syllables – like reading note names but better – as opposed to saying “C sharp, E flat, D natural etc.” It does make singing relative intervals a little less conducive if the piece isn’t in C, so for instance, you’d probably have to know what a major 7th up from the So (G) sounds like if the piece was in G Major.

If you use Sol-fa (moveable), well this automatically takes care of it – if G was Do the major 7th interval is Do-Ti rather than So-Fi in fixed. But.

TANGENT

Most of the fiercest advocates of Sol-fa are those who learn in schools that base their teaching on Bartok and Kodály – particularly the latter’s method. I cannot but gaze like a puffin at the cumquat of irony that these (relatively mildly) modernist composers, who were alive and writing at the cusp of significant, irrevocable changes in tonal theory in the early 20th century, became representatives of the fundamentally tonal movable Do system. It’s as though they invented a car that runs exclusively on blue whale fat, and said invention becomes wildly and bafflingly popular. Soon, the proponents are spending all their time hooning around and shouting obscenities at the Solfege citizens in their electric hybrids, blissfully unaware that their fuel supply and cars are both about to come to a complete standstill.

END TANGENT

But. Moveable Do becomes starkly meaningless when there IS NO TONIC. C will always be C, so fixed Do is permanent – indeed all the chromatic notes are accounted for Do, Di, Re, Ri etc, and there’s room for microtones if you care inordinately. But moveable Solfa is self-limiting. Do you pick a random note if there is no Do? Why not choose C by default (or any other note for that matter) Yes. That ‘fixes’ the problem.

Beluga Wail

Artist’s depiction of typical Solfege/Solfa interaction

So dear Sol-fa-ites, give yourselves a nice hug, and the next time you meet someone who uses fixed Do or perhaps just doesn’t care about note-syllables as much as you do (aka: someone who uses fixed Do) before you slice, halve, crimp, carve, gut and starve your adversary, perhaps just smile and remember how patronising I’ve been to you.

Putting the ‘Phil’ in Ph.D

It's Good!

It’s Good! It’s Brahms Raising Raisin Brahms.

GUTEN TAG! (Enjoying your Raisin-Brahms?)

I have just emerged from a rather trippy and viciously-cyclic period of PhD proposal development, hence the lack of posts in the last couple of months. It is in many ways a huge leap of faith finding an interesting and relevant topic (especially in a music-world heavily populated by scholarly types) that hasn’t yet been written about for no good reason.

Whenever I got close to narrowing a field and finding there was little existing research previously, I felt like being in the proverbial room of replaced-monkeys with the banana up a ladder that no-one is touching from second generation fear of the cold water spray but no-one actually knows why. If you don’t know that story I won’t go into it, but I just did.

In any case, my frustrations lurched between “Damn, this is a good topic but someone’s already written about it” and “Damn, no-one has written about this topic – there must be a reason why it’s not valid.” So in the end a leap of faith was required and I am presently in mid-leap… hoping there will be solid ground with no natural predators or environmental hazards on the other side. Just lots of fruit and chocolate.

Along the way I encountered some interesting PhD stereotypes. It is often tempting for ‘pure musicologists’ (aka people who write about music but have no/little musical experience) to end up with an absurdly specific and useless topic only tangentially concerned with music. Topics like:

Not much it turns out.

Not much it turns out.

“The histrionic effects of Franz Joseph Haydn’s brother Michael’s slow sonata movements for harpsichord on the emotional development of hatching red swamp crayfish.”

“Variations on the double constrictor knot formed in ipod headphones by accident in adolescent male coat pockets from 2005 to 2008”

“Why I like Bolognese”

Another recurring PhD type is from composers and more-aged-than-I performers who are lucky enough to draw on their experience and/or folio work to write about themselves. While this would indeed be a fascinating exercise my own effort would most likely turn into:

“Writing a PhD dissertation: An auto-ethnographical and self-aware study on itself”

Perhaps though the most frustrating variety tends to come from those undergoing PhD programs around the beginning of the modern scholarship era – around 1970. Those fortunate ones were at liberty to take advantage of a generally unexplored musical world, often with such reckless abandon as to propel themselves at entire fields in a single sitting, or able to simply just present very basic and fundamental facts as ground-breaking research, leaving future scholars to scavenge feebly in the muddied waters, eking out a merge existence on whatever niche topics can be found. Truly 1970’s scholars are the carp of the musical world, with dissertations such as:

“How to play the pianoforte well”

“I got here first! An analysis of everything ever by George Gershwin with specific focus on 90 other important American composers. Acknowledge me”

“Music: A summary”

All of it.

All of it.

I’m just am glad it’s over now. Many apologies (to those who accidentally stumble upon this website looking for marmot photos – you know who you are) for the delay and hopefully I’ll have a little more time and inspiration soon.

Marmots and their Orchestral Rationale: Part II

INTRO: They say that pigeons develop odd and repetitive behaviours (such as hopping on one foot) should you feed them pellets at random intervals, presumably made of seed or some such food that pigeons like. The theory here is that they believe whatever they happened to be doing at the time triggered the pellet dispensing and if they manage to do it again (in just the right manner) then they will get more pellets. When the next one inevitably arrives it simply reinforces the behaviour and the cycle continues ad infinitum.

HYPOTHESIS: Anyway, it has been over two years since the early days of this blog and I thought it’s a spectacular time to revisit my inaugural rant about orchestral repertoire. I actually had attempted this about one year ago but it remained in draft from and I think now time and some more far-reaching data can provide a three-dimensional-time-instalment on the topic! Basically, we will look at the concert series for 2013 not only of the original Australian orchestra but three separate seasons of another very well-known orchestra in the UK and see what’s what.

METHODOLOGY: The pieces played fall into categories of:

  1. Works by popular European Composers
  2. Works by unpopular European Composers
  3. Works by popular non-European Composers
  4. Works by unpopular non-European Composers

A word from the recapping porpoise:

Recapping Porpoise

The definitions of European and non-European is quite simple but the former includes Russia (as part of a highly integrated ‘Western’ music culture). The definition of ‘popular’ I probably defined earlier in my last rationale post, but for apathy’s sake will re-make it up here and then for obsessive-compulsiveness’s sake compare afterwards anyway, (to test my own consistency).

Popular composer (My 2013 Definition): “A composer who is mainstream enough to be known by a regular concert going audience and can be expected to appear regularly (anywhere from extremely frequently to once every few years) in an orchestral concert series.”

Popular composer (My 2011 Definition): “A well-known composer (Beethoven, Mozart, etc) that a typical Classical concert-going audience could expect to hear every few years or so.”

Close enough! Anyway now we are all on the same (web)page here are the results:

RESULTS:

For the original Australian Orchestra:

Original Orchestra ANew Orchestra AWell that’s slightly more promising 70.3% of the series (down from 81.8%) made up of  European classical standards.

Now let’s take a peak of three 6-month seasons of the UK orchestra.

January 2012 to June 2012

1st Season Orchestra B

July 2012 to December 2012

2nd Season Orchestra B

January 2013 to June 2013

3rd Season Orchestra B

This is a little bleaker…

Just a little bit

The percentages chronologically here are 93.4%, 90.4% and 85.5%. Although it’s a slight downward trend the average is still 89.8% of the repertoire is typical European, and in one and a half years only one non-popular, non-European composer is featured.

CONCLUSIONS: I’ve been wondering a little recently about what would happen if orchestras (or classical artists in general) dropped the facade of being part of a ‘living tradition’ and dedicated themselves only to playing what is considered the classical music canon. With this repertoire already making up around 90% of a season (or much more if you include the popular non-Europeans) I doubt the regular concert-going audiences would complain or even notice if it was upped to 100%.

It seems to me that when these orchestras explore or innovate its out of begrudging tokenism and perhaps it would be healthy to say/admit “Wait, this is for all intents and purposes a museum-culture (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and you should go elsewhere if you’re not a part of that.” I think modern composers deserve better then to be lining up for meagre pellet distribution from a culture that is demonstrably against them… it is not good for one’s mental state. Or maybe perhaps what I mean is they should rebuke the insinuation that they are the latest edition of the classical ‘tradition’ and instead be seeking to be relevant to other groups who may be more interested rather than forcing new things on a audience obsessed with the past.

CODA:  The humble pigeon is actually quite exceptional for a commonplace bird*, unlike the ibis, which is unexceptional for a much-worshiped deity symbol. Look them up. Yes, both of them. And remember, nothing says ‘Deutsch touristischen’ more emphatically** than excitedly taking photos of the colloquial dump-birds.

You can even eat them!

*You can even eat them!

**This is not strictly true… a LOT of things say ‘Deutsch touristischen’ emphatically, not least themselves.

It Would be Unimaginative to Make This Title a Pun on ‘Liszt’

Throughout history and beyond, there has been a relentless stream of musically prodigious acts in almost all disciplines, and the field of music has in no way been lacking. Beethoven himself was said to have composed the Ninth Symphony at the age of nine while floating in a lake. That is not strictly true,* but more of a literal misunderstanding of the scene towards the end of Immortal Beloved. Yet it proves the point that some of the legends surrounding musical giants are allegorical; the truth is harvested from the cocoa tree of reality, crushed and fermented by the dual catalysts of 19th century sensationalism and controversy, roasted by flamboyant business acumen and finally undergoing the conching process of time. The result is a smooth and tasty confectionary that does not at all resemble the hard, bitter pod of its origins.

*At all.

Anyway, many of these super-human feats by musicians are indeed true, or in the case of earlier, un-verifiable-by-NASA generations, generally unprovable to not be true. People can be clever sometimes, and so I don’t doubt the plausibility of something like (W.A) Mozart’s transcription of Allegri’s Miserere after one hearing.

Crest of the NASA Anagram Society

Crest of the NASA Acronym Society Addicts

However, in 2006 I was reading the Alan Walker biographies of Liszt and as one can probably imagine, here was a composer whose reputation was built on much Paganini-esque mystique.

Yet among it all, an incident recorded herein caught my doubt and curiosity. Strangely it was not regarding Liszt whose accounts and legends troubled me so, but one of his students, Ernesztina Kramer (1864-1936). Thanks to our friends at The Internet, here’s the account in question:

Of special interest are the recollections of Ernesztina Kramer, who was Liszt’s student for three years from 1882 to 1885. Ernestina had been an infant prodigy, and by the time she was ten years old she was a student of Erkel at the academy. The day dawned when she, like others before her, was introduced to Liszt. He asked her to play something, and since she had been specialising in the music of Schumann, he suggested one of the latter’s sonatas. Nervous and trembling, the poor girl lost her composure and started to play the sonata a semitone high. Liszt did not interrupt her, but let her continue in the wrong key to the end of the piece. The girl then noticed what she had done and cried out: “My God! How unfortunate I am! I can play anything in any key, and that is what happened here.” Liszt consoled her and said: “My child, thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate” (1997, p. 297, Walker).

Artist's Impression

Artist’s Impression

While this is a throwaway anecdote tangentially related to a man who frequently imbibed from his well-stocked cellar of anecdotes, this raised a lot of questions. Here are some doubts I’ve been festering for the last six years:

  • This is Ernesztina’s own account which doesn’t seem to have been echoed anywhere else… and neither does she really (at least in the digital realm).
  • Despite being an 18 year-old prodigy (assuming she saw him soon before he started teaching her), she didn’t notice the tactile, pianistic implications of the ‘unconscious’ transposition, nor the harmonic implications. Which kind of means she performed music entirely thinking only about relative intervals. Not the note, key or chord names, not the absolute pitches, and not even the feel of the piano under the hands (and a semitone higher is a long way in circle-of-fifth world).
  • Again despite being a prodigy, she had a loss of composure at an activity she’d be doing since birth.
  • Again despite being a prodigy and apparently having excellent relative pitch skills, she did not notice it sounded a semitone high.
  • Again despite being a prodigy, and well aware she could ‘play anything in any key’ did not seem to have been told at any point in her history that this was in fact a talent.
  • Furthermore she seemed under the impression it was a curse.
  • Ernesztina did not go on to have a career significant enough to be noted by our friends at The Internet over a century later. Which is a post-humous death sentence.

Anyway those are the bulk of my concerns. Could something like this really happen? Put it this way: I’d happily believe it if she trounced into the room, sat down at the piano, spat heavily and quipped “Pick a piece, Monsieur Liszt. And while you’re at it the key too.” People are clever sometimes, we’ve established that. But generally not simultaneously clever and yet blundering along with massively fundamental and basic mistakes and then not even recognise the resultant phenomenal feat as anything other than ‘misfortune.’ It seems such a talent is negated by a lot of weirdness about the situations.

One other thing. It seems that alternative explanations either partially or completely discredit her story, there’s no realistic, middle-ground explanation. To wit:

The Idealist says: Ernesztina’s account is true and she was raised by a wild pack of absolute-pitch-hating wolves in order to develop her abilities. And then rescued by another pack of relative-pitch hating wolves to repress them. It has been known to happen.

The Optimist says: Ernesztina could play transpositions intuitively, but on this occasion did so deliberately and only pretended it was a mistake so as to appear humble.

The Realist says: I don’t know. I’m still watching the perfect-pitch dog video.

The Pessimist says: Ernesztina went and learned the Schumann sonata a semitone higher. Then pretended she believed it was a horrible upsetting mistake/curse so Liszt wouldn’t make her try it in other keys to verify her talent.

The Cynicist says: It probably didn’t happen at all. Aaaaand there’s no evidence other than a self-account. But if there’s one thing to be gleaned from history its that people don’t ever lie about themselves.

Are there other considerations missing? I’d certainly like to know! Of course, humans are capable of spontaneous transposition and even more amazing things, but if they’re talented enough to do it subconsciously, they should probably also have the much lesser observational abilities to be able to realise they’re doing it. And even if not, to recognise or have been told at some point it’s more of a super-power.

Well, now I feel somewhat bad that I’ve stayed up to 1:30 am to rant about and criticise the account of a long-dead woman I’ve never met who left no discernible mark on the world save a paragraph in Alan Walker’s biography about someone else. However, she can rest easier knowing that now when people google “Ernesztina Kramer” (with the quotations) they’ll get a third result. Thousands would be happy to be so unfortunate.

Death at a Funeral March

We’ve all heard the stories, but how likely is an audience death during a concert?

Well, listen closely.

According to the UK Office for National Statistics the fashionable mortality rates (for 2010) are roughly as follows:

Although the number of deaths are well recorded, we do have to be selective and take into account the fact that only ‘sudden non-accidental deaths’ are likely to occur within the gentile confines of the concert hall; thus ruling out things like homicide and bear-maulings. Also nothing that would have prevented a person going from the concert hall in the first place.

With my decidedly non-medical opinion I made use of this handy mortality statistics graph to work out that there are around 133963 potentially ‘sudden non-accidental’ (hereafter referred to as ‘sudden’) deaths each year (well…2009 and in the UK). Thus accounting for about 27.264% of all deaths.

Next we have to make an assumption that these are spread evenly across all age groups because I am unashamedly lazy. Having achieved this, we can work out the probable numbers of sudden death for each age group. We get this:

Actual figures are a bit fuzzy for accurate age-demographics so let’s approximate and say it was equal (6264100 people each) except for the 80+ group which is significantly less – let’s guess half as populous (3132050 people each). Now we can say the average likelihood of someone dying in a given year:

…and in a given hour in that year:

(For example, if you have 47662 men over age 80 in a room for an hour, one of them will die of sudden causes.)

Now in terms of the average concert age there is obviously much variation, but generally there seems to be a vague consensus that the median age of classical concert audiences is over 50, with a 10-year study of classical radio showing listeners have a median age over 65. For this study I will assume that 60 is the average age and that half any given audience will be in these higher risk categories.

So in an audience of 1000 watching a concert of an hour, here are your mortality statistics (last table I promise!)

Ergo(!) there is 0.5349% chance (roughly one in 200) that for every thousand people per hour at a classical concert, there will be someone in the audience who does not applaud at the end.

I can see you there, you know

 

Thank you for bearing with me! Now for some fun facts 😀

  • If you assume that everyone at your concert is over 60 and half are over 80, there is a 2.6468% chance of fatality! (1 in 38 concerts).
  • If a 1000-people strong concert contained something appropriate like the Chopin Piano Sonata No.2 there is a 0.0007429% chance that someone will die in the 5 seconds of silence before the famous funeral march. (1 in 134607 concerts)
  • Similarly, the odds of that person being the pianist (if they are under 60) are 1 in 112.700 trillion.
  • Assuming the performers are under 60, the odds of any performer dying during a concert is roughly 1 in every 156.5 billion. Musicians dying on stage thusly has happened before; it’s not as unlikely as you might think given that there are now a lot of musicians in the world and each of them putting in a lot of performance hours.
  • In Pablo Casal’s questionable* autobiography he mentions an orchestra in the Caucasus Mountains in the Soviet Union made up ENTIRELY of male members over 100 years of age. In the UK over 90s are currently 11% of the over 80 population according to the Office for National Statistics. According to a very approximate regression from this data, it seems that over 100’s die at a rate of 10% a year (1 every 876.6 hours). Therefore, in this 70-piece, 100+ Aged orchestra, 1 in every 125 concerts would experience a musician fatality.
  • Alternately, in their rehearsals (if they were weekly and two hours long) it would happen about once a year.

So there you have it. Highly inaccurate statistics but at least you get a rough idea.

I salute your perseverance!

* I say questionable about Casals’ autobiography because, like Grizzly Man, you read/watch the story and end up liking him less and less, realising that here is a person who doesn’t realise that they are fundamentally unreasonable, and in this case, a massive diva. If you don’t believe me the whole thing is here. Or one particular excerpt where he refuses to play because the conductor doesn’t like the music and then drags Debussy into the argument and finds himself isolated in his opinion:

The conductor, Gabriel Pierne, and I had agreed some weeks previously that I would play the Dvorak concerto. Shortly before the rehearsal was to start, Pierne came to my dressing room to go over the score and discuss my approach to the work. Something in his manner struck me as odd-he seemed almost uninterested in what we were discussing, but I thought he was probably preoccupied with other matters. Then, all at once, he tossed the score down and exclaimed with a grimace, “What a ghastly piece of music!” I thought at first he was being facetious-I couldn’t imagine his really meaning such a thing. He was, after all, a composer himself who had studied under Massenet and Cesar Franck. But he added, “It’s hardly worth playing. It’s not really music at all.” He said it in such a way that there was no doubting he was serious.

I stared at him incredulously. “Are you out of your mind?” I said. “How can you talk that way about such a magnificent work?” Didn’t he know, I asked, that Brahms considered it a classic and said he himself would have composed a concerto for the cello if he’d known such effects were possible?

Pierne shrugged. “What of it? Was Brahms infallible? You’re enough of a musician to know how bad the music is.”

I was almost speechless with anger. “If that’s the way you feel about the work,” I said, “then you’re clearly not capable of conducting it. Since I happen to love the music, I couldn’t take part in its desecration. And I won’t. I refuse to play.”

Members of the orchestra began pressing around us. Someone said the hall was full, and it was time to go onstage. Pierne told me, “Well, we have no choice. You’ll have to play.”

“On the contrary,” I said, “I’m going home.”

Pierne rushed onstage. He stood there with his hands raised, his hair and beard disheveled. He declared dramatically, “Pablo Casals refuses to play for us today!”

A great commotion broke out in the hall. I wanted to explain what had happened, but I couldn’t make myself heard above the din. People started crowding onto the stage, arguing and protesting that they had paid for their tickets. I caught sight of the composer Claude Debussy standing nearby. I told him about the situation. “Ask Debussy,” I said to Pierne, “if he thinks any artist could perform under the circumstances.”

To my astonishment, Debussy shrugged and said, “If you really wanted to play, you could.”

I replied, “That may be your opinion, Monsieur Debussy, but I can tell you I haven’t the slightest intention of doing so.”

I got my things together and left the hall.

Profound.** Also, his highly unimaginative composition as a 20th century musician is of a level of classical inanity even Haydn would have turned his nose up at.

**I do not mean profound at all.