Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Old (In Fact, Distinctly Young) Mid-Symphony Cough

September 3rd, 2010 · 3 Comments

I grew up attending orchestral concerts. My mom is a musician/music professor/teacher, and my sister is the same. So are 2 of my grandparents. My mom and dad met because of music. As a result,  I’ve gone to more concerts, willingly and unwillingly, than I can count. I was quite excited to attend the BBC Proms series at the Royal Albert Hall. The performance featured the Czech Philharmonic playing a bit of Dvoråk and Janacek, and highlighted pianist Sir John Eliot Garder on the Grieg. Oh yes, and there were a couple encore pieces… what?

The Philharmonic and Gardner both played extra pieces, not listed on the program. After their wonderful display, and in response to raucous, and deserved applause, both Gardner and the orchestra played encores. The addition of pieces to a concerts’ repertoire is a foreign idea to American symphonies and formal concerts, where I’ve experienced a much stricter and reserved atmosphere. However the encore pieces were not the only differences between the Proms and American symphonic concerts.

Another major difference were the surprise coughing fits that infected the crowd in between movements of the symphonies/concertos. During these breaks at American concerts, the crowd is silent, waiting for the next movement to begin. while they contemplate the last bit, or potentially chuckle at another onlooker who is a concert rookie and actually clapped, a symphonic gaffe. However the Brits seem to either hold in all their coughs (and there are quite a few) or they are trying to subtly acknowledge that yes, that was quite good, please continue and keep up the good work! There is apparently a growing movement to actually clap between the movements, which can be read about further here and here. Perhaps the coughing was in fact an anti-clapping movement, as those with sudden bouts of whooping cough, bronchitis, or emphysema sought to defeat the class-less onlookers. Anyway, this whole thing puzzles me, but it is certainly not mirrored in American concerts.

Other disparities between the two cultures’ concerts include the “heave…ho” chant howled by onlookers as the stage crew moved the piano, the baseball-game-esque servers with iced buckets of beer parading the lower levels during intermission, the area for standing-crowd-only right in front of the stage, the incredibly animated movements of both the conductor, soloist, and orchestral members, and the heavy drinking of many concert-goers evidenced by the presence of flasks, beers, martinis, etc.

All of the aforementioned differences provided for a much more relaxed atmosphere, which  made the concert ultimately more enjoyable. This phenomenon explains the last, and in my opinion awesome, difference: the overall number of attendees, but specifically the amount of younger members of the audience, was much higher than I have seen at American concerts (of symphonies and other variants of classical music). In short, the place was packed, and there a fair amount of young concert-goers, not all of which were with their parents. This increase in younger generations attending the concert is also reflected in the museums, portrait galleries, and theatre shows we’ve attended.

I can think of several reasons for this. First, the museums/shows/concerts in London are either free, or are still much cheaper than their American counterparts. Young adults are infamously cash-strung, and the steeper prices of admission to American centers of cosmopolitanism, intellectualism, etc. (including college) may deter attendance. Secondly, London’s examples of these cultural experiences are much more enjoyable. Most museums feature fun, creative and interactive displays/games/things-that-help-you-learn. Though for the concert these features were more subtle, like the exaggerated movements and poses of Gardner (frequently resembling Michael Jackson in Thriller) or the incessant coughing (at least, I did/would have enjoyed this time-to-make-noise period), they certainly made the experience more entertaining. Lastly, the relaxed atmosphere makes it more acceptable for younger people to attend these concerts/museums/etc. The museums and specifically the concert, are clearly not only for stuffy upper-echelons of society and rich old folks, but for all interested citizens.

The concerts, and theaters, museums, etc. draw young people to them. I would like to see America follow suit.

Tags: 2010 ChristopherB

Now They Know How Many Holes it Takes to Fill the Albert Hall

September 10th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I have no idea what I’m talking about when it comes to classical music, nor do I have a musically creative bone in my body. I can pick out the right-hand parts to a few Beatles and Coldplay tunes on the piano and I can play a pretty mean kazoo, but my incompetence with the finer, mechanical parts of music has never kept me from deeply appreciating it. I’ll actually make sacrifices and bad life-choices I usually wouldn’t make to go see a live show, and I was very much looking forward to seeing Prom 70 at the Royal Albert Hall despite my almost complete ignorance of classical music.

I’ll admit that I was more excited to see anything in the Royal Albert Hall itself than I was about the actual program: so many greats have played on that stage, it’s an amazingly beautiful and historic venue, and I own a few concerts on DVD that take place in that very hall.

I’m not sure I even have the vocabulary to describe the concert we saw, so I’m not sure why I’m blogging about it if I can’t write about it, but I want to enthuse about how much I enjoyed the night’s performance (as well as the venue it was in). Besides purely enjoying the music and wishing the performance had been longer, I found myself wondering about the musicians, about their lives and motives, and what would possess a person to be so passionate about one random instrument that they would pursue it to the highest level of achievement and proficiency. I lack the dedication, talent, and all around aspiration to do anything like that, so I’ve always been attracted to people who know where they’re going and how they want to get there.

Additionally, I also found myself wondering about the whole “BBC Proms” program itself: the fact that the BBC can sponsor, fill, and finance nine weeks of almost continual classical music concerts for 115 years, as well as broadcast them nightly on television and radio, says a lot about the importance of the fine arts to London and Britain as a whole. The Proms program doesn’t strike me as one that would exist or even be attended by nearly as many people in New York, for example, which I now realize is a terrible shame, since it prohibits people previously ignorant of classical music, like me, to enjoy a night of the most talented musicians around for a good price in a historic venue and perhaps develop and interest in the finer arts.

Tags: Chelsea

Music Makes You ____________

September 10th, 2009 · 3 Comments

Once again, I will attempt to describe my direct encounters with British culture in order to better understand this city we’ve called home for the past several weeks.

“What kind of music do you listen to?”

It’s the question everyone asks me, and it’s among one of the questions I enjoy answering the least. I don’t have a favorite band, hold a subscription to Rolling Stone magazine, or know the title/artist/lyrics/history of any song on demand. I have learned that without this information, your answer to this question quickly turns into a rambling exploration of your taste in music, ultimately ending in “…Well, I guess I kind of like everything.”

Do not misunderstand me – I enjoy music. I love music. I listen to a broad list of genres, have my own taste in music, enjoy certain bands, and could not imagine not having my iPod with me whenever I wanted it. When I came over to Britain, I looked forward to opening my ears to new sounds and listening for the definition of quintessential “British music”. Maybe – just maybe – I could finally find a band in Britain I could use as my answer to the above question.

London did not immediately provide the new sound I was expecting. I often feel as though I have not left the music world of the USA. I walk into a restaurant, and “Snow ((Hey Oh))” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is piped in through the speakers. I wander through Boot’s to pick up some toiletries, and I suddenly find myself humming along to Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.” The Tube walls are lined with adverts for Illinois-based Wilco and their upcoming album. What does this lasting presence of American music in London mean?


I did some research into the subject, and my search showed that I am not the only one to write on this subject (Though while I write a small post, they write 400-pg books on the ebb and flow of American and British culture.). The music in the US during the twentieth-century has always been played to some extent in Britain. This influx of American music was so influential that in 1935 the BBC went so far as to ban people from using the word “hot” as a descriptor for popular American jazz music. American musicians needed special authorization in order to play at any venue in Britain (Part of this was due to the era’s inherent racism and prejudice toward many black jazz musicians.) These measures were probably meant, in large part, to bolster the native music population, rid the public from the potential destructive elements of the new American music, and curb a continued domination of American music in the British market.

One can easily pose the question asking why the protectionism of the early twentieth century has not continued to this day. Personally, I point to the truly ‘British’ musicians that have swept up a frenzied fanbase in Britain, Europe, and, most importantly, the US. Anyone ever hear of Elton John? How about the Rolling Stones? Queen? These bands and many, many others have moved Britain to the forefront of the music industry and, in turn, posed a challenge to the flood of American music from across the pond. Accordingly, Britain can rest easy knowing it has held its own in the vast music market.


Back to the initial point of this post – music in Britain and why it’s so…familiar. I have come to the conclusion that music, while inherently localized to some initial extent, will eventually cross borders. If Billy Joel can play to sold-out concerts in Tokyo, he can be popular among the staff in the local Boot’s. If people in Liverpool can be so uncontrollably excited to get their hands on The Beatles: Rockband – a new game allowing people to sing as their favorite member of the Fab Four – you can only imagine how packed the lines will be outside the GameStop in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

I am still trying to listen for a sense of modern British music, for I have only encountered it by chance. Occassionally,I have the happy fortune of sitting next to someone who just happens to be blasting what sounds like a non-American pop song on their iPod.

At the BBC PROMS concert, I found the British works to be extraordinary. This ties back to the sense of music as truly universal. At one point during Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ pre-concert talk, he mentioned his appreciation and eventual love of Aboriginal music, which he in turn used as an inspiration for some of his pieces. This is just one example of the capability of music to blend, to some extent, many local, national, and international boundaries. [I hope this does not come off as a way to skirt the issue by saying “Oh, well, I do not know too much about British music, but look at how wonderful ALL music can be!” This is one of my goals for the next few months, and one I will probably have a better chance of fulfilling once we settle in Norwich.]

For the recording of Tuesday night’s pieces, I encourage you to take a listen here (you’ll find the recording at the bottom of the page, but I am not sure for how much longer).

Feel free to comment, offer some better understanding of British music, or simply type out a list of songs I should be listening to more often. Many people have defined music in different ways, but I think I have yet to create/find my definition. I do not know when I will be happy with my definition of music (or my iTunes library), but I am more than happy to take steps in some general direction.



Kaufman, Will and Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson. Britain and the Americas: culture, politics, and history. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2005. 623-26.

Parsonage, Catherine. The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2005. 180-81.

Tags: Brandon


September 10th, 2009 · No Comments

I am a huge fan of classical music, so when I heard that we would have the opportunity to go to hear Sir Peter Maxwell Davies speak and attend the Proms, I was delighted!  Sir Peter is one of the most prominent British composers alive.  He has written hundreds of pieces and holds the title of Master of the Queen’s Music.  (A purely ceremonial role that allows him to write music that requires a very large number of people to perform.  After all, if the piece is being premiered before the Queen, who wouldn’t want to participate?)  Despite all of Sir Peter’s many accomplishments, the thing that struck me most about his talk is how much he truly loves and appreciates music.  He said in the discussion that “the future holds as much music as I can cram into it!”

A piece of music should be a journey that tells as simple or complex a story as the composer wishes.  Although Sir Peter’s Violin Concerto No. 2 ‘Fiddler on the Shore’ was not my favorite piece of the evening, I greatly enjoyed the story of the piece.  (Now, bare with me as this may read as a little bit far-fetched and listening slightly too much into the music.)  I heard the soloist as being one person who was trying to find his path and was confused among the peaceful, smooth, soothing noises of the sea (orchestra).  Throughout the piece, the soloist becomes much more certain of his path in life, and thus the playing of the violin by the soloist became much smoother, mimicking the “sea” orchestra of earlier.  However, when this happens, the orchestra’s playing became much more violent and choppy, which caused the soloist to dive back into the confusion he experienced at the beginning of the piece.  In the end, the soloist and the sea come together in peace.  To me, the piece was a depiction of the soloist searching for clarity in the world.

Tags: Kelley