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Monday, February 1, 2010

The Chattering Classes

I've heard divided opinions over the years from musicians about playing in noisy environments. Most say they hate it - actually virtually everyone says they hate it, but there is a divide between those who say it puts them off completely and those who say you just need to ignore it and get on with it.

I'm completely with the former group - I just can't stand playing in a room where the majority of people are talking. This post is prompted by a gig I've just done at an alleged jazz club called Dexters in Odense in Denmark. It's been a long time since I had to deal with something like this, though I did many gigs of this kind in my early years. But gradually the environments in which I played got better, and I had to deal less and less with noisy audiences as my 'career' (as I optimistically call it) developed. So it was a bit of a shock to come to this club in jazz loving (at least that's its reputation) Denmark, with a fine group of players from four different countries, with a good sound system and equipment, and then play to the noisiest bunch of Yahoos it's been my misfortune to encounter in a long time.

For me this environment is creative and emotional death - I just can't stand it. Music can be many things - it can make you think, it can make you happy, sad, make you want to dance etc. It can celebrate, it can commiserate, it can mark important moments in life, or death. It can be religious, it can be profane, it can be spiritual, it can be sensual, it can be both other-worldly or very worldly. Music should, above all, make you feel something - when music is being played people should be affected by it in some way, otherwise what's the point of having it played? I don't play weddings, but I can see the value of music at a wedding. I don't play dance music (which is a pity, as I love to play for dancers) but I can see the value of dance music. Of course I can see the value of music as an artistic artefact and as a vessel for the communication of ideas and emotions to the listener. But the one thing I refuse to believe music was ever intended for was to provide some kind of aural wallpaper to accompany the chattering classes.

For this same reason I've never been able to play corporate gigs – where you’re hired by a company to provide ‘ambience’ for their staff and/or clients. In fact I’ve never been constitutionally capable of playing any background music gigs since they bother me so much that I begin to question the whole purpose of being a professional musician. When I left school I worked in a day job for 10 years, and quite honestly I’d rather return to that than make my living playing in noisy and uncaring musical environments. To play in such places seems to call into question the whole purpose of practicing and trying to be creative and inventive. If you’re just providing some kind of backdrop to the inane chatter of people getting drunk then what’s the point? Background music is a degradation of music and the purpose of music, and unfortunately is a plague that besets western society. In fact I’d go as far as to say that western society with its ringtones, jingles, background music in restaurants, elevators, shopping malls, and virtually every public space degrades and cheapens music in a way that no other society does, or has done in the history of music.

Some musicians maintain that you should be able to mentally cut through the noise and be able to get to your own creative space regardless. And of course there are famous recordings where much greater musicians than I (Bill Evans at the Vanguard, Miles at the Plugged Nickel for example) have produced sublime music despite audible chatter going on in the background. Some people say we’re being too precious by looking for silence while performing, and in a way denying jazz’s populist roots. But just because jazz musicians of earlier eras had to perform in noisy environments doesn’t necessarily mean they enjoyed it – they dealt with it because they had to. I’m pretty certain that given the choice of playing for people who were ignoring them and using them as mere aural environment, and playing for people who were listening to them intently, they’d take the latter option every time.

And after years of seeing this kind of crap (though it’s thankfully rare for me nowadays), I’ve still yet to fathom why someone would pay a cover charge into a venue and then talk all night when they can talk outside for free. The psychology of that is a closed book to me. One of the most imbecilic comments I ever heard about this phenomenon was from a hoary old jazz critic from Belfast who disagreeing with my opinion that it was a drag to play in a room where everyone was talking said ‘I think jazz is a music that can stand up to a lot of chatter’. What can you say to a comment as vapid as that? Not a lot. So I’ll stop here................


  1. Ronan,

    I understand your sentiment and hear it echoed by many jazz musicians. I'm not one of them, however. Truth be told, most "jazz clubls" feel like death to me. I'd much rather play in a room that is buzzing with life, even if this means that some folks aren't paying rapt attention at every moment. Perhaps I'm relying too much on the audience to provide me with enerty, but I find it hard to get excited myself when the crowd is sitting and staring at me. They could be asleep for all I know.

    But to each his own. I'm sure the type of music we play might have an effect on how we want it to be received.

    I do strongly disagree with your statement that "Background music is a degradation of music and the purpose of music, and unfortunately is a plague that besets western society." Firstly, you said yourself above that music has many different purposes. Just like anything in life, it's not always meant to be the foremost thing in the room. Don't get me wrong, I love giving 100% of my attention to music and do it often. But just as often I have it on when I'm doing other things. It can add to the mood, provide inspiration, or just be there as a comforting blanket to keep me warm.

    I do play weddings and corporate events, and after every one I'm told by more than one person in attendance that our music enhanced the evening, even if we weren't the foreground. I take that as the highest compliment. I also play clubs and concert halls and enjoy that very much. But both have their place.

    And from a very practicle point of view, the only way I am able to afford to play concerts is because I'm supported by the other work I do. Were it not for the weddings and casuals I would have a day job. You might prefer this route, I do not. I can honestly say that I learn something from every gig I play, and find a way to be creative, interact with my band members, and have fun!

    Now I'm rambling but I'll close with one more thought: In our quest to bring new, younger audiences to jazz, I think we must start to approach it with more of an indie-rock perspective. You would never hear a rock band say they want to play for a crowd that is sitting in silence. By and large, younger audiences are used to noisy clubs where they can pay attention when they want to, have a drink when they want to, talk to their friends when they want to, and dance when they want to. If we want them at our shows (you may not!), I think we need to change our attitudes a bit...

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


  2. Yes indeed Ronan. I admire you for sticking by your principals...few musicians would question your resolve in that regard. I tend to agree but I wont pontificate about the evils of corporate work/weddings etc when I've done my fair share over the years.

    Most conscientious trained musicians do, I believe take a long hard look at the type of work they do from time to time and question its value. There are many factors to consider... from a brass players perspective, as I get older, I find it very hard to keep the emboucher in any kind of decent shape so If I find myself on a crappy function gig I literally see it as calisthenics for the chops and try to play the 'shite' with a degree of awareness of the physicality /mechanics of the instrument ... a luxury I am ill afforded in the chaotic child-centred environment of the home.(like the marathon runner having to train running up and down a high street rather than in the Wicklow mountains).

    You are in an enviable position that through your talent, contacts & initiative the vast majority of your gigs are for educated audiences with sophisticated ears therefore the 'drop' factor for you must be a longer way down. Those of us who 'mix it up' may have grown accustomed to lesser expectations of our audiences with the 'asshole factor' much more evident. Some people never cease to amaze me. I was doing a function on sat night on Belfast with a decent set of musicians, playing decent 4 horn arrangements when a guy came up with several scribbled notes and ominously placed them on the saxophone stand demanding we sack what we were doing ...."get outside your comfort some radiohead/Bayonce or Beatles... oblivious to the fact that we were a swing outfit and that the dancefloor was already full!

    I do agree with your stance though and it is food for thought for us all but I feel that your experience is the exception rather than the norm and your principals are still very much intact.

    For the rest of us... more soul searching I guess and to examine the 'value' of a gig in terms other than the money, distance travelled or size of the audience?

    thanks for your informative post Ronan- I enjoyed reading it.

    Mark Bradley

  3. Hi Mark

    Thanks for your response, and good to hear from you – long time no see! I take your point about the value of doing gigs to keep the chops in shape, this is definitely a bigger problem for brass players than for other instrumentalists, though bassist, particularly double bassists have to keep their calluses in shape too. But what you say shows that this thing is indeed different for different people, and I should state clearly that my feelings on corporate gigs are just that – my feelings: I don’t believe everyone should feel the way I do – my choices are my choices, and I take no moral high ground on this stuff, it’s just personal. I can’t deal with those environments, and never could. Other people feel differently about it and deal with it better than I do. And of course all musicians have decisions to make regarding how they earn their money and support their families etc. and again I make no value judgements on any musician who chooses to play commercial music – everyone’s different and everyone’s values are different. And by the way – I don’t compare corporate work to playing weddings – I think wedding musicians perform a very valuable function and are really involved in the meaning of the day for everyone. Corporate gigs on the other hand, due to the fact that the musician’s job is often just to provide background music, are to my mind, a denial of what music should be for . Music should move people, not just fill in the gaps in their conversation.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful response Mark.

  4. Hi Jason

    Thanks for reading the post and taking the time to reply. As you say, to each his own, and in this regard I have to admit you’re the first musician I’ve ever encountered who has told me that he prefers when the audience are not paying full attention to him. But, as I said in my response to Mark, my thoughts on playing to noisy crowds are my own personal feelings and I don’t think everyone else should follow what I believe – as you say, to each his own.

    But regarding the corporate gig/background music issue I feel I have to make a comment on what you say. It’s not that I believe music has to always be the most important thing in the room, but I don’t believe it should be the least important either. And at a corporate gig – unless the band are playing for dancers – then the music is usually the least important thing in the room, lagging behind the catering for sure in the hierarchical pecking order. More money is spent on the catering than the band – always. More money is spent on the hire and decoration of the room than on the band – always. The band come a poor third in the concerns of the employers, behind venue and catering hire. I don’t mean to belittle what you play, or the professionalism and skill with which I’m sure you play these events. What I am saying is that in the eyes of the organisers and most of the participants at these events you and the band are servants - compelled to dress in a certain way and play a certain repertoire by people who themselves are not musicians or have any knowledge of music. For that night the band are their servants, just as are the waitresses and waiters who do the catering.

    Which is cool – there’s no shame in honest work, and if it’s well and professionally done then a certain pride can be taken in it. But I would have to say that this is as far as it goes for this kind of work in terms of aesthetics – it’s musical catering. I personally do not believe it has the same intrinsic musical value, or even comes close, to the putting together of creative music that represents the thoughts feelings and experiences of the players. They may both be music, they may both demand skill and professionalism, but they’re in different worlds artistically.

    I hope that my dislike of this kind of music is not confused with my opinion on those who play it – I admire all professional musicians for their hard work and dedication to their craft, and I don’t judge people who choose, for whatever reason, to play it. All I’m saying is that it doesn’t work for me – I can’t deal with that ‘musician as servant vibe’. But that’s just me – there’s no moral high ground involved, it’s just that I’m constitutionally incapable of doing it. It would drive me back to the day job – others, such as you, differ – and that’s fine.

    As to background music – I remain steadfast that background music is a travesty of what music should be. It’s not about MY music, it’s just about music – music is a great gift to humanity, it takes great skill to be able to master it to a level where it can be performed. It should move people in some way, its presence should affect the listener in some way, not just be part of the general din that’s going where people are socialising. As a result of the plague of background music in restaurants, bars, malls, shops etc. people are desensitised to music in a way that’s never been seen before – cheapening music and reducing it to a commodity, taking away its significance as something that should have relevance to human experience. Background music IS a plague that has been both injurious to music and musicians – people have got used to the idea of music being something that is in the background accompanying everything they do, a kind of contoured white noise without which they feel self-conscious, without which their own conversation seems too conspicuous. The provision of a kind of aural anaesthetic to society is not something music should be used for in my opinion – it’s far too important for that.

  5. This says it all ;)

    Great work Ronan!


    1. that song is so awfully depressingly accurate......hilarious but unfortunately true!

  6. Thanks Tomas - that's hilarious - and true

  7. Great post and intriguing reactions: almost all the musicians I know would rather play to an attentive audience -- that doesn't mean silent, sitting rigid, but it does mean listening and paying attention. A few musicians I know are less comfortable with intense silence: one told me that chatting audience members gave him the liberty to be freer, secure in the knowledge that if he hit a note he didn't mean to, it wouldn't be heard! But I think that is a minority opinion. Many musicians have been forced to ignore the racket going on around them, but the casual crowds are getting noisier and more oblivious. I watch people hunched over their iPhones and watching the television over the bar while a great band is jamming not five feet away from them. To me, it speaks to the culture of entitlement, where human beings with instruments are the same as a radio or an iPod: you are here to make pretty background noises so that I can drink my beer and talk about nothing in particular (loudly) to my friends. "I paid for this beer and this environment," they seem to be saying by their actions, "so I don't have to be quiet while you're playing."

    When music stopped being something that you had to make yourself, with an instrument or your self, then it became something that could be taken for granted -- by some. Since jazz is often classed as "entertainment for people who are drinking," it is often not given even a modicum of respect. Disheartening! I don't think the stiffness of the concert hall is ideal for jazz, but a little polite attention would be nice! You'll see on my YouTube clips (my channel is called "swingyoucats") how much I have to fight the audience to capture the band. Apologies for another self-advertisement, but it is relevant to the discussion. Cheers, Michael Steinman, JAZZ LIVES (

  8. Thanks Michael - I think your comment about this noisy audience attitude having something to do with entitlement is very astute. There has been a general process of commodification going on for some time now, and music, unfortunately, (as well as the musicians who play it), is now often just seen as yet another commodity, to be consumed and discarded at will.

    Brave new world..............

  9. Through the years I have divided the types of gigs I do into "creative" music, "utilitarian" music and some area in between the two. A "creative" music gig would be playing with other great musicians for people who are paying attention and are there to hear you play. A "utilitarian" music gig is anything where the music is not necessarily the main attraction, but someone has deemed it desirable to have it there for some reason or other. This could be anything from playing background music at a party to incidental music for a theatrical production and so on. Playing in an orchestra pit for an opera or for people dancing might be somewhere between the two.

    Personally, I much prefer playing creative music gigs, wish I could do it all the time and look forward to such a day when that may be the case. In the course of my actual career (such as it has been) however, I have played many utilitarian music gigs and expect to play plenty more. I don't mind doing them as long as 1.) I know in advance what is expected, 2.) I'm treated with respect and professionalism and, 3.) it pays really well.

    It's long been a dark truism that the quality of the music is often inversely proportional to the quantity of the pay. In fact, this reality led me for a time to stop even attempting to make a living playing music; I just grew too disillusioned with playing great gigs that paid crap and crap gigs that paid great. The whole scene just seemed absurd from an economic standpoint.

    I've always thought that jazz or creative improvised music of whatever type, is best played in an atmosphere of "serious informality". Neither the staid concert hall nor the noisy bar are the best settings for really playing or hearing the music at the highest levels.