The Most Boring Words

Robin Wallace

A recent article in The New York Times ( suggests that things don’t look good for chamber music, at least as we’re used to thinking about it. One young composer recently found the Emerson String Quartet’s performances of Beethoven “expensive and suffocating,” and Gil Morgenstern recalls a friend describing “chamber music” as “the two most boring words in the English language.” Seems that there’s a loyal but diminishing audience for the traditional chamber music experience: a small group of very intense musicians on stage playing for an audience that sits on its hands, presumably while rapture flows within. Everybody else is outta there.

The nub of the problem, Anne Midgette suggests, is not the music but the institutions that present it, which are stifling and conformist. You can go to a bar and hear chamber music; they just don’t call it that. It seems, though, that classical chamber performers have been hitting the bar scene, and with some success.

I have always loved chamber music, which has yielded most of my most intense and formative musical experiences (see my post from two weeks ago on IT). As a music historian, though, I wonder if there isn’t another problem as well. Let’s face it: a lot of this music wasn’t really written for an audience. It’s the ultimate performer’s music, and the experience of playing chamber music, ideally at home (which is where the “chambers” are) is the greatest musical thrill of all for those who love to do it. There just aren’t as many of us as there used to be. I remember my mother getting together regularly with friends to play through Brahms and Schubert. They never reached performance quality, but that wasn’t the point. It was the original garage band.

How many people who are reading this love chamber music, and how many still play it? I would be glad to read some anecdotal evidence about this. It might even help convince me that a real chamber music revival is possible.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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9 Responses to The Most Boring Words

  1. Andy says:

    i’m a university student, and while chamber music is difficult to float as an idea around here, there are active groups and there are some folks who are passionate about it.

  2. Harriet says:

    I think you may be onto something with the institutions. I also think the phrase “chamber music” is off-putting for many people. The word “chamber” is archaic and it implies, perhaps, an archaic and irrelevant sound. My experience in teaching Intro to Western Art Music to non-majors at an elite research university is that chamber music is anything but irrelevant. While chamber music is probably the last thing my students think they want to hear in my classroom at the beginning of the course, it is also the thing that, by the end of the course, most engages them. While I’d love to attribute this conversion to my fabulous teaching skills, it has much more to do with the fact that for my class, they have to attend concerts and also to hear musicians play in the classroom. Logistics being what they are, the concerts and classroom events are nearly always chamber music. While the music may not have been written for an audience (although that statement is doubtful in many cases), the music is still engaging for an audience. My students are riveted by the visible and audible interactions of the musicians before them, the way they communicate wordlessly — they tell me so in their concert reviews and listening journals. They are close enough to see every facial expression, to watch the pages turn. It’s exciting for them and it’s exciting for me to hear about it. Given all this, I tend to think chamber music has a marketing problem rather than that there is no audience for it. I do think, though, that it is something more exciting when heard in person — much of that interpersonal dynamic is lost in the recording process. Also, I do know of several chamber ensembles that play in bars in the Chicago area. Perhaps if this had been a trend a few years ago, I would have stuck with my quartet instead of opting to play fiddle in Irish seisiuns. Sometimes it’s all about the atmosphere.

  3. querflote says:

    the problem is that chamber music, like so many other musics that we value, no longer has a social function, and is a museum piece, rather than something to be shared among friends. Those who play well enough to enjoy it expect to get paid when they play, and those who don’t play well enough to get paid don’t play at all.
    There are so few people that play that in a sparsely populated state you might have to drive for hours to put together a quartet. Hardly something to do simply for an evening’s entertainment.
    Even in the case of Irish seisuns, there are the players that you would pay to listen to, and the ones you would pay to avoid listening to. Not a viable model.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Ignoring that last comment, which is obvious spam, all this gives a lot to think about. I have a recurrent fantasy of a documentary of a music school–day-in-the-life, week-in-the-life, semester-in-the-life–so people could really see what quixotic lunatics musicians (classical as much or more than everyone else) really are. Anyone who has ever been in a chamber ensemble who, for whatever reason, had to really burnish a work for a competition, or repeated performances or whatever, knows how intense the experience can get, and how even the rehearsals begin to grow exponentially in electricity. It is my firm belief that something like this would readily be understandable to the general public, and that it can inform other genres (I talked about this in my 4-29 blog on Vienna Teng).
    Chamber music can be the edgiest, most naked music-making there is, yet the pop-culture association with drab high culture and powdered wigs remains. I don’t know whether it has to do with the genre designation, or the performing surroundings, or (to be really radical) the length of sonata-cycle works. If our musical attention span is geared to the pop song–the eight-minut “Bohemian Rhapsody” being a real exception–why do we expect novices to somehow appreciate a late Beethoven quartet? For most, music of that length is background. I wonder what the response would be to small-ensemble performances/gigs where nothing is over six minutes.
    One common pattern is that hearing a song motivates you to buy the album. I wonder if we shouldn’t think of offering a bonbon rather than stuffing a whole box in listeners’ aural mouths, so to speak, then saying “‘course, you have to cultivate a taste for this . . . ”

  5. Lyle Sanford says:

    I’m a Registered Music Therapist working on developing scores for small ensembles – For example, put the ten pieces in Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks that just require three or four voices into Finale to make parts for various instruments in the original keys and also parts for band instruments in keys modern trumpets and horns can play – In early stages, but people seem to be enjoying playing it and hearing it performed, particularly outdoors.
    I realize this is barely chamber music, but the idea is to create materials for amateurs to play for fun, hoping to keep the notion of homemade chamber music alive in the era of recorded music.

  6. ben wolfson says:

    I just went to the most recent performance in this series: and it was jam-packed. I also have the impression from Kyle Gann’s blog that all the cool composers do chamber musicy stuff these days, and it’s orchestral works that are strictly for stuffed shirts: surely both can’t be right.

  7. Gus says:

    I have a few thoughts about chamber music that are found in the link below. The gist of it is, I think, that it is possible to think of the act of playing chamber music as primarily a social occasion. It has to do with music, of course, (that’s what you are “doing”) ..but the enjoyable outcomes of the act of playing the tunes are as much social as musical. An audience need not be part of the ocassion…in fact, an audience is probably more of a hindrance than a help. A slightly more polished statement of this idea is found here:

  8. Eric says:

    Chamber music—and classical music in general— is not music for the Masses. How could those who prefer Big Macs, Chevy Trucks, and ‘Titanic’ over Chicken Tikka Masala, Toyota, and ‘Sunset Boulevard’ ever understand a great piece of music. Once I came to terms with this reality, I stopped being a Marxist, started being a benevolent elitist, and the World starting making sense.

  9. Gus says:

    To back up my statement that the worth of chamber music is as much social as it is a musical, (see above) I pasted in the wrong link…it should have been:

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