How do you know whether you’re at a pop-music event or a classical-music event? Sometimes you can’t tell from the music itself. Wednesday night, the All Vows show at BAM’s Fishman Space (which runs through tonight) got underway with a performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” arranged for cello, electric bass, and drum set. The first part of the program also included AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and a knockout piece that began with a fierce, blasting chord from the bass, amplified and distorted, seeming to signal the arrival of doom. This piece, called “Hellhound” and written by David T. Little, went on to confront us with something fiendish, relentless, ineluctable. It would’ve killed at a heavy-metal club. The program’s central performer, cellist Maya Beiser, has built a career in that category of mixed categories we call crossover, and part of her appeal is that she simply looks cool when she’s playing, as did her companions in this show. I was strongly tempted to pull out my phone and Instagram an image of her with her hair dancing as she delved into a riff, or of bassist Jherek Bischoff, whose sports jacket, snazzy shirt, and slicked-up hair could’ve come from a rockabilly show, or of percussionist Zachary Alford sending the cymbals flying.
But I couldn’t, and the reason is that, however much the program dissolved boundaries (as Beiser, in this video, says she intended), one thing made it a classical concert: the preshow announcement forbidding the taking of pictures. There are many conceivable reasons for this practice. The glowing screens of phones, however they’re being used, are distracting to other audience members. The flash that often accompanies picture taking can disrupt the concentration of the performers. Copyrights are involved—if the rights owners choose to assert them. But imagine what would happen if Taylor Swift or Rihanna tried to prohibit photos and videos at their concerts. One might argue—though it seems both reductive and dismissive to do so—that there’s no chance of pop performers losing their way in such simple, repetitive material, and that a pop audience is there to be distracted anyway. To put it in terms a little more comparable to the BAM show, why should I be allowed to photograph a lecture-demonstration that cellist Zoë Keating gave at an Apple Store (modest example here), as another photographer did when she played at LPR, but forbidden to photograph Maya Beiser and company at BAM?
For a hundred years and more, high art has been presented in a secular sacred space. This suits the modernist temper, for which art is a religion; presumably it also preserves the hushed and attentive performance conditions that obtained in genuinely sacred spaces such as the churches in which Bach worked and in the aristocratic settings where much other music was presented before the public became the primary audience. But this has never been the only way, for music as for other performing arts. Opera houses have been scenes of clamor, in which judgment has instantly been pronounced on particular pieces and performers. The theaters of the Elizabethan era were lively, jostling places in which food and drink were sold. And this is to speak only of the Western world. I have no idea what performance practices have been like elsewhere, but those are part of the background for artists such as Beiser, who was raised in Israel, and who has always brought other traditions into her work.
Playing to the fans often entails allowing the practices of fandom. A new decorum may be in order. If the realms of classical music and new music are worried about their appeal to younger people, then performers and other rights holders might consider letting audiences do what they’re accustomed to doing elsewhere. Beiser’s invigorating and wondrous show at BAM was cleanly divided into a rock-show-like first half and a more serene and formal second half, in which projections (and hence light levels) played an important part. Problems are easy to foresee elsewhere, but in this case photographs might’ve been allowed in the first half and forbidden for the second. How about it, Maya?