Music is an act of communication. Without anyone listening it doesn't exist

Mark Wigglesworth
·5-min read

After seven months of musical silence, I feel very fortunate to be giving a public concert this week with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. The auditorium in Glasgow’s City Halls will be empty, but people can still listen to the performance live thanks to a simultaneous broadcast on Radio 3. Invisible listeners are not ideal, but in the context of this year a live orchestral experience of any sort is much appreciated. A musician’s need to be heard is not just psychological inspiration, needy approbation, or box office compensation. We need audiences because without anyone listening, the music doesn’t exist – merely proverbial trees falling unheard in the distant forest.

Early humans didn’t start to play music because they liked the noise it made. They sang, hit, bowed or blew to communicate with each other. There was no significant difference between player and listener. I recently came across the word “music” used as a verb. In The Power of Music, Roger Kennedy writes that “to music” unites all involved in the experience of music, whether writing, organising, playing or listening to it. It isn’t possible “to music” alone. Though listening to a piece privately can bring great solace or joy, the original purpose of music is to be connected by sharing something together as a community.

Many wonderful archive performances have been put online in the last six months, but no one seriously suggests these are sustainable substitutes for the real thing. Internet connections are not real connections. When music is heard live, whether the audience is in the hall or not, there’s an intensity of concentration for both performer and listener that no recordings can replicate. And the pressure of performing live generates a vulnerability in musicians that audiences are fully aware of. They sense the risk. They feel part of the moment, part of the performance.

Audiences create audible contexts for the music as well. Their silence is part of the sound of the music. Silence can be heard, and how the music is heard feeds back into how it is played. Musicians listen to the audience just as much as audiences listen to the musicians.

Conductors are used to being silent musicians. Unlike instrumentalists and singers, we cannot make music on our own. Conducting is not about waving our arms around and expecting to be followed. It is about connecting with a community, a community of musicians and a community of listeners. Take those communities away, and the purpose of the role, debatable at the best of times perhaps, is non-existent.

Not being a Daily Mail reader, the seductive power of nostalgia is new to me. Nostalgia is deceitful at worst and unproductive at best, and to hark back to “normal” seems especially insincere and uncreative at the moment. Millions of people have lost more than I can imagine, yet I don’t think it is disrespectful to hope there are things that can be gained from the pandemic, too.

Shostakovich’s 14th, written in isolation during a flu epidemic, expresses the importance of living life to the full

I don’t believe musicians have ever been complacent. On an individual level we are fully aware of the precariousness of the positions we hold within our profession. Nevertheless, to be reminded as a whole generation of what it really means to make music for a live audience could be one of the benefits of this isolating time. Perhaps the privilege of music has been taken for granted. By everyone. Only by taking it away do we realise how essential it is.

We all have our own views as to what is essential. But humans are fundamentally social animals and only through cooperation have we been able to meet the many challenges these last couple of hundred thousand years. The very concept of social distance is anathema to who we are as a species. The economic benefits of the arts are obvious to anyone without a preconditioned agenda, but it is the human value of shared creative experiences that needs to be equally proclaimed and protected. Musicians are key workers in more ways than one.

Shostakovich’s 14th Symphony, the work we are performing this week, uses only a small number of musicians to express a vast range of emotions – an ideal combination for the specific limitations and needs of our time. Written in isolation while in hospital during a flu epidemic, the work expresses the pain of being alone, the importance of trying to live life to the full even amid a maelstrom of struggles and fears, and the value of art as a source of truth and cohesion in society. It is both realistic and uplifting.

Everyone is searching for their own way through this maze of uncertainty and although the world may be unified by a single crisis, we are separated by the uniqueness of our own particular circumstances. And with antisocial media raising the power of the individual over that of the group and giving mainstream platforms to extreme minority views, it can be hard to separate what is individual from what is communal. The danger is that with so much noise coming out of our fractured society, sometimes the only way to hear ourselves think is to stop listening altogether. Yet we do that at our peril. What is the sequel to the dystopian nightmare of Edvard Munch’s The Scream? By listening less might we lose the capacity to listen at all? Live music forces us to listen. It encourages us to listen better. And maintaining this ability, desiring it even, is essential to the survival of the human race. Live music is a celebration of listening, and a celebration of togetherness. We need to do all we can to encourage its full return.

• Mark Wigglesworth conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra performing Britten and Shostakovich on 1 October at 2pm. Listen live or on demand on BBC Sounds.