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Ring in the New

The talk of the musical week was all about iPhone-gate, the symphonic fiasco that occurred when an audience member’s iPhone marimba ringtone went off in the hushed closing measures of Mahler’s ninth symphony during a New York Philharmonic concert. Conductor Alan Gilbert abruptly halted the piece and turned in the direction of the offending noise. A long and embarrassing stare-down ensued, and, amidst jeers and angry shouts from the audience, the telephoner reached into his pocket and turned off the device. It was said later that the listener had only just gotten his iPhone a day earlier, and had inadvertently set the phone’s alarm clock to go off. He and Gilbert had a make-up phone call, though whether by cell or landline was not revealed. Most of the subsequent debate raged over whether Gilbert should have stopped the performance. I think he should have, though the truth is that he had a no-win dilemma. Either way, the magic of the moment is dispelled. But if we allow ourselves to think in broader terms, what does this incident say about contemporary music practice? What if audience noise and annoying electronic devices become regular features of the concert hall? To a great extent, they already are. Are there alternate ways to think about musical performance besides the Late Romantic model in which the audience is a passive receptacle for timeless truths delivered from on high? Composers and performers have been wrestling with these questions for more than a century. Think of John Cage’s famous 4’33” – a pianist comes and sits at a piano, but doesn’t strike the keys. Silence and ambient noise, perhaps even one’s thoughts, blend to become the music. But too often the creative fruit of the past 100 years is ignored. That’s why we have wonderful events like the upcoming Modfest at Vassar College. Celebrating the arts of the 20th and 21st centuries, the 10th annual Modfest will include performances of a chamber opera, new compositions, dramatic works, exhibitions, lectures, readings and more, all on the Vassar College campus in Poughkeepsie. Modfest runs from Jan. 18 through Feb. 4. All events are free and open to the public, with only one or two exceptions. No reservations are necessary for most events. For information, call 845-437-5370 or visit arts.vassar.edu.

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