Spectator Sports, Good and Bad

There is something about the performance of music that is in the nature of a spectator sport. By this I do not mean big-arena stagecraft and lights and fireworks and dance routines. I mean the actual making of the music.

To see Eric Johnson's fingers flying over his Fender Stratocaster as he hits "Cliffs of Dover" out of the park one more time is to enjoy something that is every bit as much an athletic performance and a spectator sport as baseball is. There is a thrill to watching people do difficult things exceptionally well, things that most of us can only take random sidelong swipes at.

I think this phenomenon extends across most musical traditions and genres. "Holy Cow, look at that!" has been a feature of classical music ever since the Renaissance—and perhaps even before. People might not understand what a modulation is or why it is important, but everyone knows that creating that many sounds at the same time and/or that fast is really hard, and most people think it exciting to watch—regardless of whether the sounds come from a guitar, a piano, or a violin. Opera and vocal music in general have, of course, long depended on peoples' instinctive appreciation of rare and special and superbly trained people doing supremely well something that most of us can do but poorly.

The 19th century was a golden age of concert music as spectator sport; Paganini and Liszt drove audiences into frenzies with their electrifying technical skills. But even today, thrilling athleticism in musical performance remains a huge drawing card.

I have a modest little YouTube channel. Do a Google search on cremonaguy (which refers to the home town of Antonio Stradivari) and you'll get a link to the channel's webpage. In the column of Uploads, click on "Kristof Barati plays the 1741 Giuseppe [Guarneri (del Gesù), ex–Henri Vieuxtemps violin]" (only the first six words appear in the Uploads list). The video, live and unedited, shows the young Hungarian violinist playing a paraphrase (by the 19th-century Moravian virtuoso Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst) of Schubert's "Der Erlkönig." The piece is fiendishly difficult: The solo violinist must suggest not only the song's ominous, complex piano accompaniment with its rippling bass line, but also, at the same time, personalize the drama of this lied. All that, plus left-hand pizzicato.

While most of the videos I have uploaded to Cremonaguy's channel have had fewer than 1000 views (and many fewer than 500), Baráti's "Erlkönig" video has had more than 18,000 views as of this writing. That total pales a bit in comparison to Edgar Cruz's video about how to play Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" on the classical guitar (11 million views), but 13,500 isn't shabby. For some reason, the Baráti video has gone viral in a way my other videos have not. I'm sure that that reason is the spectator-sport aspect. Which is okay.

It is also a little frustrating. After you watch the Baráti video, please also watch the video I shot (and synced up to 24-bit/96kHz-derived high-resolution sound) of Arturo Delmoni and Steve Martorella playing Nathan Milstein's arrangement of Chopin's Nocturne in C sharp minor. In its own way, it is every bit as much a lesson in how the violin should be played as is the Baráti video. Watch the finesse with which Delmoni plays the second scale run, starting at 3:27. That, too, is athleticism, and engrossing to watch, especially if you've ever played the violin, or even tried to. But the Delmoni video has had only 1000 views to date.

The spectator-sport side of classical music seems to be a self-limiting phenomenon. For years, violinist Gene Fodor was a favorite of Tonight Show host Johnny Carson's. Fodor would appear, play some fiendishly difficult piece, the audience would ooh and aah, and classical music would continue its downward slide in market share. That's because brief but exciting, technically difficult pieces are the empty calories at the classical-music smorgasbord. A diet consisting of nothing but such works is tedious and not nourishing.

May I be so bold as to suggest that there is a possible parallel with audio journalism? Reading the postings on some audio bulletin boards and some of the letters we receive, I conclude that a subset of audio enthusiasts regard equipment reviewing as a spectator sport more akin to TV wrestling than to Olympic wrestling. Some readers seem to want to read reviews that are little more than takedowns and smackdowns. A negative review is praised on these boards simply for being negative. Some people claim that we at Stereophile don't write enough negative reviews. Therefore, the magazine's reviewers must be on the take.

What I find curious about these complainers is that they don't seem to be in the market for equipment. They don't seem to be looking for actionable intelligence about how to wisely spend their money. They are spectators and nothing else. I think they just want the vicarious thrill of seeing some designer they think haughty, or some company they think piratical, getting their supposed just desserts. What is tragicomic is the illogic of their default position: that a negative review is by definition courageous and honest, while a positive review is automatically suspect.

Spectator-sporting can be good or not so good. It's pretty obvious that it has been a mixed blessing for classical music—you reach more people, but they care a lot less. My real point is that wanting reviews of audio equipment to be a spectator sport—to be entertainment in and of themselves, instead of ways to make prudent buying decisions—is shortsighted and unfair.

Ariel Bitran's picture

look at him play....

John Atkinson's picture
Even when Eric is shredding, he remains lyrical. Nice.

This is from the "Live in Austin" DVD, BTW, with, I believe, Stevie Ray Vaughan's old band.

soulful.terrain's picture

This episode appeared on Austin City Limits in 1988. Eric was performing with Bill Maddox on drums and Kyle Brock on Bass. This was undoubtably Eric's finest television performance. At this particular time Eric was using the infamous, mysterious Howard Dumble String Singer 100w head on the lead passages through two vintage Marshall 4x12 cabs with 20w Celestion greenbacks inside. On the clean side, he was using two vintage 1963 Fender reverb heads, dirty rhythm was a vintage 70's Marshall 100w plexi head. So in essence, a three way rig set-up.

Eric first appeared on Texas public access back in 1981 in an acoustical set, from there he first appeared on A.C.L. in 1984 with Steve Meador on drums and Rob Alexander on Bass. The band was called "Eric Johnson and the Avenue."

If you can remember back far enough, Eric was in a progressive fusion band called "Electromagnets." In this band he was with Bill Maddox and Kyle Brock (the same two in this video). The Electromagnets were likened to Weather Report in so many ways.

My first exposure to Eric was his 1984 A.C.L. appearence. I remember at the time thinking, "Who is this guy with the weird haircut trying to play guitar?"

After about 2 minutes I was totally blown away!! From that point forward I followed Eric's career and have never missed a concert that has come anywhere within 200 miles of my hometown.

Eric draws his musical influences from: Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Wes Montgomery, Keith Richards, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins just to name a few. Now thats one diverse set of influences and it shows in his fiery fretwork.

As a guitarist, I will have to say that Eric posseses some of the most beautiful, unique chord patterns and blazing pentatonic scales you will ever get to experience.

To see for yourself, This particular 1988 Austin City Limits episode has been released on DVD as well as CD. Also his 1984 ACL appearence has just been released on both formats as well.

A huge thanks to John Marks for profiling Eric's music here!

tmsorosk's picture

Very nice riffs . And what a great way to sample music . Keep up the good work .