Last week on his blog, Unanswered Question, Joseph Horowitz (co-founder of The Post-Classical Ensemble, among many other claims to fame) posted an open letter to the director of the Corcoran about music in the galleries. During a recent visit, he had encountered a cellist playing Bach suites in the atrium, and he felt that this clashed with his experience of looking at the art.

UPDATE: The music that Horowitz heard came from the Corcoran’s cafe, which is a separate vendor, and was not instigated by the Corocoran itself. I think the issue is no less worth discussing, but the Corcoran would understandably like it made clear that it wasn’t putting music in its galleries itself.

Above: Art, or distraction? Members of the 2011 Bang on a Can Summer Institute perform Robert Honstein’s “Is it auburn?” in the galleries of Mass MoCA.

This point is seldom made, and for that very reason intriguing. I would guess that for many people, music in a museum seems genteel. I fear, though, that a Bach suite in the Corcoran atrium – as opposed to in the museum’s performance space – is in effect an upscale version of background music, ambient music, a signal that we’re in the realm of the high arts, much in the way that Muzak is supposed to be able to signal what kind of experience a given retailer or restaurant or elevator wants to convey to people inside it. For music-lovers, those Muzak tracks are often jarring; ask anyone who has tried to make conversation in an Italian restaurant over the strains of some passionate opera aria.

On the other hand, museums have been the breeding ground for a lot of the most important music of the late 20th century. Philip Glass and Steve Reich are just two of the composers who for a long time found their audiences in galleries rather than concert halls. Contemporary art museums like the Dia Art Foundation or Mass MoCA often offer daytime concerts in the galleries. And while Washington’s museums almost all offer concerts in dedicated spaces at specific times, there’s something to be said for exploring different venues and different approaches to music outside the concert hall – and a museum is often one of the best places to undertake such explorations.

The last few years have seen a trend for flash concerts, unannounced performances in public spots: Gil Shaham played at the Hirshhorn; the Washington National Opera’s young artists in a grocery store. The ideas behind this – beyond getting media attention – is to reach audiences who don’t hear this kind of music; to put live music in a new context; to make people stop for a minute and think – in short, to make people pay attention.

But as Horowitz points out, you may not always want to pay attention to two things at once: if you’re paying attention to Bach, it may not accord well with the art you’ve come to see.

It partly depends on context. If musicians are playing in a gallery for a seated audience, I think the tacit assumption is that the music is being offered as an art work alongside other art works. If a musician is playing in a museum lobby, I don’t think it’s necessarily meant to be arresting in the same way. I think it’s meant to be lovely, and Horowitz offers some reasons why it may, instead, be merely intrusive.

 What are your thoughts on live music in public spaces – is it a privilege, or an intrusion? Would you prefer to have live music accompany your Corcoran visit, or not?