Skip to content

Chamber Music and Social Norms

Matt Bodie calls this Times piece about the travails of the Audubon String Quartet “a great study on the travails of a small business” for business organization profs. I agree that it’s a great study — but not only for the corporate crowd. It’s law-and-social-norms on a real stage, with an obvious IP angle, a concept elegantly captured in Matt’s concluding quotation: “To take [this dispute] to the court system seems contrary to the spirit of chamber music.”

“The spirit of chamber music.” I suspect that the phrase means something to musicians. It means little to me. Should that matter? Is this a case of an oppressed (“corporate”) minority, who merely wants his rightful share of the goodwill that he helped to create? Perhaps then the majesty of the law should prevail. Or is it a case where the creative whole is what counts, and that whole is (in a non-legal sense) greater, and more important, than the sum of its financial parts? Is this where “the spirit of chamber music” should be the rule of decision, deferring to the wisdom of the artists?

Is the group’s goodwill capable of being quantified? That’s the part of the case that perplexed me, encouraging me to subscribe to the social-norms angle. But then which artists? The article makes it clear that the artistic community is divided, even deeply so, over what “the spirit of chamber music” means in this case. Perhaps the case study teaches only that the demise of a small company is inescapably tragic.

UPDATE: The Times carries an update.

2 thoughts on “Chamber Music and Social Norms”

  1. okay, I’ll bite.

    There is such a thing as the spirit of chamber music. Here’s an example — the Budapest Quartet absolutely hated one another, and traveled separately, and stayed in four corners of the room if forced to go to the same reception, but they played like angels together. And they certainly never sued each other. Quartets are supposed to get along well enough to play together, and to disband rather than air their grievances in public. Being in a quartet is not primarily (or even secondarily) a commercial relationship.

    All quartets have personality troubles. It’s such a close relationship that depends on absolute musical trust, like swinging from a rope high above the crowd without a net, trusting that you and your colleagues will somehow make it through the act. The idea is to maintain enough civility and trust and reciprocity to make those performances happen — at almost any cost — and to try to work through differences without suing each other. The spirit of chamber music is to be generous to a fault, even when your own ego is feeling bruised. Quartet dynamics can get really brutal, but people just don’t sue.

    No one I’ve talked to has heard of such a violent breaking-up in a quartet. This one is even leading to instruments and homes being taken away. It’s tragic. Courts and chamber music don’t go together, for the most part.

  2. A profession cannot hide behind its supposedly unique expertise when it comes to dealing with business aspects. Especially if that profession has not even made anything even resembling an effort to police itself. The lawsuit in the Audubon Quartet case was not about playing f or f sharp or about the better interpretation of Schumann. It was about issues that arise in any other profession: careers, money, reputation etc.

    Legal disputes related to the ouster of a member of a string quartet have happened before, for instance in the Tokyo String Quartet. In that case, the matter was settled on undisclosed terms before it went to court, and bad publicity was avoided. In the case of the Audubon, defendant Clyde Shaw contacted musicians all over the world and actively solicited press coverage (I have specific evidence for this).

    The court documents and much other information about the case are available on my web site

Comments are closed.