How polite should an audience be?

I was going to write something snarky about Tim Page, but I won't. The Spoleto overview critic for The Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier was in the audience during a Spoleto recital by avant-garde percussionist Gerry Hemingway. The concert started a little after 6 o'clock. Page was out of there by 6:17 p.m. Perhaps he had another appointment. I don't know. But his early departure has precedent. He admitted to leaving the American premiere of Monkey: Journey to the West, Spoleto's buzz-worthy production costing $1.3 million, after 40 minutes, before the story turns to a search for redemption and enlightenment. Though I do think a critic should give due diligence before leveling an opinion, perhaps Page is right. Why stay if you don't like something? Why give your attention and time to a performer who is not reciprocating in kind, when a performer is self-indulgent, entitled, or even oblivious to the presence of an audience?
I'm not describing Hemingway. In fact, he's a nice guy. I met him. He's smart and earnest and devoted to the adventurous spirit of the avant-garde. But he's no showman. His recital made that very clear. His powers of observation were such that he began giving an encore as throngs of people were heading for the exit. I can only guess that Hemingway's performance tonight was based on some kind of concept, but if you didn't know what the concept was, you were screwed. It was a concatenation of imaginative sounds. Hemingway performed solo to a recording of sound effects -- snaps and crackles and pops similar to the sounds you'd find in any urban landscape. For a long time, the performance had no discernible beat, but eventually there was a pulse. Then it was gone again. The history of the avant-garde is grounded in the urge to challenge. It didn't matter what you were rebelling against just as long as there was something to rebel against. This mode of thinking naturally emphasized the value of the art and de-emphasized the value of the audience's experience. Composers had become the enlightened sages, the audience sanctified disciples following in their wake. Or something. Anyway, if you liked something, the composer was doing something wrong. During the peak of the avant-garde -- during the careers of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Milton Babbitt -- there was no concern about the audience. Audiences had always been there and would always be there, except when they weren't anymore. It's remarkable to imagine composers wondering why no one's paying attention to them while at the same time their work's value is measured by how much they can piss people off. I don't think Hemingway was trying to piss anyone off, but his recital is of that tradition. Perhaps he was trying to liberate the drummer from the tyranny of meter. Perhaps he was trying to get us to experience the sound from the inside out. Perhaps he was trying to simply demonstrate the possibilities of a virtuoso musician and his instruments. Maybe it was parody of an audience's rhythmic expectations. Whatever the case, Hemingway was seriously losing his audience. People were looking around, checking their watches. The woman in front of us took her boredom as an opportunity to brush her hair. I checked the time three different times: once when Tim Page left, again at 6:37 and then again at 6:49 p.m. Many people just left, which irritated me at first. Then I got to thinking. If the tradition of the avant-garde assumes the participation of the audience, or even goes out of its way to provoke the audience, then what are the obligations of that audience? Naturally, people want to be polite. They also want to get their money's worth. Beyond that, however, what are your obligations as a ticket-holder if the musician has abandoned what used to be considered his or her obligations: to entertain you, to engage you, to take you someplace strange and exciting. I'm beginning to think: Not much. Spoleto audiences typically want to appear refined. But they might rediscover the value of being honest, too, and just walking out if something is not to their liking. It'll be good for audiences, good for the festival, good for composers, and good for the art.
July 10, 2008 7:33 AM | | Comments (2)



Audiences bored, restless or otherwise removed sometimes are being confronted with just what they ought to hear. Gerry Hemingway is a unique improvising percussionist who knows his way around beats and pulses and their suspension. In much of his music I've heard, he's moved gradually, almost imperceptibly, from a timbre-based percussion music to more obviously (conventionally, concretely) rhythmic expression (what this post calls "pulse"). If I recall correctly, one solo piece he's worked on for many years is improvisational responses/interaction with sounds of Artic ice beds shifting (represented, necessarily, pre-recorded). He uses many unusual devices on his traps drums -- including chains.

This may not be to everyone's taste -- Tim Page, I bet, knows what he likes and doesn't, what he's going to cover or not, or why he may have to leave after catching a sample. But Hemingway has a large international following and is regarded highly by musicians of a circle not often featured at Spoleto. In the jazz world, and I thought in composed music, too (Lord knows I've sat through some interminably self-indulgent concept works) artists are given considerable leeway from their responsibilities to "entertain." Listeners, I think, deserve genuine engagement and a performer/composer's honesty of expression -- I didn't hear this performance but Gerry Hemingway always provides those things when he plays. The first time I heard him solo I thought of the electro-acoustic magnifications by Xenakis, and how Hemingway was playing all that, on traps, simultaneously, composing/creating in the moment with impressive dexterity and constancy despite some sudden, hard-cut juxtapositions. Percussion music of distinction.

Amen to that, John. Of course, this is not simply a plague of the avant garde. There are plenty of orchestras and individual musicians playing the old canon of classical music with seemingly little regard for the engagement of the audience in the hall. If this music is to engender real experiences, then it's to be expected that some of those real experiences will be bad. The fact that musicians, composers, and the rest of the establishment has cowed casual listeners into dispassionate hand-thwacking rather than honest response to what they hear, is ultimately one of the reasons (I believe) that so many people feel unengaged by classical music new or old.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think we need to move toward the bizarrely pissy behavior of Italian operagoers. There's no need to be mean if someone gives a lackluster performance (although it sounds like there could be reason to be mean in the face of such an audience-affronting performance as the one you describe). But there's no need to go to the effort of clapping if a player doesn't go to the effort of trying to reach out through this music and engage listeners in an experience.

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