In the discussion we/ve been having about silent listening — also here, and such a good discussion; if you haven’t read the comments, please do! — there’s of course some disagreement. Some people dearly love the way we mostly hear classical music now, without moving, and in silence. Others (including me) would like to explore changing that.
Among those who don’t want change, two thoughts often surface, quite apart from the understandable complaint that noise from the audience might make it hard to listen, and also might disturb the musicians. The first of these thoughts is that we’re somehow opening Pandora’s Box. If we allowed a little bit of change — brief clapping, let’s say, after a solo from a member of a chamber group or orchestra — who’s to say that this would be the end? How do we know that informality would grow and spread, until the audience feels free to talk loudly all the way through the concert.
And the second thought is voiced — or typed — with what strikes me as exasperation, or even anger. Listen, boys and girls, people will more or less say. (I’m not going to give examples, because I don’t want to single anybody out, but if you read through the comments, you’ll see what I’m talking about.) We’re here to listen. Can’t you jokers understand that? We’re here to listen, so shut up with all your noise.
One good response to both these thoughts, and to the larger criticism, too, is something I should have mentioned (because I’ve blogged about it, here and here), but forgot to. It’s the annual Bang on a Can marathon in New York, which for the past two years has been presented in a big, high space called the Winter Garden, downtown on the Hudson River, near the old World Trade Center site. I’ve been to other concerts there as well, so what I’m going to say applies to all of them.
Performances at the Winter Garden are free, and the audience is free to come and go. A stage is set up at one end of the space, and rows of chairs, many rows, are set up in front of the stage. But there’s an aisle between the right- and left-hand chairs, and beyond the rows on either side is open space, beyond which are shops and restaurants. When the chairs end, there’s open space, where people stand or walk, and behind that there are curving stairs, so wide that at the bottom they almost fill the space.
Beyond the stairs are walkways, leading to more shops and restaurants. During concerts, people sit along the stairs, but also walk up and down them, or get off the stairs and leave the space, or walk forward to the seats, or find some friends and talk. People also talk closer to the stage. The marathons go on for hours — in fact, they last all night — and you’ll come, sit down, then see a friend, walk over, say hello, chat a little, listen standing up for a while, then find a seat and listen peacefully, until you get up again.
You understand, I hope, that these are 20-minute spans that I’m talking about. It’s not like the space is a whirlwind of activity, In fact, it’s wonderfully peaceful. And what I most want to say is that I’ve never had a problem listening. I’ve heard some dense, rigorous, and complicated music there — Juilia Wolfe’s long piece for double bass ensemble comes to mind — and also very quiet music. And even though there’s walking, and some very quiet talking, I’m not disturbed.
Why not? Because, just as the angry commenters insist, people come to listen! Or else they’re shopping, or eating at a restaurant, or walking happily along the river, and they find the performance accidentally. But then they stay to listen. So why would they disturb the experience by shouting, talking loudly, calling across the space to a friend they see, or going to the tables where things are for sale (t-shirts, CDs, whatever) and loudly asking questions. Why would they do these things? They want to hear the music!
And clearly they respect the performance. If you spent two minutes there, you’d sense that. This may not be how all of us expect classical music to be presented, but there’s no doubt that it works, and that people listen. They don’t take the freedom that they have — compared to a formal concert hall — as an excuse to be disturbing. They’re considerate adults.
Which leads me to one more thought. Musicians can encourage the behavior that they want their audience to have. You do it with the way you hold yourself, with how you act, and sometimes with specific cues. A conductor finishes a piece, which ends quietly. She doesn’t drop her arms. Nobody moves. Then she drops her arms, a signal that the piece is over. Now the applause begins.
Similiarly, I saw the late Hans Vonk connect the third and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, with his body language. People wouldn’t have been likely to applaud between the movements (this was at Carnegie Hall), but they’d very likely change position, move around a little, break the spell. Vonk’s presence — the way he filled the time between the movements — stopped that from happening.
Even more strikingly, I saw Franz Welser-Möst prevent applause between two pieces, between the end of the Unfinished Symphony, and the start of Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra. He wanted to connect these works, without applause, and with no announcement to the audience, he made that happen.
So. Let’s say you’ve got a largeish chamber group, and you’re playing a Mozart serenade. You dress informally, come onstage chatting, smiling at the audience. You say hello to the audience, and when you play, you look at each other, smile when something in the music makes you happy, maybe even clap when one of your colleagues in the group plays a solo nicely. The audience will most likely pick up on that, and start clapping for the solos, too.
But now you’re playing Webern. You want silence. So you dress in muted colors, come onstage soberly, nod to the audience without speaking, or else say something brief and serious. When you play, you’re rapt and focused. The audience can see that, so they’ll be rapt and focused, too.
What’s difficult about this? Why should informality get out of hand? The audience understands what’s going on, wants to hear the music — and will take its cues from the musicians and the space.