Trust the audience

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.

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  1. Laura Kuennen-Poper says

    Fascinating discussion. I’m a performer and an arts administrator, and this is *the* issue that cuts to the heart of the “attracting younger audiences” debate. My take on it is that we can’t reasonably expect under-40’s to make live classical music a regular part of their lives if those of us who provide it insist on making the experience nothing like *any* part of their regular lives.

    Regarding having the performers “cue” the audience re: how much interactive response is appreciated/allowed/appropriate: some performers have a natural gift for this, some can be taught how to engage, but many would rather die than be responsible for (or having to take responsibility for) breaking the invisible wall. Also, in large performing groups, for the sake of maintaining order, that task is left to the conductor, many of whom fall into the third group (above).

    So, a suggestion: how about a semi-controlled interaction, in which the host performing group gives to audience members those “clickers” that are now so popular in classrooms, and posts questions on a supertitle screen to engage the audience during performance? (If you’ve never seen or used a classroom clicker, they are used to gauge what students are actually learning in real time — teachers can ask questions of the class while presenting the content, and students “click in” a response. The results of the students’ response appears as a bar graph on a smart board, so the teacher can assess how well the students are grasping the material.) The questions could range from the superficial (“Should Solista X wear this gownless eveningstrap again?”) to some that might actually change the programming of the concert (“Would you like to hear that again? Right now?”) Perhaps the person posting the questions could be a guest “blogger” for the evening…. Seats could even be sold for the “clicking” section and the “non-clicking” section.

    Thanks so much, Laura. And amen to your opening point. Means a cultural wrench for many people in our business, but that’s how life is going these days. There’s no way around it.

    I love your clicker idea. It reminds me of the audience reaction graphs that CNN showed during the presidential debates. We could see how much people liked each moment of the debate, in real time. And divided into separate responses for men and women.

    So I think we could do that at concerts without questions being asked! People could have the clickers, or whatever devices are used for this, and simply click when they really liked what they were hearing. Then we could watch the response as the music unfolded. Very subversive, I think, but one thing to remember is that we don’t know what the results would be. I imagine some of us would worry that only the obvious, big, loud moments, or the gorgeous tunes, would get a strong audience response. But what if that’s not true?

    And what if it really is true, but we discover that even a large part of our devoted core audience gets distracted during the subtler (or, dare we say it, less interesting) parts of very long works? How should we react to that. And — most interesting of all — is there any way we could change our performance to get people responding to all parts of a piece? Brahms, as I’m fond of pointing out, thought his music should be performed differently for audiences who didn’t yet know it, so maybe there’s no disgrace in underlining the important outlines (and crucial details) of pieces that we play. Or maybe we don’t do that enough, even for connoisseurs.

    Of course, you’re in opera, Laura, so this may work differently. There’s staging to think of as well as music, and it’s perfectly fair to say that the staging might not, in particular places, do enough to bring the drama alive. That’s a lot less subversive than saying the music needs stronger contrasts. And staging, of course, gives the audience something else to pay attention to, beyond the music. The biggest challenge in all of this, I think, comes in instrumental performances.

  2. Yvonne says

    I agree, we should be able to trust classical music audiences. How do I know? From something I’ve observed at the ballet (at least in Australia):

    Put the same audience (well, some of them) in a different environment with a different tradition and the angst about responding to a performance in audible ways totally disappears.

    I’m encouraged to believe we can achieve the same spontaneity, good judgement and confidence of response at concerts too. Because, unlike pop concerts or jazz clubs, the ballet theatre and its sound world isn’t so very different from the concert hall. And I use ballet rather than opera, because it’s at the ballet that I’ve been able to hear concert works and thus make a direct point of comparison.

    There are some things in concert halls that would need to change though, as you’ve hinted:

    1. The prevailing attitude: we all need to believe that we have permission to respond and that everyone agrees on this, whether we actually respond or not.

    2. Concert-goers need to learn to look as well as listen and in some ways to trust themselves. (Not to mention their fellow concert-goers.)

    3. Performers need to seize the power they have to shape behaviour and to vary behaviour and response according to the moment and the piece.

  3. says

    Laura says, “…we can’t reasonably expect under-40’s to make live classical music a regular part of their lives if those of us who provide it insist on making the experience nothing like ‘any’ part of their regular lives.”

    No disrespect, Laura, but I’ve lived every moment of my life as a musician with the passionate goal of providing my listeners with an experience that takes them out of the here and now, the tangible, the everyday, indeed very much out of “regular life.” Not to say art doesn’t of course draw from or touch upon aspects of “regular life” but those elements’ transformation is to me what separates art from the pop culture echo chamber.

    This ongoing discussion is indeed fascinating and has so many paths one could wander down, fruitfully. Something I would to ask is why the assumption that moving around, twittering, a little muted talking, etc., is considered more “participatory” by the audience? Why is “listening” per se and the brain activities involved therein considered somehow non-participatory? and what does that say about us in the early 21st century?

    I’m not at all opposed to exploring these interesting avenues of giving people a pathway into classical music, but to me the beauty of the “conventional” classical music concert is its marriage of the communal with the individual experience. We are all gathered in one place to hear and see musicians interpret the music live, yet the decorum that has become traditional at these events has evolved to allow the individual audience member the freedom for his or her own auditory/emotional/intellectual absorption of the music. As long as we can find ways to keep this individual freedom intact and not to impinge on it, I’m all for innovation and new modes of presentation.

    Thanks, Philip. As always, what you say here is really helpful. You’re an eloquent advocate for what you believe in.

    I think — in the spirit of my response to Yvonne, about whether the ability to listen has been degraded, in our society — that it would be interesting to know what really happens to our audience, when they listen in the traditional silent way. What are they thinking? To what extent do they feel the kind of communion that you write so passionately about? I think there’s a tendency in all of us to idealize what we believe in — in your case, the traditional silent listening, in mine the benefits of changing that. We argue, in effect, from the most ideal case we can imagine.

    One thing I’ve learned from a good deal of experience with members of the audience, is that many of them seem to feel somewhat left out, though sometimes they don’t quite know they feel that. But they’re hungry for more contact — more information, more knowledge, more communication. At one point, once they realized I really cared about what they said, long-time subscribers at a major American orchestra started talking very angrily about things the orchestra did that they didn’t like, and how the orchestra had failed to communicate with them about things that were important.

    In another case I know of, a small bit of attention to the audience at a concert led to a jump in every aspect of audience satisfaction that could be measured. That is, the people in the audience that had been catered to (in a very small way, really) even thought the parking facilities were better, compared to people who’d gone to other concerts.

    I think this shows a need for contact that’s not being met by the present way of giving concerts. Could it be, Philip, that at least to some extent the picture you paint is of an ideal that doesn’t always fully correspond with reality?

  4. e.p. barnes says

    The fallacy of expectations for silence and stillness in a concert audience is the barrage of hacking and coughing that comes between movements of extended works. It cannot possibly be that so many are so ill at one time! I presume that audience members are so tied in knots of physical constraint while the music is happening that they have to let loose somehow. This seems to me an absurd situation built upon the expectation that serious listening only happens in utter silence, sitting bolt upright and still in a chair.

    Good thought, e.p. Thanks.

  5. says

    This all reminds me of Roger Norrington’s performance of Haydn’s ‘Seasons’ with the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra back in 1987. At the beginning, he invited the Jordan Hall crowd to ‘behave like an early 19th century audience and applaud whenever you like something’. The performance would have been compelling enough in itself, but given permission to express itself, the audience REALLY became engaged, clapping when the horns did something spectacular, cheering the soloists etc., and giving a thunderously wild ovation at the end. I can’t remember another experience quite like that.

    Thanks so much for that!

    I’ve heard that Norrington asks the audience to react as you described, but I’ve never before learned what the results can be.

  6. says

    Greg, once again you get our thoughts going!

    In the comments, though, Laura states: “My take on it is that we can’t reasonably expect under-40’s to make live classical music a regular part of their lives if those of us who provide it insist on making the experience nothing like *any* part of their regular lives.”

    Consider this: how many under-40 types crave silence or escape from their regular lives in the forms of yoga, meditation, massage, and so on? I really don’t like it when classical music is marketed as a relaxation tool, but the under-40 crowd perhaps is looking for a mesmerizing alternative to noisy distractions. So unlike what Laura assumes, perhaps what under-40s really do want is “an experience nothing like *any* part of their regular lives.”

    So along with extraordinary interactive concerts (and Laura, I like some of your ideas for these!), a “silent” (for the audience, at least) concert can truly be a special event in our regular lives.

    Timothy, this makes a lot of sense. I’m also not crazy about the classical music = relaxation thing. (On a gloomy day, I’ll grouse that this means classical music isn’t really art.) But it’s a fact that people think that way. The simple version is something I hear all the time, and I’m sure that many of the rest of us do: “Oh, I love classical music. It’s so calm.”

    And then the more complex version is that classical music takes us away from everyday life, serves as a refuge. The mild version of this talks about how difficult life is right now (economy, etc.), and how classical music gives us some relief from that. The really hardcore version says that current culture is despicable, and that classical music is a much-needed refuge from its horrors.

    Whether or not Timothy, or I, or any of you think like this — and I want to stress that I’m not criticizing those who do (I’m not having a gloomy day) — it’s a fact that many people do think this way, and that’s why they’re attracted to classical music.

  7. Yvonne says

    Christopher Hogwood did a “Norrington” in Perth a few years ago. What happened there was the pre-concert speaker had, unknown to him, incited 300 or so in the audience to applaud after the first movement of the Mozart piano concerto (Levin, improv cadenza) if they felt like it. They did, and wholeheartedly. (This was normally a “model” subs audience.) The speaker was delighted.

    Hogwood turned right around and told us that we’d “all just done a very authentic thing”. No one clapped between the movts of the Mendelssohn Scottish that followed, but that’s because crafty Felix wrote the piece so you can’t!

    You go, Felix!

    Mendelssohn was a highbrow in his time, one of the composerss who — as the concept of classical music emerged, and began to take root — definitely aligned himself with classical thinking, and wanted to continue the tradition of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. That would make him very serious about his music, and maybe not so open to audience noise. (Though it’s hard to tell. Audiences weren’t quiet, back then, and the composers aren’t on record, as far as I know, as objecting to that.)

  8. says

    One important caveat about the Bang on a Can experience: everything is amplified. So the quietest music is still fairly loud, which makes talking less disruptive than it would be in an un-amplified environment. The same is true at Le Poisson Rouge–everything gets amplified, so the people who want to sit by the bar and talk don’t interfere with the listening experience of the people who just want to listen. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have more activity in non-amplified situations–just that the maximum level of activity will always partly be dictated by the nature of the environment.

    Another key factor about BOAC and LPR is that the seating arrangement is relatively open, with more different options than in a traditional concert hall, so people feel more comfortable setting different types of audience behavior in different parts of the space. At BOAC the people in the seats and on the staircase don’t talk much and don’t like other people talking, but around the margins people talk the whole time. LPR is similar. Without changing the physical layout of traditional concert halls it will be difficult to get different audience behavior, but by the same token changing the physical layout of the hall could prompt natural, organic change. What if an orchestra hall had a dozen rows of seats in the back removed and replaced with a bar and some table seating? The people in the regular seats would probably have almost the same experience they expect, but people who wanted it would be able to have a very different experience. Philip can sit in row 5, and I’ll meet you at the bar.

    Wow, Galen. That’s exactly right. And so well said.

    I should add, because I forgot this while I was writing this post, that the Winter Garden can hold 2000 people (my estimate when I was at the last BOAC marathon, based on their estimate of 1000 people the year before; looked like twice as many, by my eyeball measure, when I was there last June). So it’s quite a large space, able to accomodate all the things Galen talks about for quite a large number of people.

    The amplification is key, of course. Galen is very right to point that out.

  9. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    I ran across this post about Brian Eno’s new Venice show (from the Independent) and thought that it might be relevant to this discussion. Here is an artist who really does trust his audience. Eno comments that his installation rejects the assumption that people “have increasingly short attention spans” in that it invites slow, unforced, and silent (or at least quiet) appreciation. He also reports that many patrons would linger “for hours” at the show, and that visitors from a wide variety of backgrounds found something to enjoy there. As for the expectation that contemporary audiences are afflicted with short attention spans, Eno had the following to say.

    “I’m absolutely convinced that that’s the diametrical opposite of what’s true… People who come to the shows say, ‘I wish there was one of these in the city all the time.’ And it makes me realise that there are things that people traditionally do – like go to church or sit in parks or daydream – which have become harder to do…”So when people find a place where they can do that, they are pretty excited.”

    My thought after reading this was that maybe the silence of the concert hall has slowly and subtly degenerated from a rich experience of renewal through silent participation to a kind of empty ritual. So perhaps the traditional “enforced silence” of the concert hall could be transformed into an invitation to experience something that is, as many comments have suggested, different from what is possible amidst the busyness of contemporary life. I am not sure where that leaves tweeting and texting, but I suppose we should not rule out the possibility that for some it is possible to tweet and dream at the same time.


    I think that forms of listening — especially in classical music — are evolving. We don’t know where, exactly, the evolution will lead. So I wouldn’t try to predict where tweeting will or won’t fit in the kind of listening experience Jay quotes Brian Eno describing. If I try to imagine myself sitting peacefully in an Eno installation, I see myself not wanting to tweet as I begin to relax. The whole point is to enjoy the music peacefully. Why disturb that?

    But after I’d been sitting for a while (10 minutes? 20? an hour?) I might find I could tweet or text without disturbing my sense of calm. On my iPhone, typing is virtually silent. You just touch the screen; there are no keys to click. So it might not be disturbing to take the thing out, and type out some messages.

    Thanks, as ever, Jay, for taking this deeper.

  10. says

    “Musicians can encourage the behavior that they want their audience to have.”


    To support your point, I had a performance this past weekend. It was a music and dance festival setting, dinner beforehand and a variety of performers to follow for a 2 hour program. The entertainment ranged from young children to seasoned performers.

    Our conductor coached us prior to our time slot, “Walk in quietly, sit down, and prepare your instruments. If you don’t talk and if you act seriously, the audience will also take us seriously.” The conductor was well aware of the danger that the audience, just having seen a group of cute and bouncy children singing songs in colorful costumes would lead to chatter, oohs and aahs. He was right.

    However, when the orchestra was seated, and I stood up to take my place at center stage to sing, I was perfectly still, eyes focused outwards, to signal the change in mood. The audience responded in kind. They were quiet and attentive.

    After two verses of the traditional Bosnian folksong I had prepared were sung, the audience applauded mid-song (customary for this type of performance), and applauded at the end.

    I agree – perhaps we need to give audiences a bit more credit.

    Thanks. It’s good to have your report!

  11. Yvonne says

    A postscript re Felix (see comments above): While I can’t comment on his views about audience noise generally, he’s on record as saying that he disliked applause between movements because it “murdered the mood”.

  12. says

    Actually it is on their list, you have to scroll over a few times. I agree most of the time about quality, but when I watch things on my parent’s 55″ tv I can tell the difference between DVD and blue ray very easily, as the compression artifacts are a lot easier to spot.