The latest e-newsletter from the music publisher European American, which arrived in my email inbox yesterday, began with a wonderful quote by British prog/post-prog guitar hero Robert Fripp: “Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence.” I don’t know the context Fripp originally said it in; perhaps it was in response to a concert experience similar to the one I had this past weekend…
On Sunday afternoon, I was at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., to attend a choral concert by the Cathedral Choral Society featuring Mozart’s Vespers (K. 339) and Dominick Argento’s Evensong, his first new work quite some time. Despite the joy of hearing a brand new piece of music during a visit to another city, it seemed that I had never attended a concert in my life with so much coughing. I know the whole “audience noise at concerts” issue has been raised time and time again by journalists far and wide—and I’m really not trying to earn membership in the curmudgeon club here—but the coughing at this particular concert still seems significant. It was almost a musical composition on its own, albeit one that greatly distracted from the ones people in attendance had come to hear.
There have certainly been times that I’ve needed to cough. Coughing is endemic to the human condition, especially for those of us who live in big, polluted, urban areas. But it seems to me that humans are also capable of holding it in for a little while until, say, a movement break. Admittedly, most of the concertgoers last Sunday did hold it, judging by the voluminous retching in between movements which was deafening at one point. But the extremely intrusive outpouring of arrhythmic hacking throughout was all the more surprising given that there was a special admonition not to cough both published in the program and requested on the podium by Music Director J. Reilly Lewis before the concert began. (The concert was being recorded for subsequent CD release.) Still, coughing began barely a few measures into the opening of the Mozart. At one point, it even drowned out a particularly gorgeous quiet ending of a solo aria.
But perhaps the coughing was all the more in the foreground of my listening experience because so much attention had been given to avoiding it. When I attend concerts in clubs, I hear tons of extraneous sounds in addition to what I’m supposed to be paying attention to on stage, but I almost never notice coughing. Are concert halls and houses of worship—where performances of music created for concert halls frequently take place—simply too acoustically resonant to guarantee focus only on the music? That is to say, in bringing out the details of the music, are such spaces also bringing out the sounds we’re trying to pretend are not there but which invariably always are?
Or are we really at a point in our history where it is impossible for a large group of people to remain completely silent for more than a minute? Was it ever possible? And if silence has always been or has only recently become truly impossible to achieve, can we ever fully hear music? If our cups of silence are non-existent, where can we pour music’s wine?