Music is the Wine That Fills the Cup of Silence

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?

13 thoughts on “Music is the Wine That Fills the Cup of Silence

  1. philmusic

    Any teacher will tell you that listening skills can be the hardest to learn. Besides the group contagion — I cough, you cough we all cough – there are, unfortunately, many reasons to attend concerts that have nothing to do with listening to the music. Out here in MN several major performing organizations give out free cough drops to each and all—and guess what –it works!

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  2. Lisa X

    Common practice for audience behavior has been and will be widely varied and constantly changing. We can discuss best practices if you want. But your concert in DC was special. The director telling the audience what to do is so offensive to me that sabotage might come to my mind if I were ever treated with such disrespect by a musician at a concert.

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  3. philmusic

    “..The director telling the audience what to do is so offensive to me that sabotage might come to my mind if I were ever treated with such disrespect by a musician at a concert…”

    What happened Lisa–tell us?

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  4. Frank J. Oteri

    Lisa,

    I’m sorry that from what I wrote above you got the sense that Cathedral Choral Society Music Director J. Reilly Lewis was in any way disrespectful to the audience. His request for audience members to refrain from coughing was couched in an extremely respectful speech about how important audiences are for the music-making process. Remember, I mentioned that the concert was being recorded for subsequent CD release. Lewis discussed how such a recording is preferable to a sterile studio recording for the very reason that the audience is present and has an effect on the musical outcome.

    But indeed, there is also the very negative outcome of incessant coughing and other sounds which can ruin a recorded performance. There are many radio stations who won’t play live recordings because so many people find hearing all that coughing too distracting.

    In a way, it’s something of a Catch-22. Adding an unpredictable human element to the recording process, e.g. a live audience, makes for more compelling performance energy, but it also can potentially render a recording unusable. Given that reality, I think Lewis was simply trying to strike a balance. Of course, various noise reduction techniques, digital patching, etc. will probably get rid of a lot of that awful coughing or at least mask it in a way that it was not be so prominent.

    But I find it interesting that it is somehow an imposition in some people’s minds to be asked to be quiet. Isn’t quietude necessary for being able to fully listen to someone else and comprehend what that person is saying? Doesn’t everyone feel there are things that they say that they want people to listen to as well? Isn’t the symbiotic relationship of utterance and listening a pre-requisite for communication and therefore ultimately a pre-requisite for society and civilization as well?

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  5. Chris Becker

    “Isn’t quietude necessary for being able to fully listen to someone else and comprehend what that person is saying?”

    I agree – yes. But concert halls can be incredibly dry (literally) and dusty. These venues are hard on vocalists as well as the audience. The audience demographic is often made up of elderly folks who are gonna cough. You can beg all you want but it’s only natural to cough if you’re breathing in dust through your nose without any relief for extended periods of time.

    Maybe the orchestra you write about could have been more proactive and passed out cough drops before the recording? And some little bottles of water?

    At a recent ASO concert – music by The Russian Futurists – I was in the balcony and just started coughing. I was shaking off a cold and I couldn’t help it! It was horrible at first. But what was great is that the woman to my left took out a ziploc bag of cough drops and told me to take as many as I needed. And later, I also bonded with the people to my right who were delighted to know my wife was onstage with the chorus – the whole row was brought together by the music and (maybe) my coughing..?

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  6. Lisa X

    I hear what you are saying Frank, but I still feel on a gut level that when musicians start verbally telling audiences – for any reason – how to behave right before a performance that they are missing something (I wish I could figure out exactly what it is but I can’t) absolutely essential to music making. I am in no way against behavioral expectations or just plain good manners. But imagine the chef coming out at a fancy restaurant and making an announcement that there are photographers here from a food magazine so please everyone, don’t chew with your mouth open. Would you go back?

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  7. Tom Myron

    “…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.)”

    That really is patently absurd. You want a pristine recording? Book a session. Trying to make a concert double as a recording session results in an event that is niether.

    Reply
  8. ottodafaye

    “music is the wine that fills the cup of silence”

    explains why Fripp has always had a lyricist

    Reply
  9. Frank J. Oteri

    imagine the chef coming out at a fancy restaurant and making an announcement that there are photographers here from a food magazine so please everyone, don’t chew with your mouth open. Would you go back?

    Whether or not I returned to the restaurant would have nothing to do with the chef’s admonitions and everything to do with how good I thought the food was, and of course, food appreciation—like music appreciation—is highly subjective.

    Reply
  10. Kyle Gann

    The Dying Audience Member
    Funny you should pick this subject this week. A student of mine just had a premiere by a professional ensemble Sunday, and some guy in the audience coughed so frequently and so violently and so uproariously I didn’t expect him to live through the performance – and unfortunately he did, coughing his head off during the quiet closing chords, about 15 feet from the microphone that was recording the concert. I don’t normally like to cordon off music from the rest of life, but my student needed a good recording of that piece, and he can’t just go pay for a recording session, and why someone who’s that deathly ill can’t stay home, or go out into the lobby when he feels a fatal attack coming on, is absolutely beyond me.

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  11. Chris Becker

    What I got from my experience at the ASO concert is that as seasoned concert goers and music lovers, maybe we all can take it upon ourselves to bring a bag of cough drops and (even a few tiny plastic bottles of water?) to concert hall performances and offer them to someone if they are obviously in distress.

    Reply
  12. philmusic

    I was at a new music concert in NYC a few years back and an audience member used a steel dentist pick to scrape her teeth all the way through the performance. No it was not part of the performace.

    She sat by herself way up front near the perfumers–you could hear it, anyway an usher asked her to stop at the intermission and she did. Anyway lets not mention those cellophane shopping bags that crinkle and crunch.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  13. philmusic

    well….
    By philmusic – philmusic@aol.com

    I was at a new music concert in NYC a few years back and an audience member used a steel dentist pick to scrape her teeth all the way through the performance. (she had a mirror too) No it was not part of the performace.

    She sat by herself way up front near the “performers”–you could hear it, anyway an usher asked her to stop at the intermission and she did. Anyway lets not mention those cellophane shopping bags that crinkle and crunch.

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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