It has been interesting to read the commentary generated in response to Dan Visconti’s account of how people he brought to an orchestra concert felt their experience was ruined by some people clapping in between movements. While audibly demonstrating pleasure at hearing a performance is not the same as other kinds of sonic intrusions that inevitably occur during concerts, when someone is completely focused on a specific sound source anything extraneous can be a real annoyance.
Of course, John Cage taught that all sounds heard are music, and Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening is all about opening your ears and mind to the full sonic spectrum you are experiencing. But proscenium concert presentations tend to very carefully circumscribe what should and should not be listened to. You are supposed to listen only to the music on the stage. Do your best to ignore the very loud cough during the quietest moment in the performance. In fact, you should even try not to pay attention when string players retune in between movements, etc. Clubs and other less formal venues offer an alternative, but at a sonic price. There’s lots of other sound going on—liquor glasses clacking, people talking—which makes it harder to focus on the music. Yet even in such settings, if indeed you’re paying to hear a specific artist or band and aren’t in a bar or restaurant which just happens to have live music in a corner, the music is supposed to be the only thing you should be concerned about, which is somewhat disingenuous.
I remember really enjoying an erratic heat pipe that went off at some point during a gig at a club I was at a few years ago. This is in no way to disparage the music that was happening on stage, which I also thought was fabulous. But the two were somehow able to co-exist without getting in each other’s aural space, and both provided exciting aural possibilities. And yet I must confess that I am one of those people who can become irritated by loud coughs during the quietest moment in a performance in a proscenium concert hall, particularly if it’s at the ending. And there are things that happen sonically in clubs that don’t peacefully cohabitate with the music for me as well. Recently I witnessed someone who was a fan of the music on stage constantly talking all through the gig saying how wonderful each song was—I really didn’t need him to constantly tell me that and it was incredibly distracting.
The problem, from my vantage point, is when a sound interferes with the listening experience of other people in the space. Concerts are expensive. People did not pay tons of money to hear a massive bronchial attack or the ravings of an overzealous fan. To hear something you do not want to hear when you’re trying to focus on something else entirely is, pun intended, rather disconcerting. But what to do—we’re dealing with human beings, right? We should be making everyone feel comfortable and welcome, right? I totally agree, but on the other hand, I also think we exaggerate about how difficult it is to sit quietly. Being completely quiet can actually be an extremely gratifying experience. Think about how transformative it can be to quietly explore a museum, read a truly engrossing book in a library, visit a house of worship during a time when there isn’t a service, or wander alone somewhere in nature where the rat race seems temporarily shut off.
Ultimately, of all the sonic culprits, clapping is rather innocuous, but probably only because it is a socially acceptable sound at some point during the event. But it too can be listened to deeply and—as a result—it can get in the way. The sound of clapping is actually quite musical, so in some ways it can be even more distracting than a cough because we are programmed to think that clapping is what happens at the end of a performance—so it functions in our ears like some über-cadence. When clapping occurs between movements, it briefly lulls us into the sense that something is over, which isn’t. At the premiere I attended of La Monte Young’s Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord, the audience was instructed not to applaud, even at the end of the performance, which created an extremely otherworldly sensation when it was over. The piece sounded like it never ended, which was Young’s intent.
Some of my favorite sounds are the silences that sometimes happen at the end of pieces, or in between movements, which sadly occur all too infrequently in public spaces. And the loss of such sounds cannot be filled by hearing silence between movements on recordings at home. It’s not the same sound. There’s something particularly extraordinary about the sound of a large group of people being completely quiet together. After all, this too is a musical sound, albeit the most fragile musical sound there is.