Sound Out

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.

7 thoughts on “Sound Out

  1. jchang4

    That last paragraph = gold. Or, I guess, diamonds? Which one’s more valuable these days?

    I think the clapping thing can be dependent on the circumstances, but, whatever the case may be, I do think there is a good way and a bad way to handle such situations. For instance, when the conductor makes a point to turn around and glare, that’s probably not such a good way. (OK, so he was glaring at the kid running around and making noises in the balcony, which I frankly didn’t even notice and this obviously doesn’t count as a clapping situation but I think it still applies). But when Yo-Yo Ma graciously uses his bow hand to signal that the piece is not over yet and so please hold your applause… That is just so danged classy!

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  2. danvisconti

    Hi Frank and thanks for expanding on this subject.

    The strong position I took in my previous post was directed more at the undue contempt that can be evoked by the unitiated, not necessarily at clapping per se–so I agree that it’s a complicated issue.

    One topic of concern that several comments have alluded to is that of rights–of the listeners, the listener-clappers (they’re like hunter-gatherers), and especially, the performers. Are some rights more important than others? Perhaps the problem is that there is no coherent blueprint on how act at concerts; as several have noted, it’s not really valid to argue against inter-movement clapping on the basis of original intent because the historical antecedent just isn’t there. Maybe it’s time we tried to balance these rights and create some specific guidelines. I’m not saying they should be plastered all over the hall or anything, but maybe they could occupy half a page in the concert program, ina tone tha was instructive rather than discouraging.

    This would also seem to go a long way toward easing the unecertainty that is another main source of anxiety for casual or first-time concertgoers.

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  3. rtanaka

    Lately I’ve been thinking that, from a compositional point of view, the idea of movements in themselves might be outdated at this point. Unless it’s tied to specific religious practices (where the idea originated from) it doesn’t seem to have much of a function other than to confuse people who aren’t “in the know”. The standard four movement work used to be fast, slow, fast, fast and this was the accepted norm that composers could use to give people what they want, or alternatively, play with their expectations. Nowadays I don’t think this form has much significance in the ears of the public. Doing short, self-contained single movement works or longer continuous works might be a better approach since it seems more in-line with the artforms of our time.

    Could you imagine TV or movies using “movements” to articulate the form in their works? I think there might be a few out there who’ve tried, but it’s always kind of awkwardly executed. Scene changes are there in the script but it’s not necessary for the audience to know because it’s there purely for a practical organizational purpose. Movements are great for articulating a structure of a piece on paper, although I’m beginning to think that it’s really just in my own mind and I really need to get over it.

    Just finished a gig with these peeps yesterday where we performed Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in its full. It went very well and we were all pretty happy with it — it got about 30 seconds of pure silence after the piece was over. It’s a multi-section work but at the same time they’re all played attaca so the clapping issue didn’t even come up. But I’d say that the silence after the piece was over was more of a collective feeling of awe and being caught up in the moment rather than a moment of reflection.

    People are able to sit at movies and play video games for hours on end without much problem, so it’s pretty clear to me that if you give an audience something stimulating, they will sit down and shut up on their own accord. It seems rather tacky to try to “enforce” this sort of thing — it’s supposed to come from the music, not from the conductor.

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  4. Leos

    To make a blanket statement about movements being “outdated” because they might confuse listeners just seems silly and beside the point to me. Every so often someone proclaims something outdated, and is almost always proved wrong by a composer who makes it work. Do we really have to spoon feed people that much? Surely audiences aren’t that helpless. Movements are not that hard a concept. Sometimes that’s the best way to articulate the form, that’s all. Other times a single, uninterrupted form works better.

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  5. Frank J. Oteri

    While there have been books I’ve been awed by that are presented as one continuous flow, e.g. William Gaddis’s mind blowing A Frolic of His Own, Joseph Cohen’s Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto (which we’ve actually featured an excerpt from on this site), such books can be extremely difficult to read. Chapter breaks are extremely helpful. They allow a reader to process and digest information. The same is true for movements in a piece of music.

    No parallels in contemporary popular culture? I beg to differ. What about TV sitcoms which are parsed in segments to allow for commercials? Admittedly those commercials result in the experience being a continuous flow of sensory information, but the mute button on remotes establishes a whole new audience-controlled form of enabling silence between movements. Now if only we could have a mute button for the inadvertent and unwanted interruptions in some clubs and concert halls. ;)

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  6. rtanaka

    The four movement structure at one point in time was an accepted norm which people would go into concert with the expectation that the structure of the piece would follow such a format. Nowadays I don’t think such a thing exists, so it’s very hard to use the movement structure as a vantage point to play with the audience’s expectations. I could very well be wrong about this, but my experiences have been that experimentations in movement forms, at least in “pure” performance music, have generally been ineffective or awkward at best — I’ve written several pieces that have lots of movements (some played attaca some not), some with an old four-movement styles, some with just one or two, but nobody really seems to care or be able to percieve it in the way I had imagined. Keep in mind that I also went to CalArts, where composers do this sort of thing all the time, so I’ve heard a lot of experimentations done with this sort of thing.

    I think it helps to have a visual element attached to it — in writing sectionalizing your ideas is very good because it helps to articulate the form of the overall work and it looks good from an aesthetic standpoint. But in the performance arts (where the audience doesn’t see the score) it’s there largely for the performers’ understanding of the piece. Music for 18 Musicians is a good example of this, because it’s broken into 11 different sections and the divisions make sense both on a practical and on a formal level. But it’s played continuously throughout its hour-long duration, much like a movie would.

    In theater and opera these pauses are needed for set changes, in TV and radio they’re needed in order to pay the bills of its broadcasting fees but they’re there purely for practical reasons. Writing music in movements or in sections doesn’t really bother anybody, but I’m sort of wondering why the “no clapping in between movements” rule exists to begin with because it doesn’t really make any sense to me. What purpose does it serve, really?

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  7. Lisa X

    Silence is a tricky bit a material to deal with. It takes some real compositional chops to make it work, in large part because filling silences with noise seems to be customary. I think it is a mistake to verbally tell the audience how to behave in these instances. It is allot like a bad DJ harassing the crowd to dance. In both cases I think the music needs work.

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