The Hundred-Dollar Nap

After a recent performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde by the National Symphony Orchestra, one of the players quipped that he felt “like an anesthesiologist” after watching what looked like a significant portion of audience members “go under”. (“There were so many people with their heads back and mouths opened,” he added, “that it looked like a scattered choir singing up to heaven”). I nodded in assent; this certainly wasn’t out of the ordinary. Not long ago a performance of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht in the same venue had ended to reveal a very neat round of cadential snoring, and I think it’s safe to say that a very small but visible (occasionally audible!) percentage of American audiences spend a good bit of the concert experience sawing logs.

Barring physical fatigue, there seem to be two reasons the napper might find him or herself in such a plight: either a) he/she is so profoundly enjoying the experience that sleep comes on as sincere relaxation, or b) that the slumbering concertgoer is straight-up bored and doesn’t really want to be there, but some social or psychological compulsion obliges attendance.

It’s the second option that I find fascinating—those individuals who differ from the uninterested, unadventurous stay-at-home curmudgeons only by virtue of their attendance (and not out of an actual sense of interest or adventurous appetite). I am more curious or perhaps puzzled by these kinds of people than anything else, but their very existence raises a strange question: for those of us who care deeply about the arts and classical music in particular, what should our attitude be towards those who technically participate in the music community but do so for reasons or in ways that the core music community—the performers and audience members that actually want to be there—might find objectionable. Is our tiny community so desperate for concerts that we must welcome and tolerate the behavior of anyone willing to buy a ticket? Or is it a species of Phariseeism to try and encourage a few slightly higher standards, maybe at the risk of a few more empty seats? What does it matter if a seat is full, if that body isn’t even conscious?

5 thoughts on “The Hundred-Dollar Nap

  1. colin holter

    I am more curious or perhaps puzzled by these kinds of people than anything else, but their very existence raises a strange question: for those of us who care deeply about the arts and classical music in particular, what should our attitude be towards those who technically participate in the music community but do so for reasons or in ways that the core music community—the performers and audience members that actually want to be there—might find objectionable?

    I think we should keep taking their money, because I think they are being willingly scammed. They’re paying for two things—the experience of hearing music performed (invaluable) and the social cachet of being seen at the symphony (increasingly worthless)—and only getting the latter. It does bother me that people think being in the concert hall during a performance offers some kind of osmotic inoculation against lowbrowness, but if these bourgeois em-effers want to keep shelling out for their placebos, so be it.

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  2. Matthew Peterson

    I feel no more sorry for this orchestra player than I do a Christian who objects to a portrayal of Jesus on “Family Guy,” or a janitor who cleans a bathroom only to see it fouled again unnecessarily. Comes with the territory, comes with being human and having different values systems. Silly examples, but they are applicable enough.

    I think that the question Dan raised is a valid one. My point here is that I think it’s highly important we always respect that others may not share our values about music. (I’m thankful that not everyone shares our values about music, because too many people would waste time arguing aesthetic and cultural issues instead of doing work…just teasing my fellow composers).

    If people were always being turned away from sold-out houses, and season ticket holders were falling asleep inside, well, that’s a scenario where this type of behavior should be ardently discouraged. That not exactly being the case, I think we can disapprove of this behavior, but should keep any moral outrage to ourselves.

    I used to fall asleep in large-ensemble concerts all the time (of course, I was in grad school and going to concerts like this every other day it seems, usually after a long day of work and class). If one of Indiana U’s orchestras played a Bruchner symphony, it was usually lights out for me by the end of the first movement (no offense to Bruckner fans). So maybe there’s something about late-Romantic orchestra works that just put people under (someone should do a study on this…).

    I also find it funny how various posts on this website have painted the pro orchestra community as out-of-touch, bourgeois outsiders, but now they’re “in” and we’re defending their artistic integrity. Then again, I’ve never really been a member of an exclusive tribe, so I don’t really know how this type of thing works.

    I think we should also remember that it’s equally easy to dismiss our comatose concertgoer as a “bourgeois em-effer” as it is to dismiss a poster on this new music site as an “intellectual weenie.”

    A good, semi-related essay – a graduation speech by the late, great, David Foster-Wallace:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122178211966454607.html

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  3. RBonotto

    hello?
    It’s almost as if you folks don’t have regular jobs or go to concerts. 1) Most people work between 5 and 10 more hours a week than they did 30 years ago, and are more tired. 2) Most auditoriums are overpoweringly overheated, and anyone who’s comfortably seated, warm and snug, and listening to anything outside of Xenakis (especially if they spend all day doing repetitive work) is going to end up sleeping in the arms of Morpheus at some point in the evening.

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  4. colin holter

    OK, maybe my tone was a bit more confrontational than it needed to have been, but still: If you fall asleep at a concert, you’re paying for more than you’re receiving. This is something you have every right to do—but it still strikes me as a poor investment.

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  5. Troy Ramos

    I agree that everyone’s overworked nowadays, but let’s make sure we include musicians in that category.

    As for doozers, I’m fine with it; as long as they don’t mind perhaps getting a friendly elbow nudge from a neighbor if they start snoring, then I’m not bothered. Little noises here or there used to bother me sometimes, but then I found Cage and now I don’t care so much.

    I can certainly understand, however, how a player might be upset at seeing people asleep during their performance. But I think there are enough attentive people at every concert on whom the players can focus. Not that I condone sleeping during a concert, but I can kind of understand how inviting the concert hall might seem for naps, given the all too often hectic nature of everything else.

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