Wait, There’s More

I admit that, from time to time, I skip out of a concert during intermission. More often than not it’s because I’m off to another concert that’s unfortunately scheduled for the same evening, and I’m trying to catch some of both events. However, I really can’t understand why some people feel compelled to walk out of a concert while a performance is still going on. Is anything really so unbearable to sit through for, usually, at the most another half hour? How can you really decide that you hate something before you’ve heard the whole thing? And does a feeling of some sort of sonic discomfort ever justify spoiling the experience for everyone else who is attentively listening during these all-too-frequently unsilent departures?

I wonder what prompts people with such tender constitutions to attend concerts in the first place. Admittedly, I’ve witnessed these impromptu leave-takings more frequently during a piece of new music injected into an otherwise standard repertoire program. But last week I saw someone rush to the doors during a New York Philharmonic performance of Debussy’s Images. Debussy can drive ‘em away—who knew! And a few summers ago I also witnessed a mass exodus during Brian Ferneyhough’s opera Shadowtime. Didn’t the folks who bought tickets for this show know what they were getting into?

Is a piece of music really capable of bringing out the same sensation of immediate revulsion that accidentally swallowing undercooked chicken or sour milk elicits? If you live in a city, you’re bombarded with all sorts of sonic disturbances, ranging from randomly honking car horns to the incessant power drills and bulldozers of construction work day-in and day-out. And even if you live in the ‘burbs, you still occasionally have to deal with crying babies, barking dogs, etc. So what kind of hermetically-sealed environment do folks who march out of concerts mid-piece live in that they deem the music to be unduly gnarly?

I’ve also often wondered where such folks go after they walk out of a concert before it’s over. Since they were expecting to stay for the entire performance, they can’t have anywhere else they need to be. But maybe, like me, they’re also charging off to hear part of another concert somewhere else.

21 thoughts on “Wait, There’s More

  1. SingCal

    I agree, of course
    This is a horribly disrespectful practice, of course; not only to the composer, but to the performers and the offender’s fellow audience members as well. I doubt you’ll find an art-minded person who would disagree. I offer this as a follow-up: what can (or should) be done about it? Short of guarding the doors of the concert hall, there’s not much in the way of keeping people in. This is of course not to mention that such measures would probably significantly change the intimacy and catharsis of the concert experience. So what, then, is the answer? Should music that’s programmed be designed to keep people in? Should music directors shy away from unaccessibility if their patrons have a tendency to walk out? Or should ensembles accept these losses (after all, they’ve already paid for the ticket) and instead focus on the experience of those who choose to stay?

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  2. Colin Holter

    I’ve also often wondered where such folks go after they walk out of a concert before it’s over.

    I imagine they have to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, or enter classified codes to avert nuclear disaster. This kind of behavior frustrates me too, but luckily it’s never happened during one of my pieces. I’m sure it’s a matter of time, though.

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  3. philmusic

    On the other hand I was at a symphony concert and the women next to me kept searching through her purse looking for stuff for about 10 minuets-not taking anything out mind you — just poking around it making distracting sounds. I wish she had left the concert, since she was not prepared to listen or care if others did. I think that if its not a professional situation there is nothing wrong with leaving a concert or a movie if you don’t want to hear it (and this isn’t the only reason people leave concerts). Distracting or disrupting other who want to listen is another issue and I am against that. Personally, I would rather have people leave a performance of mine instead of them falling asleep or thinking “did I leave the bedroom light on.”

    Phil’s Page

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  4. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I’ve walked out on my share of concerts, and been walked out on. It doesn’t seem unusual. Sure, I try to be quiet, and if I have any doubts ahead of time, I’ll be standing in the back.

    Maybe because in Vermont concerts (even the most serious new nonpop) are considered family events, I’ve gotten used to the ambient kid noise. Maybe I’m just old & grouchy.

    In any case, we can’t get more time in our lives, and if a concert doesn’t meet expectations, why not leave? Those expectations can be of the performance or composition.

    Maybe the performance just isn’t very good, or out of character, or just plain annoying, hopelessly idiosyncratic, or simply dopey.

    Maybe the composition makes a statement I don’t like and I’ll make my statement as well; maybe the work is incompetent in the composer’s own terms, something that doesn’t take a half hour to sense; maybe the attitude is in-your-face and my face isn’t in the mood, or just the opposite — so laid back as to be yawningly dull.

    I’ve left for all those reasons, and if something I’ve created has that effect, I expect to be walked out on. In fact, I treasure the premiere of “Echo” where one couple noisily left, calling out “this is bullshit,” or the new nonpop concert where things were thrown at us. All good.

    If there’s attention to a piece, good. But why expect it? What’s so precious here?

    Dennis

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  5. Frank J. Oteri

    Dennis writes: If there’s attention to a piece, good. But why expect it? What’s so precious here?

    The concert listening experience is one of the few places left in our society that is only about paying attention, something our society is fastly losing the ability to do more and more. Indeed it is very precious. A society that loses its ability to listen to each other runs the risk of becoming merely an amalgamation of vigilante hordes.

    In the political sphere, the impact of not paying attention has been particularly detrimental. Instead of engaging in intelligent debate with folks whose opinions you don’t share, nowadays many folks simply tune them out. Ethnomusicologists have long explored how music is a remarkable metaphor for the society that produces it and we see this in the here and now with how the iPod has become the new listening paradigm. A blogpost linked from ArtsJournal today points out the larger societal problems with this paradigm rather eloquently.

    It is not so much any individual’s composition and performance that is so precious, but the act of listening in and of itself. Music is indeed something that all people are capable of creating and performing—I have no elitist delusions here—but music will cease to have a meaningful role in society if it is no longer something which brings people together.

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  6. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    The concert experience has been about paying attention for some people during some times and in some places at some concerts. But paying attention does not preclude the expression of dissatisfaction, boredom, or approval — those opera cheers and whistling interruptions. This concentrated experience is a modern phenomenon.

    And your response about paying attention and bringing people together is leaving the premise mid-concert, as it were. Your question or complaint was at heart why people leave. (Why so few people leave is to me the more interesting question.)

    But then, if you can’t hold your attention because someone is leaving, or that such a minor distraction actually matters to the experience of gathering together in ritual silence and obeisance to the stage, how compelling is the music? Perhaps the concentrated experience is a way of forcing oneself to pay attention, a situation so fragile that anything can bust it up?

    Dennis

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  7. sgordon

    I’m with Dennis on this one. Life is short, and I don’t have time to waste on something I’m not finding interesting or enjoyable… and in answer to the question: How can you really decide that you hate something before you’ve heard the whole thing? – quite easily, thank you. I knew halfway into Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! that I didn’t need to see the rest of it.

    It hasn’t happened often, as I tend to be careful with my entertainment dollars. Last time I did… it was a performance of Bach’s St. John’s Passion last December. A piece I like, but the sound in the room was simply god-awful, at least where I was sitting. It was an old church, and it had that nice churchy natural reverb – fine for a small ensemble. Not for an orchestra. The sound was just a big mush, and finally I decided that in that very moment I’d much rather be listening to myself chew on a hot brisket sandwich than what was going on. And it was gonna be awhile before the intermission.

    That, of course, was a situation where I knew what I was in for… but I’ve walked out of new music concerts as well, if it was the last piece on the bill and it was obviously going nowhere that would be better than aforementioned sandwich. I’ve always tried to be polite during those rare walk-outs (maybe a half-dozen total, twice being Babbitt pieces…) and leave as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.

    Except once. There was an Amon Tobin concert where the dude – literally – did nothing but put on his new record and stand there next to it. I mean, really. Maybe he swayed his hips a little to the beat, but that was it. After fifteen minutes of this, and deciding unanimously that this was not, in fact, a “concert”, some friends and I made our way stageside and loudly discussed the fact that he was just standing there playing his record and not doing anything, and how annoying it was to have spent $20 just to stand in a crowded room and listen to an album we all already owned (and paid $15 for) and wasn’t this more of a “listening party” in which case maybe we should see if we could get our $20 back? I suppose this was all in the hopes that he would hear our disgust and, I dunno, maybe do something. Like, scratch the record back and forth. Like, even once. Or give us each $20. But he didn’t seem to care so we just left.

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  8. mjleach

    I’m reminded of that piece by Phil Corner in which he wouldn’t stop playing until no one was left in the audience.

    That said, I’m someone who rarely leaves before a piece ends. I don’t even leave baseball games when the score is lopsided – maybe someone will make a great play, and I’d hate to miss it. There are also times when there is a sort of meanness involved in leaving, statements to be made, and you don’t want to be the only one left in the hall.

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  9. swculbertson

    I swear this is true. When the Met did the first Ring with Levine in the late 80s, my wife & I had to be there, of course. It was over 5 nights, I think, with 5 or 6 PM curtains. 30 minutes before the end of Gotterdamerung, an elderly couple, sitting in the middle of the first row of whatever balcony we were in, got up and crawled over everybody and left! They could take 16 hours of Wagner, but 16 1/2 was just too much for them.

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  10. Joshua Kosman

    Run for Your Life!
    I’m with Dennis, too; life is way too short to sit through bad music, or bad art of any kind. As a professional music critic, I’m sort of constrained to keep my seat during concerts, but I’m a proud early bolter from movies and theater and dance performances that are obviously no good.

    Also, I think there’s something a little condescending in Frank’s implicit notion that the only reason people might not like something is because they’re not listening with the requisite seriousness. Why not assume that people are grownups who can make their own esthetic decisions?

    Now, my objection is to the people who bolt the symphony concert at intermission because there’s something from the 20th century coming up in the second half. That really is kind of chickenshit. But anyone who’s leaving in mid-performance at least gave the thing a shot. If they decided it wasn’t for them, that’s their prerogative.

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  11. Frank J. Oteri

    I think there’s something a little condescending in Frank’s implicit notion that the only reason people might not like something is because they’re not listening with the requisite seriousness.

    Mind you, I’m home sick with the flu today and my faculties are not 100% clear, but where did I ever say here that the folks who are walking out because they didn’t like something are not listening with the requisite seriousness? Indeed, it is most likely because of something specific they heard, which would require them to have paid attention, that they decided to bolt in the first place. My issue is that everytime someone walks out during a performance in less than complete silence (granted this is often really difficult to accomplish) and therefore disturbs the rest of the audience who presumably are appreciating what they are hearing, they are the ones who are being condescending. They are putting their comfort level above that of everyone else.

    Josh, I agree with you that there’s something cowardly about the folks who leave at intermission in order to miss the contemporary piece, but perhaps we both are a little bit condescending here. Perhaps these folks have heard this music before and have already made up their minds, like folks who know they don’t like liver and therefore won’t order it at a restaurant. At least, the folks who leave at intermission are not disturbing anyone when they leave.

    But one of my key initial questions still remains unanswered here: what is so unpleasant about listening to something that doesn’t jibe with your sense of “good music”? Is it as painful as swallowing sour milk, etc.? Often hearing something I initially dislike leads to some of the most fulfilling listening experiences I’ve had. When I was younger I hated the sound of rock vocalists, I found the sound affected and jarring. But I kept listening and now I love a lot of this music. Same for standard repertoire classical music, believe it or not. When I was a pre-teenager I found it boring and slow. Of course, it is everything but.

    I truly believe that most folks are capable of appreciating a much larger palatte of sonic experiences than they are usually exposed to. But perhaps there are certain sounds which have a kind of “sour milk effect” with people which prevents them from being able to come to terms with them. e.g. I love and occasionally compose microtonal music, but there are folks whose musical prowess I respect who can’t get past hearing this stuff as “out of tune.” I also know someone who loves a lot of new music who claims to get physically ill upon hearing minimalist music, which is music I also deeply love.

    So I guess the question is: are these departures always aesthetic or are they in part physiological? I still contend that aesthetics are malleable, but physicology is something else entirely. Other thoughts?

    Please keep the dialogue going, but I’m going back to sleep now…

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  12. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Gosh, Frank, I dunno.

    Who are the people who walk out?
    Who are the people who walk out during a piece?
    Who are the people who walk out during a piece because the music isn’t good?
    Who are the people who walk out during a piece because the music isn’t good because it’s too gnarly?
    Who are the people who walk out during a piece because the music isn’t good because it’s too gnarly and it makes them physically ill?

    It seems like you’re asking the last, and though it’s true we live in different worlds, I don’t think I’ve ever met such a person.

    Maybe you mean the flushed-face reaction, that the music is so infuriating for one of the reasons I’ve mentioned a few posts upthread? Is that what your minimalist-averse friend means by physically ill? Or perhaps the deep ear-crunching, liver-homogenizing sound at some electroacoustic concerts that puts folks in a self-protective exit sprint?

    Certainly folks leave for those reasons. Sometimes they’ll do other things, like eat their programs. But if you’re defining a class of people who walk out during a piece because the music isn’t good because it’s too gnarly and it makes them physically ill, then I too would like to meet and talk to such a person and ask their motivation. I know you’re serious, but your question seems to conflate a whole bunch of stuff and consequently invent a kind of imaginary class of sick people diving out of concert halls clutching their giblets.

    The reasons for departure seem as diverse as the individuals leaving. There is certainly a class of people who leave what they don’t like — and evidently they’ve been given no compelling reason to stay. It might be as much part of the often pitifully dull nonpop concert experience combined with its rules of behavior. Again, we live in different worlds where people who leave and kids who squall are simply part of my experience, so perhaps you are sensitized differently from this country hick. But to repeat my question from above, if you can’t hold your attention because someone is leaving, or that such a minor distraction actually matters to the experience of gathering together in ritual silence, how compelling is the music?

    Dennis

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  13. pgblu

    Compelling music
    If someone distracts you from the piece by leaving the hall, then just how compelling was the music in the first place?

    Not all “compelling” music is so compelling that you forget everything around you — I think you are simply conflating compelling music with mass hypnosis.

    I am not annoyed by people leaving the concert hall, though I do in some cases wish they had brought a book to read instead of being disruptive.

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  14. mmacauley

    I’m with Dennis: “The reasons for departure seem as diverse as the individuals leaving.”

    A few possible reasons off the top of my head:

    Person A doesn’t go to classical concerts very often, and isn’t aware of how rude or distracting it is to leave mid-piece.

    Person B, for other reasons (poor hearing, mental disability, etc.), isn’t aware of how much noise they make and how much distraction they cause while leaving mid-piece.

    Person C gets an emergency (and thankfully silent) call on their cell phone or pager, and has to leave immediately.

    Person D is disappointed by the piece, the performance, or both, and doesn’t want to waste their time.

    Person E has a strong negative opinion about the piece and/or performance and wishes to “make a statement”, communicating this opinion by leaving mid-piece, perhaps noisily or with visible disgust.

    Person F was so enraptured by the entire concert — one piece after the next — that he lost track of time and forgot that he had to leave at 8:30 to pick up his kid at a soccer game (which he had already decided to miss for the concert). Realizing that the time is 8:45, he regrettably has to get up and leave immediately, unable even to wait for the piece to finish.

    I could go on, but my point is, it’s not hard to imagine many possible reasons why someone would get up and leave in the middle of a piece, and in most cases, you will never know the reason, unless you get up and follow them out.

    But while the sonic and visual noise of someone leaving can perhaps make it more difficult to hold one’s concentration, I think in most cases, the biggest factor in determining whether (and how much) your concentration is disturbed is yourself: your intensity of concentration, as well as how you react to the disturbance. The more focused/attentive you already are, the easier it will be to ignore extraneous noise or movement; similarly, the less time and energy you devote to thinking, “how annoying and inconsiderate of them to leave mid-piece, while all of us are trying to listen; couldn’t they wait ten minutes?”, the less your concentration will be disturbed.

    Just as a mid-piece departer can make it more difficult to hold one’s concentration, an extraordinary performance can make it easier to hold one’s concentration. If the performer(s) is/are extremely attentive — and the performance unusually sensitive — it can be difficult to even care what anyone else in the audience is doing. But still, I think most of the responsibility for the listening experience (vis-a-vis distraction(s)) rests with each listener: if they are not easily distracted, even an unmistakable disturbance won’t bother them; if they are easily distracted, even the tiniest noise will ruin their concentration.

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  15. pgena

    John Cage giving his classic answer to a student’s question during one of my classes at the SAIC (April 27, 1988):

    student: I’m very interested in the difference and relationship of the use of the three-letter word art as it’s used in the west and say in Africa where there is such a feeling that you do things that are so much healthier – as an artist for culture.

    jc: Well I think first of all, an artist should get over any shame of being an artist. He should be an artist who loves to be an artist regardless of his treatment from society. I early found, it may be wrong but it is a circumstance of my life, that I could always tell that I was doing something useful if people walked out. Or if critics found the work not good. Then I knew that it was good.

    -Peter Gena

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  16. nightingale

    I’ve left concerts early for various reasons, seldom anything to do with the music. Actually, if people really don’t like the performance, I would prefer that they leave than stay and bother those of us who want to listen. The last concert I attended, I had the misfortune to sit directly in front of a couple who were apparently only there because they knew people in the band – they fidgeted loudly, he kicked the back of my seat several times, and they conversed in a loud whisper between all the pieces (and sometimes kept up the chatter through the conductor’s remarks or the first few measures of the music). Some of the chatter was non-music stuff, and some of it was negative opinions on the music (which I thought was actually interesting and well played). They also called me rude for turning around and suggesting that they either be quiet or leave.

    In answer to your question “Is a piece of music really capable of bringing out the same sensation of immediate revulsion that accidentally swallowing undercooked chicken or sour milk elicits?”, I don’t see why not. It’s never happened to me, but I’ve heard pieces that were love at first note, so why should the opposite not also be possible?

    Lora, the rude (and unrepentant!) audience member :-)

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  17. cisraels

    My old friend, the late John Garvey, violist in the LaSalle Quartet, smoked a pipe (Balkan Sobranie tobacco, if I remember correctly) and stood outside in the lobby during concerts. If the music he heard through the doors was better than his pipe, he’d go in. He said that it was more gracious and easier to enter a perfomance late than it was to leave one that was in progress.

    John also described a experience playing some then new music for an audience at the University of Illinois. He had some measures of rest, looked out at the audience, saw what seemed to him to be an indication of pain on the faces, and promptly decided that he no longer wanted to play such music.

    He didn’t abandon new music – just the kind he thought might elicit that kind of reaction. He spent the latter part of his career conducting a chamber orchestra, a Gamelan Ensemble, a Balalaika Orchestra, and the U. of Illinois Jazz Band. (He designed the instrumentation of the jazz band to have two brass sections, tubular and conical).

    Many people derived enormous benefit from contact with John. He would discuss musical esthetics at length and with profound insight. There was a lot to learn from the depth of his experience.

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  18. mmacauley

    Relevant to Frank’s question, “Is a piece of music really capable of bringing out the same sensation of immediate revulsion that accidentally swallowing undercooked chicken or sour milk elicits?”, Charles Rosen writes this in his book, Critical Entertainments, on p. 285 (including footnote):

    It is paradoxically not what is actually to be heard that makes music difficult, but what cannot be heard because it is not there. It is the lack of something which the listener expects to hear but which is refused him that makes his blood boil, that brings the aged Philharmonic subscriber to the verge of apoplexy.*

    *We should not underestimate the physical effects of incomprehension. I recall that when, at the age of seventeen, I first heard the Bartok String Quartet No. 5, it made me physically sick.

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  19. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    mmacauley quoting Rosen: “when, at the age of seventeen, I first heard the Bartok String Quartet No. 5, it made me physically sick.”

    Curiouser and curiouser. I’ve always assumed it to be metaphorical as in one’s partner screaming, “You make me sick!”

    How is this physical sickness manifested? Is it physically stronger than a flush-faced anger or a stomach-dropping disappointment? (It was certainly that when I walked out of Rochberg’s Capitulation Quartets.)

    What sort of sickness, then? Sour milk spitup? A diaper-dash to the toilets? The old colitis returning with a vengeance?

    Dennis

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