March 17, 2010

“The sound of people suppressing their instincts” — classical music’s No Applause Rule

I’ll join in the applause for Alex Ross’s eloquent call to loosen concert conventions. But there’s one way in which he’s still looking backward.

Blogger and composer Greg Sandow has been saying it. A scattered but growing chorus of historians, critics, and consultants have been saying it. And I’ve been trying to add my two cents (for example, here).

But now that Alex Ross, the music critic of the New Yorker and author of an authoritative history of twentieth-century music, has said it — and to the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, no less — maybe it’s finally time to sound the death knell for classical music’s snobbiest holdover from the days of high Modernism: the no-applause-between-movements rule.

Ross’s lecture, given earlier this month and excerpted in a Guardian article — and widely commented on since then — is that rare specimen, a nuanced polemic. He argues that the Rule (his capitalization), along with the other conventions of classical concerts, sends a message that the general public has picked up all too well:

"Curb your enthusiasm. Don't get too excited." Should we be surprised that people aren't as excited about classical music as they used to be? This question of etiquette is only part of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself. But I do wonder about the long-term effect of the No Applause Rule, as I wonder about other oddities of concert life: the vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-centre lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of many professional musicians.

Ross wants to replace the Rule with “a more flexible approach, so that the nature of the work dictates the...nature of the response.” Where the music rouses us to applause, we applaud, whether or not the piece is over. Heck, whether or not the movement is over: Mozart’s audiences used to applaud well-done solos, the way people at jazz clubs do today. ...

The trouble is that jazz and most other vernacular forms of music are almost always produced at least in part by, or through, electronics, even when they’re played live. We don’t usually even notice the interweaving of acoustic and electronic means by which the music comes to us. But it’s that interweaving that lets us hear the music over our own low-grade noise: our beer glasses clinking, our occasional word to the friend next to us, and the ripples of applause that spread across the room after those solos.

Classical music has always prided itself on being purely acoustic and unmediated. (You art museum people will recognize “unmediated” as a cherished curatorial value, also from a Modernist aesthetic.) Ross hews to the standard classical line when he admits that,

[F]or me, the introduction of gadgetry destroys one very distinctive quality of the concert hall – its largely non-electronic nature. In a totally mediated society, where electronics saturate nearly every minute of our waking lives, surrendering to the natural properties of sound can have an almost spiritual dimension.

To me, and I’d bet to many members of the generation raised on earbuds and rock concerts, music is no more or less spiritual just because it’s reproduced by vibrating speaker cones. What matters is that it was originally produced by vibrating vocal cords or cello or guitar strings, and that the humans responsible for those vibrations have something urgent to share with us. We’re technology agnostics now. Classical music needs to become less sanctimonious about amplification.

If it can do that, Ross’s vision of a “more vital, unpredictable environment” in the concert hall and a more physical, natural audience response will be much easier to bring to life. Part of the “straitjacket” he describes is simple physics: if you’re worried that even tapping your foot will compete with the music in the ears of those around you, it’s hard to relax and get into it.

Ross wants us to be able to say “yeah” to classical music sometimes, instead of the usual "ah..." I’d love to. But first we may need to crank up the volume a little. What do you think?

Nina Simon — March 18, 2010

I was just at a little museum for an event with a band. It struck me, standing close to this small blues ensemble, how participatory they were - not just subtly encouraging us to applaud for solos but talking over the music, telling us who was playing now, thanking us for coming, commenting on the dancers - all without taking away from the songs. I think performers who model casual, interactive approaches to the music they make help audiences do the same - and it helps them dig into it.


Janis — March 18, 2010

I can't believe it's a shock that the nature of the work should dictate the nature of the response. I know that this is a big thing to say, though. But the musicians and artists get to make their art. They don't get to say what happens to it when it hits my brain. If the music is good, the audience will "get it right" anyhow. In any rock concert, the applause for the soft ballads will be a gentle, sustained and subdued (for a rock concert) applause. The louder numbers will get cheers and shouts and more punctuated applause. If the ballad is really nice, you get the "lighters in the air" stuff to make the view from the stage as pretty for the performers as possible.

I've said it before elsewhere, but the "affectlessness" and the No Applause Rule all point to one inevitable conclusion: the classical music world wishes the audience weren't even there. They want their money, because ticket sales mean they get to keep their jobs. But the message that's being sent is in direct contrast to that: "Don't remind me you exist." The message is that an audience is a necessary evil, and that the performers -- who may not even feel like this individually -- could commune better with Beethoven's dead spirit if the hall were empty.

So the hall is going empty. They're getting what they want. No applause at all, no coughs, no phones going off, no eye contact. Nothing. It's just Mahler's ghost and them now.

Another thing, and Ross hints at this in his article but he doesn't go far enough, is that applause is almost the only collective response the audience makes AS A WHOLE. Demanding that we sit there in silence prevents us from connecting with one another. It ensures that the audience is nothing but a collection of individuals and not a whole, that the music does not connect people with one another. The only interaction lines that are permitted are those that run from each individual seat to the stage, not from one seat to another.

So the culture of the music practically demands that the audience also adapt a culture of fear of being reminded of one another's presence. Rock and pop do a GREAT job connecting members of the audience with one another, but if there is an emotional distinction between listening to classical music alone at home and what is effectively alone in a hall, I'm not seeing it. Basically, what your average classical concert consists of is a bunch of people sitting near one another and having completely alone, individual experiences. I can do that with my iPod, and it's cheaper and I don't have to get on a freeway. *sigh*

Janis — March 18, 2010

There's definitely an overlap between classical music's allergy to modern instruments and the Victorian/Edwardian culture it promotes. No wall sockets in the 1890's. :-) And there’s more than one way to amp something; you can use modern instruments or amp the acoustic ones.
I'd like to see more contemporary instruments involved in classical music; I keep going back to the Canon Rock phenom, which is one of the most fabulous things I've ever heard of. (I wish those kid would get hold of some Haendel. He’s got a couple short, fast pieces that would be perfect for a Fender.) There’s definitely room for amped-classical as well as the typical classical-unplugged. It's a tough thing to combine acoustic and electric instruments, though, and even popular bands tend to do it judiciously.
But I have to admit that in an age where you can't even tell who can sing anymore thanks to ProTools and the processing that can take place between mic and amp, I enjoy hearing musicians pick up acoustic instruments, start at the beginning and play together through to the end, with no reliance on the safety net of software. There is definitely tremendous value in that in an age of (to be blunt) dancing 85lb teenagers with fake headset mics. I’m a pianist, and even I can tell on my clav that pushing the synth buttons covers up a whole lot of lousy technique. I can only really tell if I’m doing it completely right if I’ve got it set on acoustic piano.
Also, part of the problem with the current setup is that it's just too damn big. Unplugged concerts can be televised, but they often play to smaller venues as well. About the only way that an acoustic concert can take place in a venue as huge as the Kimmel Center is if the audience stays relatively quiet while they play.

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