Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Social Dimension of Concert Etiquette

The beginning of the annual Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall in London seems to have prompted Finlo Rohrer to publish a piece for the BBC News Magazine on proper concert behavior; but his authoritarian introductory summary, which concludes that "there's a whole lot of etiquette to be learned," strikes me as a false step from which he never recovers. I sometimes think that the when-to-clap question (Rohrer's primary focus) has invaded just about every classical music blog that I read; and it gets a bit tiresome to navigate so many opinions so abundant in heat and giving off so little light. Nevertheless, in the grander scheme of history, I really cannot complain, since I find these outbursts of opinion preferable to the flood of favorite-Beethoven-symphonies discussions that eventually drove me away from Usenet. For better or worse, these written opinions about concert behavior shape the expectations I bring with me when I enter the audience area of a performing space.

Unfortunately, the reason why Rohrer's exposition turns into one false step after another is that, having begun with authoritarian posturing, he misses out on a fundamental premise behind the concert experience. He makes the fallacious assumption that etiquette is strictly a matter of the proper relationship between the individual in the audience and the music being performed, as if the performer is some non-sentient agent that happens to "deliver" the music with greater fidelity than any available loudspeaker. This not only insults the performer but ignores the performer's commitment to dual communicative actions. We take it for granted that the performer is executing the music, and I would argue that such execution derives from the interpretive nature of communicative exchanges between the performer-as-agent and the score-as-authored-text, serving as an embodiment of its author. Performing a composition is thus very similar in nature to Mortimer Adler's model of how we read a book as an imagined conversation that we hold with that book's author. In both situations the communicative setting is far from perfect, since the capacity for actual exchange is clearly limited; but the model is still useful for allowing us to raise questions of communication when trying to understand the nature of a performance.

However, execution involves only one channel through which the performer communicates. The other is the channel between the performer and the audience. Communication through this channel goes beyond the music and its execution and deals more with the attitude one takes to the experience of the music itself, whether through execution or listening. It does not take much for the audience to be aware of this channel and the signals that pass through it. Most of those signals tend to involve body language; and one of the primary "massages" in the channel involves that "sense of an ending" that was so important to Frank Kermode in his literary studies. The performer who can effectively communicate that sense of an ending is the one who lets the audience known when it is time to clap, provided, of course, that they are paying attention. As Rohrer pointed out in his piece, one cannot take that proviso for granted, as can be seen in one particularly pathological example he offers:

It is a phenomenon that was satirised in the 2005 short film The Clap. An obsessive classical music fan recalls the lengths he used to go to, studying scores and previous performances, to identify the precise millisecond the concert was over, so he could be the first to clap. Like a maniac.

Rohrer continues this reductio ad absurdum argument of score-based behavior with an excerpt from a recent article by Jonathan Lennie, Classical Editor for Time Out. The article was an open letter to the "Loud Clapping Man Who Sits Behind Me At Concerts" and included the following passage:

The last note isn't the end of the music, the silence completes the music. In Beethoven's 9th, a massive choral outpouring, you can't help but clap, but in other works like Mahler 9 these are the final symphonies, the end of the life. They end in silence.

I agree entirely with Lennie's observation, but it does not imply that the sense of an ending resides in the music itself or even in how performers execute the score. It involves this second channel of communication and those body-language signals. In this season alone I have been exposed to more performers than I can enumerate who can command the elements of both posture and gesture to say, "It's not over yet." Since Lennie singled out Gustav Mahler as an example, I would offer as my own example the ways in which Michael Tilson Thomas can "hold the moment" at the conclusion of a Mahler composition that ends in the sort of silence Lennie described.

This is not to say that performers must take the blame for the inept behavior of that "loud clapping man" who provoked Lennie's diatribe. Like the protagonist of "The Clap," that man is there only to send signals and could care less about paying attention to those he is supposed to receive; and that observation may take us to the core of the underlying question of etiquette. In these times when so many social conventions are being questioned and rejected, those who write about etiquette frequently fall back on common sense as the only guiding rule. Where communication is concerned, common sense tends to focus on paying as much attention to receiving as to sending. From that point of view, the real problem of etiquette may be a consequence of the fact that music has become so commoditized that we now have audiences more preoccupied with consuming that commodity than with what Igor Stravinsky had in mind when he wrote about listening to music.

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