Tag Archives: distraction in the concert hall

Silence is not the problem

Another cliche-riddled story about how to fix classical music is making its rounds on Facebook. I tried to muster some sympathy for Richard Dare’s Huffington Post piece, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained,” but found it a long straw-man argument with no redeeming insight. Dare, a financier who is now head of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, argues the old line, that the rituals of classical music are off putting, without acknowledging any value in them. Why can’t listeners react spontaneously, shout and clap when they want to?

But this [is] classical music. And there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied — as I believe are many classical concert goers — by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.

He then goes on to compare all these rituals to authoritarianism and North Korea.

The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.

Yikes. And this guy is head of an orchestra.

In fact, there are a few good reasons for the protocol of classical music. Silence allows one to hear the music. It is a sign of respect both for the musicians and fellow audience members. Silence encourages close listening, and not clapping between movements gathers a multi-piece musical work into an organic whole, allowing its parts to be appreciated together (each movement revising the one before, subtly altering the memory of the experience) rather than as disconnected parts. The reason people sometimes shush noisy audience members is because music lovers deeply value the experience of listening, and don’t want it ruined by thoughtless and rude behavior.

And people often do shout with joy in the concert hall and opera house. A good lusty bravo after a well-sung aria is a thrill to hear. A riotous ovation gets the blood pumping.

Just wait until the music is over.

And this guy is going to save classical music?

Unfortunately, discussion of classical music has become so rote and tribal that Dare’s piece isn’t really about a problem or solutions. It’s a litmus test of how one thinks about preserving culture.



Filed under Culture, Music, Opera, Orchestral