James M. Keller addresses the delicate issue of excess audience noise
As I think back through the musical performances of the past year, my memory lands repeatedly on the piano recital Stephen Hough gave at the Lensic Performing Arts Center in late November. I didn’t review the concert, as Hough is too close an acquaintance. (A critic who reviews his friends does a disservice to his readers, to the artists, and to himself.) He is the sort of musician who is sometimes described as “uncompromising.” In his case, the word implies that although he may entertain his listeners, he does not pander to them. His program made that clear: a rather austere sonata by Schubert (in A minor, D. 784); Franck’s sublime but insistently ecclesiastical Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue; a sonata of Hough’s own composition, largely following the 12-tone method; and several lofty works by Liszt, not of the potboiler variety. One might call it an intensely spiritual program, though not one of simplistic religiosity; in fact, the pianist pointed out in advance that all four composers were (or are) lapsed or semi-lapsed Catholics.
The program was not constructed to be an explicit crowd-pleaser, and Hough’s characteristically unostentatious style did nothing to divert the audience from the business of the evening, which was to listen attentively. That is precisely what they did. Although the crowd fell short of filling the Lensic, it was a respectable turnout of 462 souls, and they qualified as the concert audience of the year. They were full participants in the recital, offering attention, interest, appreciation, and silence. Nobody’s cell phone rang. Nobody rummaged in a purse. Nobody carried on a conversation. They just sat quietly and listened.
Hough’s performance had a lot to do with this. It is certainly the case that sometimes people surprise themselves by swallowing the wrong way or have to shift their weight because their leg has fallen asleep; but in the course of a lifetime of concert-going, I have come to believe that most of the squirming and harrumphing that goes on is due to boredom. When an artist really captivates listeners, time stands in abeyance and audience members suspend their physical activity to accord with it. I doubt that people who attend supernal concerts are 90 percent healthier than people who attend mediocre ones, but they do cough and clear their throats 90 percent less frequently.
Of all the things that ought to concern us as we enter 2017, excess noise at concerts is surely among the minuscule. Nobody should go through life in high dudgeon because someone at a concert hiccupped during a grand pause. But what goes on in the audience is not entirely inconsequential, either. People may choose to attend classical concerts for different reasons ranging from the strictly social to the deeply aesthetic; but for many, the appeal is the otherness of the concert environment, the assumption that it replaces the disorderly soundtrack of life outside with sounds that are minutely regulated. Such people can grow annoyed when nonmusical sounds intrude on what they reasonably expect to be a canvas of silence.
The matter of audience-generated noise has come up recently in conversations with concert presenters. It is a matter that can be addressed with delicacy, if at all. On one hand, presenters stand at the intersection of an art that is ethereal and ticket-buyers who are not incorporeal at all. They want to welcome all listeners as warmly as possible, yet they are fully aware of how easily audience noise can diminish the enjoyment of other listeners. Of course, context is everything. Nobody wants an audience to sit as hushed as Trappists if a choir is singing Copland’s “I Bought Me a Cat” and is having a jolly time making the requisite animal sounds. But for Schubert gazing toward the horizon of eternity, silence would be the thing.
It is relatively clear-cut to draw a line of acceptability separating sounds our bodies make from sounds made by the machines that accompany us. I have never heard anyone in a classical-music audience complain about preconcert announcements begging attendees to turn off their cell phones. These pleas have become so predictable that some listeners no longer pay attention, and we all know the result. A suggestion to concert presenters and theater managers: The announcement probably needs to be repeated after intermission, since many phones that were turned off at the concert’s beginning are reactivated during the break. Anyway, owners of cell phones that “ring” during a concert deserve every bit of the contempt that beams in their direction.
But what about the machines people require in order to live healthy and unimpaired lives? Here it gets complicated. Feedback from hearing aids does not present the problem it did even a few years ago. The technology has changed such that low batteries or misadjustments no longer proclaim themselves through an extended squeal, and people who use hearing aids tend to keep more-or-less upto-date with equipment advances. We do, however, encounter ever more frequent problems with oxygen concentration tanks, which are quite common in these parts because of the altitude and are especially likely to coincide with the typical demographic of the classical-music audience. Their beeping alarms do not usually signal that a medical emergency is imminent, but they do indicate that something should be attended to. Most often they alert the user that the tubing has gotten twisted (which is easily rectified), that the unit’s air intake is being compromised because it is too close to a wall or theater seat (also easily corrected), that the unit’s air-flow rate is set way too low or way too high (easily adjusted), or that a motor is on the fritz or a filter has gotten clogged (which shouldn’t happen if the unit is brought in for inspection on schedule — and anyone using an oxygen device really should be doing that as a matter of course).
Another possible source of beeping is a pacemaker alarm, but that sound should stop after 10 or 20 seconds, which is long enough to let a user know it’s time to go in for maintenance. For all practical purposes, health-related sounds likely to disturb a concert atmosphere are limited to oxygen concentration units and superannuated hearing aids. No user of such devices goes into a concert expecting that the alarm will go off, and I suspect that quite a few would be so unaccustomed to the sound that it would not automatically occur to them what its source was. And yet, these disruptions are happening with increasing frequency, and I suspect they will become more of an issue rather than less.
No reasonable music-lover would want someone with an oxygen unit to stop going to concerts. On the other hand, every reasonable music-lover is within his or her rights to expect that a concert will play out against a background of silence. Nonetheless, this is not an insoluble problem. The onus, I think, lies on the people using these devices, which represent both a godsend and a responsibility. Perhaps our readers will have ideas to share on the matter, but this is my suggestion. If you use an oxygen unit, or if you wear a hearing aid that has a habit of chirping, you might turn to the person seated next to you and say: “Since we’re going to be neighbors this evening, I have a favor to ask. I have this device that might conceivably emit an alarm, and if it does, would you please squeeze my arm. That will help ensure that I deal with it as quickly as possible.” Nobody is going to refuse, and you might make a new friend out of it.