Lis­ten Up

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

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.

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