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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, February 18, 2005

BRING THA NOISE: THE GREAT “APPLAUSE DEBATE” IN CLASSICAL MUSIC CONCERT-GOING

Critic and scholar Alex Ross posted an informative new piece on the history of the disappearance of between-movement applause in classical concert-going today; Alex's post doubles as a moving plea for the resurrection of the noisy, participatory practice. Composer Marcus Maroney has an equally moving and persuasive defense of the silence of the audience. As an infrequent classical concert-goer, I have enjoyed the tension that suppressing the urge to clap produces, and the tremendous relief that comes when the piece finally ends and the applause explodes. But as a more frequent jazz and rock concert-goer, the noisier mode of interaction feels natural.

As Alex shows, it’s an anthropological question, and vocal members of a subculture are debating how the rituals should proceed. As the question is anthropological, analogies came to mind.

Silence between movements -- like a mainstream Protestant church service. I grew up in such a church, and understand the appeal.

More expressive audience interaction -- like an evangelical ecstatic church. I understand the appeal there too.

Silence between movements -- like a golf tournament. My friend Jay Sherman-Godfrey, who’s a golfer, has pointed out the silent aesthetic of golf watching, even on TV.

More expressive audience interaction -- like a basketball game. It’s a great set-up for a body-switching comedy: A golf audience switches places with a basketball audience, and Shaquille O’Neil takes his free-throws at an away game in rapt silence and enjoys the polite applause when he sinks them, while Phil Mickelson tries to make his putt in front of a crowd of Tiger Woods fans who are shouting, “Miss! Miss!” and waving big white balloons to distract him.

In jazz and rock, it’s fine for band members to shout in response to an inspired bit of playing. Mingus screaming “Yeah” as Booker Ervin wails on his tenor; Ringo calling “All right George!” while Harrison digs into his guitar. Come to think of it, in classical Glenn Gould kind of did this too, but only for his own playing. “Ohhh, uhhh.” Yeah, baby!

In other classical traditions, Ohs and Ahs from the audience are part of the experience. I heard a classical Oud player from the Arabian peninsula in beautiful Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor 20 years ago, and the promoter explained the etiquette beforehand.

In Mozart’s day, an audience could stop an opera and demand an immediate encore of a favorite aria. Like the great age of the American musical show.

As the classical subculture settles this question, maybe in the interrim classical performers could add special “rowdy” performances, and keep the Quietists and the Expressivists separate, as they appear to want to be.

“I’d like two tickets for Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird.’”

“Would that be rowdy or non-rowdy?”

Alex mentions that the great conductor Leopold Stokowski once thought of trying to ban all applause altogether, even at the end of a piece, even at the end of the concert. In a lifetime of attending infrequent Michigan football games and infrequent classical music concerts, some rituals have changed. The Wave didn't exist when I was a little kid first going to football games. It developed some time in my teens or early 20s. A lot of traditional, long-time fans hate it. I love it. Some time in my 20s, Michigan coach Bo Schembechler got so vexed with the Wave that he threatened to ban fans from attending the games at all if we wouldn't stop doing it. Bo didn't get his way.

Even I would object to the Wave at a classical concert -- at least while the music was playing. Swaying back and forth to the beat -- that's fine, that's great. Pumping your fist, playing air violin or doing air conducting -- go for it. But the Wave, that would be going Too Far.
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