Phones, coughs... but is it our right to request silence?
I recently started a performance again when its hushed opening was interrupted by a mobile-phone. Judging by the public's supportive reaction they seemed grateful, but I've since thought twice about my knee-jerk reaction and on reflection I'm not sure if it's a performer's role or indeed our right to tell audiences how they should behave.
The advantages of music being heard with silent focus and rapt concentration are obvious, and the journey from the minstrel's gallery to the etiquette of modern-day concert-halls is essentially beneficial. But has something been lost along the way? Music is a social experience and whether being played or heard, enforcing rules runs contrary to the most natural idea of what music-making is all about. Classical music is the only musical medium that discourages audiences from participating in the performance and the resulting disconnect between listener and player is dangerous. I'm not advocating singing along, or applauding instrumental solos before movements have finished, but forbidding people from doing so creates an inhibiting atmosphere. Within that context, it's not surprising that some feel alienated from the experience.
Wagner's generation started the pedestal nature of the performer's podium. With auditorium lights darkened, the spotlight is symbolic as well as practical. The public's identity is subsumed so that only that of the music and its performers remain. But once you start to distance the auditorium from the stage, a certain disengagement is bound to follow. Noisy disruptions are the result of the problem - not the problem itself. My heart always sinks when I hear the now customary pre-concert mobile-phone announcement. People are paying us to play for them. Are we entitled to ask that they conform to our own sense of formality? I'm actually far more distracted by the ill-timed and un-stifled cough. The phone is someone's single moment of forgetfulness. The 'culprit' could well be living and loving every phrase. Insensitive throat-clearers however are not listening to what's being played, which even if not more disruptive, is certainly more disappointing.
Neither theatres nor cinemas attract as many bronchitis sufferers. Is it the absence of visual variety that creates concert-hall restlessness or does the lack of orchestras' individual identity mean that people don't consider it rude to 'interrupt'? Certainly the more easily identifiable personality of soloists means that concertos suffer less than symphonies. Perhaps audiences are just more relaxed when they go to plays and films, and somewhat conversely, feel less need to cough and fidget as a result.
I've had many concerts spoilt by an audience's audible participation. And the most memorable are those in which their silence makes an enormous contribution. But maybe that's putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps the best performances create the stillness in the first place. Is it not our fault that people's attention wanders? I certainly think that ultimately the solution lies more with the performers than with potentially patronising announcements. If we truly engage audiences in what we do, a more relevant message would be one that reminds people to switch their phones on again once their life-changing musical experience is over.