Opinion: How much noise is too much noise in the classical concert-hall? | Classical music reviews, news & interviews
Opinion: How much noise is too much noise in the classical concert-hall?
When the coughing, rustling and texting is infuriating you is it ever ok to speak out?
We’ve all been there: the persistent sweet-unwrapper during a Beethoven slow movement, the mobile-phone screen glowing at the corner of your field of vision throughout King Lear, the fidgeter who seems to drop their programme every time the music subsides to pianissimo. But where do we draw the (battle) line between ambient noise and outright intrusion? And how, more importantly, should we address these concerns in the heat of the moment?
On Sunday night I reviewed half a Proms concert for theartsdesk. The reason I didn’t make the second half wasn’t illness, displeasure at the performance, or end-of-weekend malaise, but rather that a few members of the audience made it impossible for me to return.
Three middle-aged men accosted us; my companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there
I was attending the concert with a university-age girl – her first visit to the Proms. A chronic asthmatic, she had coughed a little during the first half, but infrequently, and had stifled it to the very best of her ability. After the first piece a man turned round and told her off (not a whit of sympathy, concern or even basic politeness to his complaint). We apologised, and moved to some empty seats further away. When the interval arrived three middle-aged men accosted us in the foyer. My companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there, and the parting shot from one – “You dirty bitch” – was announced loud enough for everyone nearby to hear (including two ushers, who did nothing). This to a girl who, by her looks, could easily have still been at school.
In 10 years of frequent concert-going – or indeed some 20-something years of living – I have never encountered such behaviour. I am the first to defend the tolerance, open-mindedness and generally civilised attitude of classical audiences, and in a week in which the New Statesman has so vehemently attacked them was prepared to stand up and argue the contrary. However it doesn’t make it easy when smug, self-appointed cultural policemen obtrude themselves so violently into the concert-hall.
The rise of recorded music has inevitably led to a sanitisation of the listening experience. We spend so much time alone at home with these buffed and polished versions of our favourite interpretations that when we step back into the live concert hall we forget to make allowances for – or even to embrace – the ambient noises around us and one-take errors from the performers.
Live concert-going, an anachronism in the digital age, is surely an act of communion – not just between musician and audience member, but among ourselves as listeners too. There’s something about the collective listening experience, the shared moment, that can intensify as well as blot the musical canvass, as John Cage’s 4”33 (coincidentally making its Proms debut this year) so wittily teaches us. In a secular society this is as close as most of us get to the sacred, to that meditative stillness and sense of community our ancestors took for granted. The bigger the crowd the greater the risk of disturbance, but also the greater pay-off in those magical moments of shared focus
One of the angry men followed us as we walked out, stopping us to elaborate more fully the reasons for his frustration. Music was, he explained, something he wanted to immerse himself totally in without distraction or exception. A rock concert, he laboriously added, was quite a different scenario, and there we would (and should) feel free to cough as much as we liked.
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