sat 15/06/2024

Opinion: How much noise is too much noise in the classical concert-hall? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: How much noise is too much noise in the classical concert-hall?

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?

Exceedingly loud and incredibly close: the intimacy of the concert hall disturbs in the digital age

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.

All legitimate points, if patronisingly delivered. But it got me thinking: had we been older, more smartly dressed, or even – and I struggle to conceive or write this – male, would we have been subject to such an attack? Were we in fact being schooled in behaviour in the only way they thought we would understand? The curiously sexualised nature of the insult that was hurled our way felt pointed, building on the hectoring, bullying tone of earlier proceedings. I struggle to imagine anyone addressing an elderly person in such a way, nor taking on a pair of full-grown men with that same aggression.

I’ve never felt ill at ease or out of place in a concert hall, but faced with such collective assumptions I became self-consciously aware of my age, my gender, my T-shirt and denim, all of which undercut the validity of anything I might have to say in the eyes of these men. It was a concert for which I’d written a programme note; on paper I was an authority, in person I could say nothing they would concede to hear.

I wish very much the issue hadn’t been muddied with obscenity and aggression, because the essential question is a valid one. Were we in the wrong to attend at all, knowing that there might potentially be a noise problem? By that token a chronic asthmatic might never be permitted in the concert hall or theatre, just in case. But is their noise or that of a child, or indeed a Tourette’s sufferer, morally or experientially any different to that of a regular flu-sufferer, who might more plausibly be expected to opt out if having a bad night?

What precisely is the covenant we make with our neighbours when we sit down in the Wigmore, National Theatre or Royal Albert Hall for a performance?

If I were to write one, I think it would have to hinge on intent (And I'm not alone among my colleagues to think so). If you are consciously making noise, and by choice (be it texting, rustling, fidgeting or jangling jewellery) it is surely a deliberate act of discourtesy to those around you and all manner of horrible punishments should be rained down upon you. But if likewise you raise the issue of any such noise with your neighbour for the purpose of humiliating them (and venting your own ire) rather than resolving the issue then that too would surely violate the code.

What it comes down to then, predictably enough, like the Aldeburgh World Orchestra whose impressive performance the offstage drama on Sunday night so completely distracted from, is simple tolerance of difference – whether that’s of opinion, experience or ethnicity. Watching young people from 35 nations playing harmoniously together only made it harder to conceive that a handful of adults from the UK couldn’t manage to put aside ego for a couple of hours and do the same.

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We spend so much time alone at home with buffed and polished versions of our favourite interpretations that when we return to the concert-hall we forget to embrace the ambient noises around us

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This is awful, and I agree that the gender-specific nature of the insult makes it worse. I witnessed a similar thing at the Beethoven 1+2 and Boulez prom, but this time, dare I say it, xenophobia seemed to intrude. During Boulez's Derive 2, a child in front of us began (fairly understandably, given the difficulty of the piece), to fidget, though without making any noise to speak of. His father, sensibly I thought, got out his blackberry, noiselessly, and gave the child something to read on the phone. Not ideal perhaps, but better than the alternatives. At half-time, the 60ish year old Englishman next to me gave the child's parent a very rude, very loud, piece of his mind, before calling the usher from the end of the row to complain. The man, speaking elegant English but in a very obvious Northern European accent, began to explain, and promised to put the phone away for the second half. The usher, egged on by the increasingly red-faced complainer, spoke to the Blackberry owner in that way that English people sometimes speak to foreigners, telling him off over and over again, louder and louder, refusing to listen to his explanation, threatening him with removal from the auditorium and generally humiliating him in front of his wife, son, and a by now considerable audience. To his absolute credit, the European man kept his cool and, realising he wasn't getting anywhere, sat down, confining himself to a smile at the end of the performance and a conspiratorial 'what a dick' as he was leaving. It was all deeply unnecessary. The odd thing is, such encounters can't possibly improve the experience of the complainer any more than it does the complained about.

Very sorry to hear about your companions experience. At the risk of calling all sorts of horrors on my head, I have to say, in my experience, this is a typical 'prommers' reaction and would be much more unusual at a regular concert. There are some people, usually male, who seem to feel the Proms are their personal domain and behave accordingly. The ridiculous cliquey 'shouts' between arena & balcony, the almost obscene race to be the first to applaud loudest and longest no matter what the quality of the performance etc etc. It was for this reason I stopped attending Albert Hall proms about six years ago.

indeed, those fat little males who try to be the first to scream bravo (even when the solist is female.....), especially when it's a recording night for radio, tv or whatever.....

As the person whose casual observation precipitated a flurry of internet trolling and The New Statesman comment, I am struck by your comment that "on paper [you were] an authority, in person [you] could say nothing they would concede to hear." despite the openness of the the vast majority of classical musicians (and indeed the audience) there are those who patrol what they consider their dominion an aggressiveness at total odds to the music's beauty. How ironic that the Proms, one of the best ways -- via its programming and ticket price -- to discover and explore Western classical music, also sports some of its most intolerant gate-keepers! The phrase The Empire Strikes Back kept pulsing through my brain as I read your column; for just as the case of American Tea Party-ers, the years of old dominion are over. Time to adopt covenants that can frame and positively this new day.

I've been taking my child to concerts since she was 4 years old. There have been times when I've been thinking is she making too much noise. She does not really talk, but likes to wave herself. Sometimes she wants to sit on my lap. At first I did not tolerate any sound at all from my child. Then I started to listen to the audience. I realized that some adults make even more sound than my child. Sadly often someone forgets to switch of the mobile phone. Some people just have to comment something to their friends. Some people snore. Some try to find something from their bags. Some people eat pastilles noisily in a smacking manner. Some people are so carried away by the music that they may not even realize they are humming. If you sit next to that kind of person and the noise goes on and on, it really irritates even the sound would not be loud. Sometimes I feel those noise makers are not concentrating on music at all when they are constantly doing something. Why are they there anyway? I think that some sounds from the audience are natural part of the concert. It would be unnatural to demand 100% silence. There are inevitable sounds. Sometimes you just have to clear your throat and change the position of your legs. Of course if it is possible to hold the cough until the pianissimo part is over, it would be polite to do so. But I personally would not go to the concert if I had a bad cough or I would not take my child there if she was whispering all the time. I keep wondering the adults who think it is ok to intentionally make noise. People pay for their tickets to listen to music. Maybe they have waited for that specific concert for a long time. I would be so ashamed if I or my child would ruin somebody else's evening. But, if I cough once and somebody is pissed of by that, that is his/her problem. The point is, unfortunately different people have different limits on what they think is ok. By the way: My solution to teach a child to behave in concerts was to get seats always on the last row. If the concert was not sold out, there might have been 10 empty rows front of us. So, it was sure we were not ruining anybody's evening if a child whispers even she has told before not to do so. I hope that my child grows up to be a granny who does not speak with a lady friend about her perfume during the concert. And yes, some people are terrified to see a child coming to concert and the fact that a child is sitting close to them makes them very alert. Now my girl is 7 years old and she's been in tens of classical music concerts with no problem. We always ask during the interval does she want to leave, but she does not. Of course, if the child does not enjoy the concert it would be an agony to sit there still and be quiet.

Totally agree about the behaviour of some of the Prommers. I remember taking my 10 year old and one of her friends to the John Wilson Prom a couple of years ago. About half way through they decided to move closer to the front. I admired their pluck so waved them off in the direction of the podium. Not long after they returned a little crestfallen, their attempts to get closer to the band had been resolutely blocked by a middle aged couple. What heroes!

I read this evening of an American airline steward who, when confronted by a passenger objecting to being seated next to a black man, arranged for an upgrade to 1st class - for the black man - whilst telling the whole cabin that the airline couldn't expect anyone to spend the flight sitting next to an unpleasant person. Apparently, the other passengers broke into spontaneous, standing applause. If concert ushers took a similar approach, perhaps 'offended' concert-goers might be encouraged to consider how offensive their own intolerance and complaints are to those they chastise so robustly.

You know they removed the word 'gullible' from the dictionary. . . .

I'm surprised at the behaviour of these people towards your friend, particularly since you were in seats. I took my son to the Wallace & Gromit prom on Sunday afternoon - having been unable to get seats, we prommed, the first time I've done this. When we arrived there were several families sat down on the floor in the arena, and I was pleased to see such a relaxed attitude. I was absolutely astonished to see, on the entrance of the orchestra, it must have been 50 adults move to the front and stand, completely blocking any view of the orchestra for any children even if the child stood. I could only make sure my son could see the orchestra by picking him up and holding him during each piece and setting him down in the breaks between the music. Thankfully each piece was 5 minutes or less! The attitude of these people at what is clearly designed to be an event for families is just staggering. I could understand it at an evening concert where you wouldn't expect children to be, but quite honestly, if you're a prommer without children, why on earth are you even attending? The music programme was full of what must surely have been very familiar works to regular prommers - I'm sure you could have had the afternoon off. I've been to the Proms 4 times before this alone, seated every time. As I said, this was my first time promming. The programme would have to be incredible and all seats begone before I ever consider doing it again. I've no idea what Sir Henry Wood's views on children were, but I imagine he would be ashamed of these people and their selfish behaviour. This festival of music was always supposed to encourage a new audience to orchestral music, not to be a closed club.

Very sorry indeed that your companion's first experience at the Proms was so disagreeable. And to have one of those clowns adding insult to injury as you were leaving defies belief. If he is so comprehensively incapable of tuning out as trivial a distraction as the odd cough or two, that boor has no hope whatsoever of "immersing" himself in the music, no matter how ideal the conditions.

I'm horrified to hear these stories and agree that such hardline attitudes to noise are part of a pompous demeanour among certain concert goers which really should be left in the last century. Classical music needs to loosen up and stop trying to exist in a long gone world of Victorian parlours and deference. My real bug bear is the rush to cough ostentatiously in between movements, not because one needs to cough but simply to demonstrate one knows the correct time and palce to cough. (However this is better than the crowds of people who coughed all the way through Margerite and Armand at Covent Garden earlier this year. We were concerned Tamara Rojo's portrayal of consumption was so convincing that she had spread TB throughout the auditorium.) I would also love to applaud between movements. Musicians may have a different take on this and not want their concentration broken but it is so was so hard to listen to Schubert's sonata in c minor and for it not be right to obey my emotions and clap riotously after the first movement while the coughers can thunder away to their hearts' content.

The worst in my experience was the lady who insisted on singing along witn .... Pavarotti. I put up with it until she started singing (quite loudly, and not in tune) "Vesti la giubbia." I had exhausted my repertoire of reproving looks. That was the last aria before the intermission. At the intermission I turned to her and said, "I just spent $50,00 to hear Pavarotti, not you." She said, "I think you are the RUDEST person I ever met." I guess I was rude, but she did not sing for the second part of the recital; so I did not feel bad. (You can tell this was a long time ago since the ticket was only $50.00 -- it was a lot of money for me at the time.) I also remember the symphony matinee at which David Daniels sang a Bach motet. The woman next to me had brought her six-year-old son, who all through the concert kept asking questions about the instruments. Smart questions, too -- he seemed to be a bright kid. She answered all his questions so there was a constant conversational hum. Finally the Bach came on & David Daniels started singing. The child was shocked at the counter-tenor voice emerging from this big, burly man, and started commenting LOUDLY. She tried to explain but it didn't work -- the kid was too startled. The Bach was ruined for me and the others in the row. I am very much in favor of bringing children to performances but the educational component should be done ahead of time as much as possible -- EXPLAIN to the child what is going to happen, what he is going to hear, etc. In contrast, I went to a performance of Traviata at which the five-year-old in the row in front of me behaved beautifully. Her mother explained that they had played the music for her, told her the story, and she had seen a DVD. She also said, "If it turns out to be too much for her, we will take her home right away." She stayed through the whole opera, obviously enthralled by the music. So, it IS possible for children to come to performances and to behave. You just have to prepare them -- and have some sense of when they are ready.

Forrtunately I've never experienced anything like the above comments. I wish there were a special place in hell, however, for cough drop unwrappers, who draw it out in supposed hopes that no one can hear. Unwrap the damn drop beforehand! But one of the cutest things was a few years ago when a mother brought her maybe-two-year old daughter to a Mozart concert. The child was very good for about 10 minutes, then, from what I could interpret from the body language, she wanted to go up on stage and DANCE. The mother quietly took her out. But what a wonderful reaction to the music!

I have been to the opera numerous times and have heard incessant coughing and slight whispering, but nothing overly distracting. I condone coughing more than whispering because it's more difficult to control. But please, try to only discuss the performance during intermission and keep other necessary comments to a minimum. The phones are unacceptable to me. People go to see a performance, to escape their lives for 2+ hours, therefore engaging in technology lessens the value of the experience. My own mother had her phone out at one particular performance, and was scolded for it by another patron, but it was during the end of intermission, at which point she was putting it away. The person said in a very rude manner "You are going to put that away, right?" to which my mother replied "Who made you the Queen of the Opera?" Both comments were uncalled for, but we should have been given more leniency due to the fact that it was during intermission. Food isn't allowed inside the venues in my area, so I don't recall hearing fidgety wrappers or loud chewing. But if I heard some snacking, I would be pretty annnoyed! I don't think I'd be brave enough to say anything, though, because I came to enjoy myself. I try to let it go. I also go to rock concerts frequently, and there, most anything goes. But who wants to eat during a rock concert? I'm always on my feet singing and dancing!

I'm terribly sorry to hear about your experience. As it happens, I was there with my mother who heard the conversation you mentioned above, and was really quite distressed. Generally, I do find people kind and generous at the proms, however I do occasionally find the prommers a little impolite. As a music student, I often prom, arriving early in the afternoon. Today I arrived at about 4, I queued until we got in just before the concert. I was standing on the front row, just next to a group of prommers who often stand in the first row on the right hand side. They were pleasant enough until they started making underhand jokes about how tall people should go to the back.It's worth saying at this point, that they were shorter-than-average men. I'm not exceptionally tall - 5 '10, but the friend I was with was perhaps 6 '2, however I found their comments unpleasant. Of course they were joking, but their snide humour is emblematic of the often rather nasty comments that groups of middle-aged men make. Since I queued considerably earlier than them, should I not have an equal, if not better viewpoint? Promming, if nothing else, seems exceptionally fair. What a shame that a few people ruin it for the rest. Moreover, as a 19 year old, I feel as though, if I wasn't a musician, I might have been discouraged from coming again.

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