Audience participation

Last night, I went to a concert by eighth blackbird where one of the works on the programme was Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades. Based on some American folk music of the nineteenth century, it appeared to veer between quotation from, and postmodern commentary on, some pretty foot-stomping material. At one point, the players actually started stamping their own feet loudly on the stage. I was sitting next to a young man who had never been to a classical concert before, and at this point, he started spontaneously clapping along with the beat.

No one else in the audience did.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that my first reaction was that I wished he’d stop. I started blushing in embarrassment for him until a few moments had passed and he realized no one else was doing this, and stopped. I say ashamed because his behaviour was a perfectly normal one for any other type of Western music. In a concert of country music, or rock, or the type of folk music Murder Ballades was based on, the performers might feel insulted if the audience didn’t clap along. And I think the performers of eighth blackbird might not have found it distracting if people clapped. Maybe they would even have liked it. Maybe the young man was right, and I was wrong.

And then I started feeling sorry for the him, and hoping that he hadn’t felt humiliated, or put off from ever coming to another classical concert again.

And then I started wondering if the classical music profession and its followers hadn’t, in fact, been sadly socialized out of any kind of spontaneous response to music. Isn’t it natural to feel moved to clap and dance and sway? To boo if you don’t like it, or even to start a riot? When my two-year-old daughter hears a favourite pop song, she starts dancing around the room; she laughs when she hears a musical sound she finds funny; she even called out “My Daddy!” during a Christmas concert as her father raised his trumpet to his lips and “Light back on!” as the vicar slowly dimmed the lamps during Silent Night. She hasn’t been socialized out of her reactions (yet). When did this culture of painful silence start? When and why are we letting it get to us?

As I was driving home, I started thinking about the small handful of classical concerts I’d played in or been to where audience participation was invited. Sing-along Messiahs are pretty common, of course, although I confess I’ve sometimes got lost while trying to sing the alto part of the Hallelujah Chorus. During my student days in London, I went to a staged performance of the St. John Passion at the English National Opera where the audience were invited to join in the chorales. They weren’t hard for someone with a bit of musical training to sight-read, judging by the efforts of the large audience, and even as a professional musician I felt that I was drawn into the drama and understanding of the performance far more than if I’d been there only as an observer.

What would happen if we broke down the barriers of convention and politeness to let music be part of us, instead of something that’s done to us?


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