Friday, December 02, 2011

How technology can improve concert enjoyment

Last weekend I attended the same concert three times.  Usually once is enough, of course, for even the most rabid fan of classical music.  But I was there professionally.  When you devote a month or six months or even more months to one piece of music, sitting alone in a cave in the same chair in front of the same computer screen fending off constant attacks by large soft felines, it can be very interesting/revealing/educational to hear that piece finally performed live by real musicians in front of a real audience.  And of course, I might even enjoy that music - which, in this case, I did, pretty much.

But occasionally attention wanes.  I mean, there really is a limit to how many times any one human needs to hear Beethoven's Leonore Overture Number Two on any given weekend.

And so, in those moments when I was not "simply transfixed" by the performance in front of me, I found myself consciously attending to the musical contributions of that real audience.  As much as we might wish that audiences don't make noise, they do.  They cough.  Audiences cough because people cough.  Audiences are just people.  Coughing is a trait of human physiology, apparently, and asking a couple thousand people to sit quietly in an auditorium for twenty minutes or thirty minutes or even more minutes and not make any sound at all is simply an unreasonable request.

I like to think that the coughing is part of the music.  Of course it's random coughing.  It wasn't composed by anyone, no one used a random number generator or threw the I Ching to decide when each cough would happen.  I think random noises are music, if only in a very antiquated sixties avant-garde sort of fashion.  And I think that you should think that as well, but I know that there is very little chance that you do.  You're probably glad that tonality has returned to music over the last few decades.  Frankly, tonality in music is an even more antiquated concept that randomness.  (More useful as well.)

Let's assume that most people would prefer their fellow audience members do not cough at all.  To that end I discovered a sort of high-tech solution to the problem - much better than the cough suppressant candies which orchestras used to pass out to their audiences.  Maybe they still do.

Apparently hunters use this little device, a cough silencer, to not frighten the geese.

Here is the marketing copy for Cabela's Cough Silencer:
Disassembles for quick cleaning
Nonglare matte-black or camouflage finish
Fits easily into a pocket or pack 
Don’t let a cough scare game away. The Cough Silencer has a unique baffle system that quiets even the loudest coughs with no back pressure, and best of all, virtually no sound. Disassembles for quick cleaning. Nonglare matte-black or camouflage finish. Lightweight, durable and incredibly compact, it fits easily into a pocket or pack. Includes convenient lanyard.
And they're cheap.  This one was marked down from $19.99 to 88 cents (but they're sold out).  Concert attendees could buy their own and use them during performances.  Better yet, orchestras could buy thousands of them and have the ushers hand them out free along with the program booklet.  Better yet, they could be permanently installed on each seat in the concert hall, decorated by the celebrity architect so that they blend with the decor.  The cleaning crew would have to disinfect them after each event, maybe adding a little paper cap printed with the words "Guaranteed Germ Free" over the mouthpiece.  Like that strip of paper they put over the toilet seat in hotel rooms.

If all this seems like too much effort and expense, you might try my idea of redefining coughing as part of the music.  But remember, that only works if you think about it.

The concerts which I attended last weekend were graced by several freakishly musically appropriate cell phone eruptions.  They fit in perfectly.  Unlike coughing, those should have been avoided completely.

You could listen to my piano piece Oil and Water Mix, which is actually about the conflict of tonal music versus random music.

Cough Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . .


Kraig Grady said...

It really seems people cough more at classical music concerts than anywhere else. Not in lectures even seem to be as much. or crowded libraries. It is also one reason i would rather listen to Feldman on recording than live. It is hard to enjoy one self say if one cough somewhere in there, in fact it is rather oppressive to not be able to move and shuffle at all without people staring at you.
yet I just saw the movie Contagion though and the person in front of me kept coughing, now that was really annoying.

David Ocker said...

But, Kraig, - how many lectures have you attended with audiences as large as Disney Hall. It holds 2265. The three concerts were at least 90% full. With that many people I could hear a cough, oh, maybe every minute, sometimes longer. If you only had 200 in a lecture hall, the coughs might only come every 10 minutes. Just a thought.

Why people aren't smart or considerate enough to hold their coughs until the music gets loud, is another question I have.

Daniel Wolf said...

Tennis players, snooker players, golfers all expect and receive quiet during moments when great concentration is required, when they are trying to do something difficult and subtle. No one makes a big deal about that and I don't really understand the problem that some people seem to have with a similar expectation for some forms of music. Moreover, a communal silence represents a form of sharing space with others without interfering with others' right to attend to the music, which I understand as a positive step towards a useful form of anarchy. Indeed, having worked quite a bit with kids in the past few years, the increasing inability of young people to share quiet, concentration, and respect for others' rights to the same has been particularly alarming and I think we all need more practice at it. As to the size of concert halls, I'm completely with you here, David. The economics of the performing arts may be leading inevitably in the direction of ever-larger halls, but US halls and opera houses (especially opera houses) are typically twice the size they ought to be.

Carol Tyler said...

David, why not capture cough, program crinkling (really really rude), squirming, and other audience sounds, which I think in fact are arguably not in fact random (as analysis against the ongoing actual concert composition might show, a good master's thesis), filter out the music, and create a composition using concert sounds? I have a system for not coughing in concerts, involving swallowing repeatedly to suppress the cough "tickle," breathing evenly and so on. I wait until the audience is in full clap mode. This takes more control than most people can or wish to expend, but when I see recording microphones or realize it is being recorded, this is always my procedure. Ironically, one composer/director's mother wrecks her son's concerts by repeatedly hacking and yakking when she thinks no one will hear. I feel dropping programs and audibly turning pages, squirming in squeaky seats, electronic use, etc., should be added to random compositional status. I vote disposible cardboard cough suppressors, but they would be dropped, roll, and be made a fuss over. Q: Which noises can be electronically edited out? NOT coughs. Suggestion: Invention of an audio filter to use while listening live, which I actually thought this post was about, that you had listened three times, David, to assess how well the auditory filter (that couldn't exist, but I hoped you had discovered) worked. Anyway, looks that could seriously maim work pretty well for nearby offenders. BTW my kid, now 18, has been 100% silent, by training, in the hundreds of audiences she has helped compose, so hope happily lives on, Daniel!

Nick Norton said...

Just a suggestion as an alternate: amplify concerts. That's why you don't hear cell phones, paper crinkling, coughing, or many other things at rock shows - they're there, but you can't physically hear them over the music.

Plus it feels nice to be bathed in sound.

And anyone who says that doing so "ruins the purity of the classical ideal" or something like that better not be listening to Bach performed on a piano. Get over yourself. Music adapts. When it doesn't, it gets relegated to the sidelines of culture.