Attentive Collaboration by the Audience: Essential but Not Easy

Attentive Collaboration by the Audience: Essential but Not Easy

Philosophy January 16, 2012 / By Thomas Mark
Attentive Collaboration by the Audience: Essential but Not Easy

The collaboration of performer and audience is essential because it affects the quality of the performer's artwork, but it is not an entirely easy thing to achieve, and in some cases there are cultural obstacles to achieving it.

Performances are not like musical works or paintings, both of which exist before they are presented to an audience or shown to a viewer. A performance comes into being in the presence of its audience. It is never experienced in the state of having been completed, only in the state of becoming. The interaction of performer and audience—indeed, their collaboration—is critical in a way that does not arise in non-performing art. Now, what as audience we derive from an artwork—any artwork, whether of performing or non-performing art—depends very much on taking an active approach—questioning, re-examining, exploring, reflecting—but in the case of a non-performing art, painting for example, how well we do our part does not affect the artwork; the painting is the same whether we view it insightfully or perfunctorily. Likewise with works of performing art: Beethoven’s work remains unaltered whether we listen or not. But with performances the situation is different, for there the audience’s doing or not doing its part makes a difference not just to how much the audience derives from the work, but to the performer’s artwork itself; at a performance the audience partly determines the artwork that is set before them.

One requirement of the audience that I insisted on in my previous post is paying attention. But being consistently attentive is not easy. How often have you given your unbroken attention to an entire performance with not a moment’s distraction? Most people, I suspect, would admit that their attention occasionally wanders. But each moment of the performance occurs exactly once and there can be no going back. A moment’s inattention means that part of the performance has been irretrievably missed. I think inattention is particularly common in the case of music. In part, that is no doubt because music is the most abstract of the performing arts. It is easier to follow the concrete unfolding of a dance or a play than to follow the abstract structure of a complex work of music. A more important point is this: there are cultural factors that condition us not to attend to music.

We are constantly surrounded by recorded music in the supermarket, in elevators, in stores, in restaurants, and in our cars. Listening attentively in most of these surroundings is impossible, and most of the music is not intended to be listened to anyway. It is “background” music, put there to set a mood, or because some marketing executive believes it will cause people to spend more money. In self-defense we cultivate inattention and pursue our activities—shopping, conversing, reading—oblivious to the music. We thus train ourselves to shut out music that surrounds us. But, surely, conditioning ourselves to regard music as wallpaper, even if we do not do so on purpose, makes it harder to attend to music in a concert. The result is a disservice to both composers and performers. Much of the best music we have was composed with the expectation that people would listen attentively, and much of it requires close attention from anyone who hopes to hear what is going on. In the days before recordings, when music of any kind was a special occasion, and to hear music at all required being within earshot of someone playing or singing, or else playing or singing oneself, it was more likely that people would give music their attention when they had the chance. Today the situation is reversed. Music is everywhere but attentive listening is rare.

Here is an example of this. Several times, when teaching an introductory music class, I tried the following experiment. I told the students I would play a short recording, they were to listen carefully and describe to me what they heard. I chose a recording of Beethoven’s 8th Symphony, one in which I knew that Beethoven’s instruction to repeat the exposition in the first movement was observed, and I played the exposition and the repeat of the exposition. The exposition lasts just over 2 minutes, so with the repeat, the students heard a little more than 4 minutes of music. I tried this experiment on several occasions, with several different classes, but never once, when I asked, “What did you hear?” did anyone say anything equivalent to, “We heard a stretch of music and then we heard the same music repeated,” and when I pointed out that they had heard the same stretch of music twice, they were astonished.

I have described this experiment to people who have said, “Oh, that’s really unfair. How could you expect them to notice that?” (As if it were an obscure detail!) I could have defended my experiment by pointing out that these were college students, at a good college, and they should be able to pay attention for four minutes. Moreover, the attention my students lacked was something Beethoven took for granted, something his symphonies depend on for their effect. I do concede, however, that my experiment was unfair in the following way: nothing in my students’ cultural upbringing had prepared them to pay uninterrupted attention to four minutes of music and emerge with a sense of where the music and been and where it was going. Our culture does not encourage us to treat music as something to occupy the full attention of an intelligent person. The great English musician and critic Donald F. Tovey claimed that there were two requirements of a good listener: 1) That the person know, at each moment, whether what he is hearing is new or is something heard before, and 2) if it is something heard before, the person should know whether it occurs exactly as before or is altered in some way. These requirements are quite demanding, and no one could possibly meet them who did not pay careful attention at every moment. Surrounding ourselves in our daily lives with music that we ignore makes them still more difficult. This means, however, that we are likely to have trouble fulfilling our responsibility as members of an audience.

My claim that the audience—or the viewer or the reader—must take an active role in responding to an artwork is not a novel proposal; many people have pointed it out. Arthur C. Danto puts it this way: “The spectator stands to artist, or reader to artist, in a kind of spontaneous collaboration.” Ordinarily this collaboration is indirect, in the sense that the artist is not personally present to the spectator. The painter or writer collaborates through his painting or novel, not through his presence; he may, after all, be long dead. Creators of works of performing art also collaborate indirectly: Beethoven speaks to us through a symphony or sonata, Balanchine through Jewels or Pavane. In none of these cases is there communication, or any possibility of communication, in the opposite direction, from spectator to artist. Beethoven may speak to us, but we cannot speak to him. That, however, is what does occur in a performance, where performer and audience are present to one another. Their collaboration is not indirect, it is an interaction. The performer receives and responds to feedback from the audience while he simultaneously offers his artwork.

A crucial moment for establishing the relationship of audience and performer is immediately before the performance begins. Let me explain. People arrive, find their seats, and begin to turn their thoughts from daily affairs to the performance ahead. At last, the house lights go down. Everyone falls silent. That is the magic moment, the short period of greatest attention and receptivity and anticipation, the period in which the audience opens a space for the performers to enter and create something wonderful, a space in which audience and performers can collaborate to enter the world of Shakespeare or Beethoven or Balanchine. At any rate, that’s what should happen. Unfortunately, what actually does happen far too often, at least in the Western city where I live (whose inhabitants would bristle at being called provincial), is something else. Instead of allowing the performance to begin, the chairman of the board or the executive director or someone appears with a microphone and makes a fatuous speech. “Welcome ladies and gentlemen . . . blah blah blah . . . [insert a lame joke here] . . .blah blah blah . . . CDs available in the lobby . . . blah blah blah . . . The annual patron’s reception . . . blah blah blah . . . Our gratitude to our sponsors . . . blah blah blah . . . Turn off your cell phones . . . blah blah blah . . . Thank you, and enjoy the performance.” Not so easy, anymore. Anticipation, attention, and receptivity have given way to irritation and impatience. The magic moment has been irretrievably shattered, leaving performers and audience to pick up the pieces as best they can. This kind of disregard for the conditions of artistic performance by the very people who organize the event is unpardonable. When it happens audiences and performers are entitled to complain vigorously.

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