Responsibility of the Audience

Responsibility of the Audience

Philosophy January 11, 2012 / By Thomas Mark
Responsibility of the Audience

The responsibility of audience members at concerts, plays and dance performances goes beyond mere courtesy

I recently attended a concert by the Takács Quartet. The second half of the program was Beethoven's Quartet in C-sharp minor, Opus 131. Most people regard the C-sharp minor quartet as one of Beethoven's great masterpieces, and one of his most innovative works. I know the piece quite well, but it is rarely performed in the Western city where I live, so I hadn't heard it for a long time. Naturally, I was looking forward, and I spent portions of the afternoon anticipating and recalling passages of the music.

When the Takács Quartet began the opening measures of the slow fugue that is the first movement, the lady next to me opened her program and started to read. She showed no interest in what was going on, and there was no sign that she might be about to turn her attention to the music. I restrained myself from poking her. Instead, I held my hand up to the side of my face to shut out the sight. My maneuver was not at all subtle, but it succeeded well enough that I could focus on the quartet. My neighbor, for her part, continued reading through most of the piece, finally closing her program three-quarters of the way through. When it was over, she stood up, just as I had expected her to do, and applauded vigorously, even though she hadn't listened to more than a small portion of the quartet. I found her behavior offensive, even though she had not been making noise or fidgeting restlessly.

Was I right to be offended? If my neighbor exhibits boredom or indifference, what is that to me? I might wonder why she bothers to attend a concert if she is not going to listen to the music, but she wasn't particularly attracting attention to herself. Most in the audience would not have noticed, and I was able to focus on the proceedings in spite of her. So what's my beef?

Someone might ask, “How do you know she wasn't listening? Maybe she was reading and listening at the same time. Many people read while listening to music.” I admit that she probably would have claimed to be listening, and I admit that many people read while having music on the radio or the CD player, but I deny that they are listening. The claims one hears for effective “multitasking” are much exaggerated. People who undertake to do two complicated things at once are usually really alternating between them, not doing either task very well, and deceiving themselves into the bargain. At any rate, anyone who imagines he can actually listen to a complex work like the C-sharp minor quartet while simultaneously reading is mistaken. But in fact, it doesn't matter. Whether my neighbor was reading only, or reading and listening, makes no difference; my annoyance was justified on other grounds, having to do with the nature of artistic performance.

Some people seem to assume that their responsibility as members of an audience is just a matter of courtesy. Turn off your cell phones, don't talk above a whisper, and unwrap your hard candies in advance. But an audience is not just a collection of separate people, each receiving or not receiving whatever is communicated from the stage, and each independent of everyone else. The relationship of audience members with each other makes a difference. Think of watching a funny movie in a theatre filled with laughing people, and contrast that experience with watching the same movie alone at home on a video. Merely being present in the same room with a lot of other people isn't the point here; what matters is the attitude, the responsiveness, and the receptivity the other people exhibit to what is going on. Their enjoyment, their attention, their emotion contribute to mine. Being part of a good audience is essential for getting the most out of a performance. David Stabler, music critic for The Oregonian, writes, “Communal listening is a joy shared, and living through a performance together touches something deep within us. The perfect listening experience for me is when I can feel people around me giving their full attention to the performers.”

There is more, however. An atmosphere of attentive involvement does not only affect members of the audience, it also affects the performers. Performance does not occur in a vacuum; the performer does not simply act, or dance, or play with no regard for whether anyone is watching or listening; performance is for an audience, and the response of the audience makes a difference. Performers are quite explicit about this. Every performer who has performed the same program more than once knows that audiences are not the same; performers talk of some audiences being “hard” and some “easy,” of having the audience “with them” or not. The British pianist Paul Roberts writes, “Yes, I definitely hear the silence, which in a paradoxical way I associate with 'hearing' the inaudibility of an audience, when I perform. And I consciously play to it, and it is thrilling.” Given all that, it would be astonishing if the quality of the performance did not partly depend on the feedback the performer gets from the audience.

We can see from this that a concert or play or ballet is not just a matter of individuals seated in a hall, each of them separately receiving or not receiving whatever it is that is offered them from the stage. A performance involves a complex interaction between performers and audience, and of audience members with one another. Everyone shares responsibility for the success of the performance. The responsibility of the performer is obvious to everyone. What is not so obvious to many people is that the audience also has a responsibility for the performance, not just in the sense of being courteous but in the deeper sense that the nature and quality of what the performer offers depends partly on them. Even a fine performer cannot do it entirely alone. It is when a fine performer can collaborate with an audience that fully carries out its own role that a performance becomes a magical, transcendent experience.

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