mobile ringtones during classical music concerts

There’s an old fable regarding a scorpion and a frog who both need to get across a large expanse of water. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across. The frog hesitates because he’s worried that the scorpion will sting and kill him, but the scorpion points out that he wouldn’t do that because it would cause both of them to drown. The frog accepts this line of reasoning and agrees to carry the scorpion across. Halfway through the journey, the scorpion does sting the frog. As they’re both drowning, the frog asks, “why did you do that? Now we’re both going to die!” The scorpion replies, “it’s in my nature.”

Very recently the conductor of the New York Philharmonic stopped conducting during a performance of Mahler 9 when someone’s mobile started going off, and i can’t help but think that the reaction that Gilbert had brings to light a parallel between the nature of classical “art” music and the nature of the scorpion. Of course there’s a precedent set for mobile phones being “rude”; some businesses will have policies saying that they won’t check out your groceries or take your ice cream order if you’re on the phone, movie theaters have multiple reminders for people to mute their phones. Having a mobile go off in an inopportune moment during a piece of music is definitely an unfortunate circumstance, but for the conductor and for the “cultured audience” to crucify the patron for an honest mistake strikes of the very sort of elitism that has helped push orchestras into its current downslide of potential extinction that it’s been threatened with and been struggling to dig itself out of for the past decade.

Let’s assume that you have an impressionable twenty-something who loves music of all sorts and is used to going to jazz clubs or rock concerts or what have you. They’re in their first art music concert because it doesn’t seem like it would be their thing, but they might as well give it a shot. Of course they understand that you should turn your ringer off like you should in a movie, but for whatever reason they forget or the button slips or what have you and it accidentally goes off. The conductor does what Gilbert does, backed by the art music culture who sniff their noses and say “how gauche.” The twenty-something patron who was trying to give this concert a shot and keep an open mind has now been alienated. Embarrassed and humiliated and potentially put into the New York Times for a simple rookie mistake. Is that person ever going to go to another art music concert again? And what sort of lesson does that give to non-classical/art music goers who read about it in the news, a culture that’s used to the idea that if you support your rock band or your sports team, more noise is good?

Now compare this to what happened during this art music concert. A mobile goes off during a performance and the performer himself eases what could be a potentially embarrassing and “gauche” situation by making light of the situation with a quick improv. What’s great about his reaction is that while it’s still clear to anyone that having the mobile go off is interruptive, the musician responds by basically saying, “whatever. you know you made the mistake, i know you made the mistake, no big deal.” The patron whose mobile goes off will still likely take extra care to be sure that their mobile is on mute in the future, but they escape the potential shunning nature of the affair by the gracious and laid back attitude of the musician which the rest of the audience can now follow suit on – which now *includes* the offender as opposed to isolating them and making them an outsider.

Granted, you can’t expect that in a larger ensemble concert which is less intimate than a chamber concert can garner a similar reaction easily; that’s not what i’m implying. But the attitude that an interruption like that which can indeed potentially destroy a moment in a piece of music from an unintentional and non-malicious intent warrants such a judge/jury/executioner serves no one and only perpetuates separation between a style of music and its audience in a way that is counter to everything that i try to promote as a musician, composer, and artist. A couple of years ago i wrote a blog entry that imagined a reinvention of the concert paradigm that could help support and bring in more casual audiences and turn them on to art music and art music concerts, and that entry still feels relevant. I’m not suggesting that the audience necessarily be so casual as to be potentially chaotic, but the attitude of art music shouldn’t be that it’s purely the responsibility of the audience to change its nature to match what is considered “poilte” in the art music world – a set of standards which is antiquated and not relevant to current society in any case. There needs to be some sort of middle ground, a handshake to be made. Otherwise art music will continue to fall into the sort of trap that we still suffer blows from when the 12-tone school tried to elite themselves from even their own populace, and in a world where we continue to strive to accept and include diversity rather than create separation, the only thing that ultimately gets alienated is the accuser over the accusee.

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  1. Pingback:beauty…beholder and a possible guest speaking gig in Hawaii » mendel lee . com

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