Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Awkward Choreography

I like being on the receiving end of applause as much as anyone, and I'm fond of the physical act of applauding after (and especially, between) pieces, if mainly for the chance to unwind a bit from the intensity of close listening. I even find that the high noise content of applause functions as a kind of ear cleaner, wiping away the old sounds, making room for the next.

The problem with applause as an indication of appreciation is that it is a simple sign executed by a mass. It's usually too coarse an indication of what, exactly, has gone right or wrong. With old or familiar music, it's not possible to distinguish between the piece and the performance (or between individual participants in the performance -- conductor, soloists, ensembles). When the work played is new, and the composer is present, this provides added uncertainty to the message. How do you applaud a new piece that you like despite an inadequate performance? How do you applaud a great performance of a work that is otherwise the aural equivalent of a marshmallow?

Applaus gets some disambiguation when it accompanies bowing, as the individual participants each get their turn at the stage apron. But the composer is a serious disadvantage, as she or he ordinarily has to make her or his perp walk from somewhere in the audience all the way up to the stage. That can often mean having to sustain a lengthy period of applause, and when the applause dies out before she or he has been able to bow, we are in for a shared moment of awkwardness. To avoid this possibility, it's probably best to stand and take your laurels from the auditorium, wave a hand or a hankie in gratitude to the performers and then sit right back down as soon as you can.

1 comment:

Stefan Kac said...

In music school, I was taught to keep clapping until all the performers make it off stage, or until the composer makes it on stage, or whatever. Establishing this as a convention prevents awkward moments, but only heightens the ambiguity you refer to. Perhaps instead of booing, crowds will now applaud vociferously, only to fall silent at the worst possible time.