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Rethinking audience noise

Kids, caregivers, and the concert hall

4 minute read
Leonard Bernstein, composer of "Chichester Psalms," introduced children to classical music at his "Young People's Concerts." (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
Leonard Bernstein, composer of "Chichester Psalms," introduced children to classical music at his "Young People's Concerts." (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Before the Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of Tod Machover’s “Philadelphia Voices, Yannick Nézet-Séguin proclaimed, “It is important that we listen to the voices of our young people.” The piece included some compelling poetry by Philadelphia schoolchildren. ​

It followed a performance of “Chichester Psalms,” whose composer, Leonard Bernstein, was famous for his “Young People’s Concerts,” which brought classical music to children. But did the audience actually want to hear the voices of young people? Evidently not.

Kid-friendly?

One very young child seated a few rows behind me made some baby noises during the performance. The reaction from other audience members was predictably hostile. Ahead of a piece composed of sampled Philadelphia voices, this voice — from one of the relatively few people of color in the audience — was one they did not want to hear.

The child and parent were escorted out of the hall by ushers just before Yannick’s remarks. During intermission, one concertgoer raged to his acquaintances that he would call the orchestra’s CEO to complain that the young child was not booted out faster. It was simply inconceivable to him that anyone would bring a toddler to a concert.

This is not a first. In January, I attended a spectacular concert by Network for New Music, which included a captivating multimedia work with much potential interest to children. The event was tagged on Facebook as "kid-friendly," and one of the audience members was a small child. Several people around me openly glared in the parent's direction every time the child let out a peep. These audience members paid to hear bold new music and should be able to do so without disruption, right?

No doubt many will respond to these scenarios with “get a sitter,” or maybe the more gendered variant, “leave the kids with Grandma.” Many will argue that classical music is a serious pursuit demanding silent contemplation. Those who may make noise — children, people with disabilities — would be better off elsewhere. But that’s easier said than done.

Economics of entertainment

For many families, including but not limited to lower-income families, foster families, and families with children or adults with special needs, finding care is no simple matter. But beyond such practicalities, let’s challenge the assumption that our music demands silent contemplation.

To the best-known 18th-century European composers, the idea of a concert with an audience completely focused on the music would be absurd. Since the 1990s, musicologists have observed that current classical-music culture of demanding silence is an oddity, not a global norm. This mindset — that classical music alone deserves silence — is coded with racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and ablism. Whom are we asking to leave when we make such a demand?

I recognize that distracting audience members, from snorers to texters, can be annoying; I don’t advocate a total abolition of concert etiquette. As a composer, I prefer an audience to stay engaged with the music, whatever that means to them.

Matthias Grünewald's 1515 "Concert of Angels and Nativity" depicts a child-friendly performance for a limited audience. Our institutions must think bigger. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
Matthias Grünewald's 1515 "Concert of Angels and Nativity" depicts a child-friendly performance for a limited audience. Our institutions must think bigger. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Of course, we can easily listen to music in our own homes in whatever conditions we choose. Perhaps we must rethink what we want from live music. For me, the chance to share music with a community of listeners makes concerts valuable, and I want that community to welcome as many people as possible.

Yes, the Philadelphia Orchestra presents family concerts, and these are important vehicles for building enthusiasm for classical music among children. But unless they’re more than a throwaway program of “greatest hits” snippets led by an assistant conductor, can we decide such concerts are the sole classical music to which families are entitled? In an environment in which arts organizations struggle to retain audiences, can we afford to do so?

Whose show is it?

While it is easy to blame the problem on our classical-music institutions, there is reason to be optimistic. I applaud Network for New Music for tagging its event as “kid-friendly,” even if that did not translate to a kid-friendly audience.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s free sensory-friendly concert last fall, though poorly advertised, showed ambition, including an inventive work by Tan Dun (with an electroacoustic part to be played from the audience’s cell phones) and a world premiere by Hannibal Lokumbe.

Lokumbe, the orchestra’s composer in residence, boldly rejects the notion that audience must listen to music in silence. This rejection received some pushback. David Patrick Stearns’s Philadelphia Inquirer review of Lokumbe’s large-scale work One Land, One River, One People treated the sounds from the audience and the composer during the piece as if he was stealing the show away from the audience.

Stearns griped, “You could argue that the piece is [the composer’s] and he can disrupt it if he wants to. But the concert wasn't his. It was ours.” I agree the music should be ours. Yet in most other genres, audible audience interaction would be treated not as an act of theft or a disruption but as part of the process of making the music ours.

It will enrich and strengthen the future of our genre if our musical communities welcome young people, not to mention other excluded people. We should do so not just at specialized, segregated "family" or "community engagement" concerts with assistant conductors but at our regular ones, too. As a composer, I hope this is the path we will take.

For Linda Holt's review of Philadelphia Voices, click here.

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