Now imagine someone's iPhone going off, just as we are drifting off into the infinite--an infinite prepared by nearly an hour and a half of music. Here is how the incident was reported by a member of the audience:
"Mr. Gilbert was visibly annoyed by the persistent ring-tone, so much that he quietly cut the orchestra," the concert-goer reports. She related how the orchestra's music director turned on the podium towards the offender. The pause lasted a good "three or four minutes. It might have been two. It seemed long."Mr. Gilbert asked the man, sitting in front of the concert-master: "Are you finished?" The man didn't respond.
"Fine, we'll wait," Mr. Gilbert said.
The Avery Fisher Hall audience, ripped in an untimely fashion from Mahler's complicated sound-world, reacted with "seething rage." Someone shouted "Thousand dollar fine."
This was followed by cries of 'Get out!' and 'Kick him out!.' Some people started clapping rhythmically but the hall was quieted down. House security did not intervene or remove the offender.
The ringing stopped. "Did you turn it off?" Mr. Gilbert asked.
The man nodded.
"It won't go off again?"
The man shook his head.
Before resuming, Mr. Gilbert addressed the audience. He said: "I apologize. Usually, when there's a disturbance like this, it is best to ignore it, because addressing it is sometimes worse than the disturbance itself. But this was so egregious that I could not allow it."
"We'll start again." The audience cheered.There are several thoughts that occur to me about this. I recall a few times during our chamber music festival last summer when a lovely slow movement was disfigured by horrific thumping from a passing car with one of those super bass sound systems. With a string quartet playing pianissimo, even a car half a block away will destroy the mood. So, certain kinds of music, slow movements, quiet passages, seem unsuited to this noisy "interrupt-driven" world we live in. A while back British researchers did a study that showed that those people working in an interrupt-driven environment with text messages, cellphones, regular phones, emails and whatever else constantly breaking in, lost about 10 points off their IQ, or more than if they had smoked marijuana. On the other hand, there is lots of music that seems perfectly suited to a noisy, interrupting environment: pop music is typically so loud and motoric that there is little chance of it being affected; loud orchestral music, or indeed any loud passages for any ensemble; any music by John Cage; and, interestingly enough, most jazz as well.
This kind of incident is pretty interesting. Much more so than other recent events at concerts: the one where a listener got up in a Bruckner symphony and started shouting out criticisms of how bad the performance was as he stomped out of the hall. That could have happened any time in the last few hundred years. But the iPhone marimba ring-tone popping up just as we are finally reaching the end of the Mahler adagio, that is rather a new thing. If you are fully in the music, as the audience seemed to be, the slashing interruption of the mood by something so ordinary, so contemporary, was enraging. I'm surprised his immediate neighbors didn't frog-march him out of the hall.
This is really a kind of metaphor, isn't it? There are certain delicate, transcendental aspects of life and art that are easily crushed by modern circumstances. Do we want to preserve them? Or do they matter enough to us?
I know that whenever I go out of the house, I find myself in many places where I cannot escape the relentless thumping of recorded music. If I am in the middle of writing a piece, as I am now, it is very dislocating because it pushes everything else out of my mind. Even writing this blog has its dangers! After the post the other day giving music examples of aesthetic sins, I still can't get Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory" out of my head!
About that concert. What is the solution? Let no-one into the hall unless they turn off their mobile devices?
Here is the whole of the last movement of the Mahler symphony: