Saturday, November 8, 2014

On Silence and Noise

One Saturday evening some friends and I went the the Festival of Toy Music at the Brisbane Powerhouse. The day had workshops for kids in the afternoon and then in the evening a concert in two halves. 

We arrived a little late to the first act, a trio who were crouched on the stage floor with an array of noisy toys and melodicas, which they would alternate between. After a minute or so it became apparent that there was one very vocal child in the otherwise quiet theatre. 


The kid's questions continued, every couple of seconds 


A short respite, and then:


I was irritated at first. I'd spent the previous month going to noise art gigs, where silence is very important, and had approached listening to this in a similar way. I was po-facedly trying to absorb the rich sonic timbres of the cow bleats,cackles and whoopee cushion farts coming off the stage. Trying to experience the performance as a piece of capital 'A' art. 

There were many children in the audience and only this one was being disruptive. I pegged the kid as a Steiner or a Montesori child, the mother not wishing to interfere with his precious self-expression, at the expense of the 248 other people in the room. Why couldn't this woman see that? Take your child and leave out of respect for the performers and consideration for the people who spent money on tickets.

My annoyance crumbled instantly when a skinny vegan looking guy on stage picked up a bag pipe with glittery party blowers on the end and started making a cacophonous mewling, and the kid yelled out:


The kid had taken the whole thing to a new level of absurdity. It had become hilarious. 

If you were to adopt John Cage's philosophy it would dictate that the kid was part of the piece anyway. All atmospheric sound would be considered part of the performance, no better or worse than the music on the score. After all, music is always sound taking place at one moment in time. 

It's a misconception that Cage's 4'33 is just intended to be four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence. It's also whatever happens to be taking place at the moment the piece is performed, not just in the performance space, but also internally, in the inner world of the listener, in his/her consciousness. In a way it is the ultimate Buddhist anthem. 

My first reaction to the kid was not as a Buddhist however, but as a musician. I felt sorry for the performers on stage. Silence is pretty much the highest compliment an audience can give a musician.
All the more powerful because of its scarcity. 

Whenever I think of silence I remember my first performance at the Woodford Folk Festival, after ten years of playing noisy pub and club gigs.  Early in the set there was a moment where I had to play an introduction to a song, just me on the guitar.  Suddenly what I was playing seemed to burst into colour, it became louder, more vivid. I had a shocking revelation that it was because of the power of a large room of people all listening to what I was playing. 

Usually the audience will settle into its own style of listening, and obviously the performance space has a lot to do with this. Generally too, unless it's a theatre environment (like the Festival of Toys was) the audience are left to police anyone who is being annoying.

Some performers deal with it themselves. Before I ever heard Brisbane band George's music, their singer Katie Noonan was notorious among other musicians for her defence of the silence during their shows. She would ask simply ask people to be quiet or leave the room. I found this very gutsy and well beyond my range as a performer. 

The pianist Keith Jarret has been known to scold audience members just for coughing, accusing them of having a "failure of concentration". 

I understand this impulse. When you play to a hushed room (and the performance is working), the silence becomes another instrument, but in many ways it's more powerful than that, because it's an existential reflection of a shared moment in time. It's a chiaroscuro backdrop that throws every note forward and gives it extra dimension and weight, and,  when the silence is left to hang there by itself the audience and the performer become one big ear, listening, dangling over the abyss together.  

The risk of remonstrating an audience member is that it can backfire. My wife Kate and I were playing in Launceston once to about 300 silent people and one table full of very drunk people who were having a good time right at the front. During a soft ballad, a few members of the audience shushed the noisy table. Throughout the rest of the show the drunk table shushed ironically every time there was a quiet part in a song. 

The fact is, it's much better to play to a noisy room than an almost silent one.How you deal with it is down to the individual performer and audience. Kate never asks anyone to be quiet, but she has on occasion pointed out she could hear every word in someone's conversation. My friend Ben while playing at the Basement reached breaking point and said "This is our last song now and I'd really like to enjoy it, so can that table over there please shut the fuck up for just three minutes." He received hearty applause from the rest of the audience who had been suffering in silence. 

Back at the Toy Festival, the house lights came up for interval and I could see the noisy kid in question. He appeared to be a special needs child. I was reminded of the episode of Extras where Ricky Gervais' character tells off a kid for being noisy in a restaurant not realising the child has Downs Syndrome. 

The second half of the show featured the performer Margaret Leng Tan from New York, featured on the bill as "The Queen of the Toy Piano." It became clear early on that Margaret was taking things pretty seriously, unlike the fez wearing Adam Simmons in the first half, who cracked jokes to the audience as his ensemble's light-activated toys failed to activate due to an unanticipated staging error (i.e. it was dark). 

I scanned the audience for the boy and his mother again. She had moved from the centre of the room to nearer the aisle, but the child was silent throughout Margaret Leng Tan's first few numbers. Every now and then between songs, he would ask "IS IT OVER?" Not in a rude way, although he did seem as if he'd read my mind after one particularly lengthy piece featuring the slightly out of tune toy piano. Margaret Leng Tan chose to engage the boy saying "You're being such a good boy." It seemed slightly uneccessary, given that he was being such a good boy. Perhaps she had been listening to his outbursts during the first act and was anticipating him being disruptive. 
Then, after her amusing one minute distillation of The Ring Cycle, Margaret called down to the boy "Okay, this next piece is very difficult, so you're going to be very good and very quiet, aren't you?" 

The boy's mother called back "It's okay, I am leaving anyway." She took her son and left.
My friend Will got up and left also, in solidarity with the boy and his mother. Will, incidentally is a much more accomplished and successful musician than I am. Later I found that he went to apologise to the woman for Margaret Leng Tan's attitude, feeling responsible as a fellow musician (clearly he is also a much more successful and accomplished human than I am too). The mother had thanked Will, looking tired.  She said, "We are ostracised wherever we go."

1 comment:

  1. Oh wow. Such a great article. Have a tear in my eye for the mum and boy. Not Steiner or Montessori after all! LOL.

    As an audience member your either totally enthralled with the act or wanting to be social with friends while enjoying the show.