I have been haunted this week by articles about the New York collaboration between ‘performance artist’ Marina Abramovic and pianist Igor Levit. You can read all about it here. Basically, Marina Abramovic seeks to ‘get the audience into a different state of mind’ in preparation for a performance by Igor Levit of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She summons people to relinquish their phones, watches, tablets, laptops and don noise-cancelling headphones while they sit silently for half an hour ‘in cloth deck chairs designed to Ms Abramovic’s specifications’ before the music begins. ‘They want to listen to Bach, so they have to suffer’, she comments drily.
I discussed this conceit with a few colleagues. We were all afraid it would be greeted rapturously by the very people who usually say they don’t go to classical concerts because they hate being told to sit still and keep quiet.
Most classical musicians crave an atmosphere of silence and concentration. To put it simply, the painstaking work involved in considering and perfecting every tiny musical nuance just isn’t worth it if the details aren’t heard. So with mind-over-matter and body language, performers try to create a powerful focus. In recent years, efforts to foster this have included asking the audience to stifle their coughs and turn off their phones. Some players have remonstrated with noisy audience members from the stage. Though some applaud them for doing so, others find them pompous.
The custom of sitting quietly and paying attention in classical concerts is the single most often-cited reason why the public resents them. I’ve lost count of the complaints about the ‘stuffy’ concert-hall and the ‘old-fashioned’ request to keep still and refrain from texting or tweeting. In fact, in the search for listeners, most musicians have desperately been trying to think of ways they can ‘loosen up’ this allegedly stuffy atmosphere – encouraging the audience to bring in drinks, dress down, move about.
So what are we to make of the fact that a celebrity performance artist is lionised for making the audience surrender their phones and watches and sit in enforced silence for half an hour? And how should we respond when a starry-eyed audience tells us the experience was revelatory?