Celebrity Silence

14th December 2015 | Concerts, Musings | 3 comments

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?


  1. Michael Robertson

    Wouldn’t the switching-off process with an enforced period of uncomfortable Zen silence actually just make it another kind of distraction, rather than a way of focusing greater attention on the content of the music, though? I would think it would turn the concert into a kind of meditation or “wellness” (as it is called in German) event. It still makes it not so much a concert in which the music is being offered, but rather a spectacular occasion (with the pianist rotating around the hall on a “motorized platform”). It’s not in the end about the music, it’s about the event.
    Paradoxically, her stated aim of opposing the culture of spectacle seems (by the report of it) to be creating precisely a spectacle.

  2. Rikky Rooksby

    Hello Susan, perhaps as an occasional practice this idea of tuning into silence first in preparation for the performance of music might be useful, if only to get people to think about it. But in the end the central issue is getting people to value music enough to want to focus on it completely, and this is very difficult because it runs counter to so many forces operating in a fast, digital and materialistic age. So much of the language used to complain about classical music concerts merely exposes an inability to engage properly in the first place. I’m thinking of ‘stuffy’, ‘formal’, ‘rules’,’convention’, etc. No-one in the world of art dismisses great paitnings from the C19th and C20th as ‘museum pieces’ but they happily do it with symphonies.
    Have a great Christmas and thanks for writing so thoughtfully about music.

  3. Steve L.

    What impatient and self-indulgent times we live in. These people who bristle at paying quiet attention to music are no doubt the same ones who sit behind me at the movies and natter on throughout the film. I wish they’d all stay home and watch TV, where they can make all the noise they want. Same goes for the “I can’t be bothered to cover my mouth” coughers. ‘Tis the season — call me Grinch!


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