Monday, October 12, 2009

Audience participation

I went to an interesting concert tonight, which made me think a lot about being an audience member, and what music means to each individual, and how they experience it.

I went to see the famous jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, who was playing a solo concert in the Berlin Philharmonic Concert Hall, or the Philharmonie. First, it was great to get to see the Philharmonie, which is such a superb venue with outstanding acoustics. And while I am not the biggest fan of solo jazz piano, I found the experience extremely intriguing.

Keith Jarrett is known for two things (besides being quite an accomplished and amazing improvisational pianist); he is known for the grunting/humming noises he omits while playing, and he is known for having extremely high expectations for the concentration level of his audience, and can explode in anger if someone so much as coughs - forget any other disruptions like cell phones or cameras. Because I don't find that jazz piano music really affects me emotionally the way other music does, I found myself contemplating the idea of the performer having expectations for the audience, instead of vice versa. Usually as a performer, I'm concentrating on fulfilling the audiences expectations to be moved or excited, and it never occurs to me to have expectations for them. Keith Jarrett didn't disappoint anyone who was expecting him to be strict with his audience: He stopped playing at least four times because of noise disruptions - two sounds that may or may not have been cell phones and two coughs, he stood up and gave a little speech about how good music required concentration, and he walked towards the audience and demanded that the person who had a camera (he had seen the red light) hand it over to another audience member before he would continue playing. He said, "I'll wait." and stood there with his arms crossed waiting for said busted audience member to comply (he did after an agonizing 30 seconds or so). He also refused to continue at one point because one of the piano strings was out of tune, and he waited until an audience member who also happened to be a piano tuner offered to come on stage and tune the offending string. The audience went wild for him, giving him standing ovations and encouraging him to play about 4 encores.

I personally, found the experience a little stressful. I had read online that he was really crazy about noises, and listened to the man who gave the speech beforehand asking everyone to remain quiet, so I was kind of feeling nervous about what would happen IF someone made a noise. Then sure enough, during the beginning of the second piece, there was a cough that made him stop, followed by some kind of beeping noise that made him say, "turn off your god damn cell phones please." I felt my shoulders raise and my heart rate increase. I don't like it when people get in trouble! For the rest of the concert I found myself flinching any time anyone so much as rustled their program. It's funny because I am the first person to give obnoxious patrons an evil glare if they are talking too loudly or opening a never-ending candy wrapper during a performance, but the idea that the performer could stop what he was doing and yell at somebody was almost more than I could bear. But at the same time, I was amazed with the level of concentration that the audience was obviously exerting to remain silent and focused, and the concentration was permeating the concert hall creating it's own very interesting energy. Plus, I am totally supportive of the idea that if you expect the audience to rise to your level instead of pandering to them, you can possibly create a new level of artistry. Basically I couldn't decide if I liked what was going on or hated it.

In the end, for me, I didn't find Jarrett to be an especially generous performer, so I didn't really feel such a strong desire to live up to his expectations. What he's doing is amazing, don't get me wrong - improvising intricate jazz harmonics for two hours is an incredible feat, and I absolutely give him credit for being such an outstanding musician and creative artist. But because I didn't get the sense that he was really enjoying himself, I had a difficult time abandoning myself to the music and enjoying myself. It was obviously partly because I didn't "get" the music he was playing, but I think it also had to do with feeling like the environment was ever so slightly hostile. But regardless, it was a VERY interesting experience, and one that really got me thinking. It is an interesting shift to imagine being a performer who essentially says to the audience, "I can knock your socks off - prove to me that you're worth it." Very interesting indeed.

I also couldn't stop thinking about the fact that while some people were obviously so raptly paying attention and were deeply moved by the music, I felt like I could have been watching two monkeys banging on bongo drums and it would have had the same emotional impact. Why is it that when I hear the overture to the Marriage of Figaro I feel like my heart might beat out of my chest, and I could cry at any moment, but when I hear a world renowned jazz pianist I feel nothing? Why is the opposite perhaps true for the man who was sitting behind me who was sighing rapturously at the end of every piece Jarrett played? What is the mysterious part of different kinds of music that has such differing affects on people? I'm sure there's a neuroscientist somewhere trying to figure out these very questions. I, meanwhile, want to go to sleep and dream about Mozart. And somewhere else in Berlin, Keith Jarrett is hopefully falling asleep to the beautiful sound of silence.


C'est Moi said...

Call me crazy, but the atmosphere sounds thick with anxiety.... Music is for the PLEASURE of people. If the artist takes it away by being neurotic and/or demanding, what is the point?
A little respect on both sides goes a long way, right?

Kim said...

VERY interesting. It reminds me of Beethoven. Maybe he was trying to be Beethoven.

When I read the line about the overture to the Marriage of Figaro, my heart actually started beating like it does when I hear the piece. It's that amazing -- that the mere thought of the music has that effect! I personally believe that Mozart is uber-special and there can never be anyone like him, but it is interesting to see other people so moved by music that I could shrug my shoulders at and say "So, what?"

I love reading your thoughts - thanks for sharing!

Patty said...

I'm sorry, but we are performers ... entertainers ... and if there are distractions it's just too bad; we are still expected to do our best. If my music flies off my stand, I must still play. If someone coughs, I still play. I find this sort of behavior ridiculous and definitely not admirable.

Yeah, I'm harsh that way. But oh does this sort of thing tick me off. :-(

Katypracht said...

Well written, Jenny. What a stressful evening! I'm glad he was able to provide fodder for your blog, even if his craziness is what came across strongest. :)

We miss you!

Unknown said...

I'm reading Julie Andrews's autobiography "Home" and just read the following passage, about her work in a touring production in 1953 in England: "The audiences were so rowdy in some towns that the management turned on the houselights in the balconies . . . During the second house, on a Saturday night in Glasgow, drunks would throw bottles at each other. Onstage, I trilled louder than usual, my hands clasped in front of me, belting out my arias over the shouting and the fighting." She goes on to describe the skills she learned, such as how to cope with an unruly audience.

So Mr. Jarrett had it pretty good - sounds to me like you were a well-behaved audience, complete with piano tuner!

Gordon said...

In the 70's, in a tiny Los Angeles water front bar, I saw Mr. Jarrett and his Quintet. Between sets he was tuning the piano. While banging on a key he turned to the audiance and said "You don't need perfect pitch to hear this one." Behind me someone yelled "E flat." Keith turned, smiled widely and said "E very flat."

Since then hiting it big and then not being able to play for years has probably influenced his performing persona.