applausegettyThe American composer John Cage composed a piece of music called 4’33”, which consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence (in three movements!). The idea is that the pianist (it’s a piano piece) comes out, sits down prepared to play, and the audience listens with anticipation…and that anticipation is suspended for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, in which you hear, REALLY HEAR, the ambient sounds happening in the concert space, traffic noise outside, bird sounds, and whatever else happens to be happening incidentally.

I’ve often wondered, if you composed more than 20 seconds of silence, or whatever the “fair use” limit is, into your own composition, do you owe royalties to John Cage? Does he OWN the silence he composed?

Anyway, the piece has become famous, and doesn’t have the same effect anymore. When you expect silence, you wind up hearing your thoughts for the duration of the piece. Nevertheless, this piece has taught me to listen to the music between movements of large scale works: the music made by the audience.

When I listen for this, I hear a distinctly early-21st century type of music: the music of INSECURITY. Between movements of a large-scale work, I get the distinct sense that a good deal of the members of the audience are thinking, “can we applaud yet?” Yet they hesitate, because, also present in the hall, are more experienced concertgoers, one could almost say TRAINED concert goers, who know the unwritten rules of behavior at classical concerts, and send out a sort of repressive energy that says, “If you applaud now, your ignorance of concert etiquette will be on display for all to be appalled at.”

So, we wind up with a situation where the members of the concert audience behave like trained seals.

Compare this to its polar opposite: the rock concert audience. They engage in a deafening bacchanal, complete with light display. The audience shouts throughout the performance, and those on the floor stand on their chairs to get a better view of the band, requiring others to stand on their chairs, too. I imagine this was what the Nuremberg rallies were like.

Do you know the scene in the 1956 version of Cecil B. DeMille’s film “The Ten Commandments” in which the crowd worships the golden calf? I imagine that’s what rock concert audiences did before there were rock concerts.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think golden calves are great! But only through some sort of electronic medium. I love all sorts of popular music, and avidly seek out music by my favorite bands, but these days, I can only listen to it on recordings. I don’t like the ENVIRONMENT of rock concerts. All those screaming people! Even when I was in college, big arena concerts annoyed me, though it was thrilling to see the bands I loved. Though I went to the Rock en Seine festival in Paris, France, in 2008, the last rock concert I saw before that, believe it or not, was R.E.M. in 1987 (20 years ago!) at the Worcester Centrum in Worcester, Massachusetts, U.S.A.. It was good, but I had to stand on my chair. Never again!

Anyway, using the fact that at concerts of popular music, people in a sense NEVER STOP applauding, what I’m trying to say is that the urge to applaud between movements of a multi-movement work of classical music is understandable. In fact it’s kind of crazy NOT to want to do this. Why? After a pause, the answer will be revealed in movement 2 of “Can We Applaud Yet?”

So, don’t walk out on this performance yet! (But you may applaud if you like)

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