Sunday, May 06, 2007

McPhail and The Question of Audience Participation

X-posted from Other Me's livejournal.

MomCulture spoiled me. When Mason and I got a flyer in the mail from the McPhail Center for Music about the Bakken Trio (violin, cello, and piano) who were going to be giving a free, (supposedly) informal concert over the lunch hour in the fourth floor rehearsal space, I thought: hey cool, this would be another music thing Mason and I could enjoy. When I showed him the flyer, he hopped up and down and said, “A cello! I finally get to see a cello!” We were psyched. On the big day (last Friday), I packed up our activity books, some snacks, and a boy who could hardly wait to see the mythical cello up close and personal.

I totally forgot how most people experience classical music.

I need to preface what happened at McPhail by saying that Friday had started out somewhat poorly, and it was quickly becoming a day of being “hushed.” We foolishly brought along our pennywhistle to our local (coffee shop in this case) and had settled in for reading some Thomas the Tank Engine and hooting along whenever the engines whistled at each other. Not surprisingly, we were hushed.

I have always hated being hushed.

I understand that people were trying to work. And as the supposedly responsible adult in charge I did, in fact, quite promptly take Mason’s whistle from him and explain that we were being too noisy and other people were trying to do their own things, which we had rudely interrupted. However, internally I twinged. I have always been an enthusiastic participant in life, and thus have spent much of my life being hushed. I think, too, that many people are unfairly hushed. There are times, of course, when exuberance isn’t called for, but those times are, in my opinion, fairly rare. And, I’m so very sorry that my happiness interrupted your dull, drab and lifeless existence. Excuse me while I chortle noisily and go on enjoying myself without you.

That being said, we were being loud and people were trying to work. In deference to them (and, really, that whole golden rule thing,) we took our fun selves elsewhere.

On the drive home, I notice a woman walking three dogs. They were barking, running, and generally being happy dogs. She looked absolutely miserable. And, I thought to myself, “How often do I pass people on the streets that are actually smiling to themselves?” Watching over the rest of the day, the answer was: almost never.

Fast forward to noon. Mason and I had to rush off from a very pleasant, if disorganized (as eating out with a nearly-four year old often is) lunch with our friend Rosanne. Still in a somewhat frazzled mood we arrive with plenty of time to spare at the McPhail. Remembering the lessons of last time, we parked in a hotel lot across the street and hustled to the rehearsal space to get a good seat. When we got off the elevator on the fourth floor, there was a crowd of “the walker set” as Eleanor would call them -- retirees all looking for some culture.

I started to get nervous that Mason and I would be the only people under the age of sixty-five at the event. A couple of other moms with kids in tow showed up. Mason insisted we head for the front row – which was a row, btw, none of the nice cafeteria style set up they’d provided before – and we settled in to wait with our dot-to-dot books.

Then the show started. Mason perked up to watch the performers get ready. When the music started he exalted, “Ima, look! Her hands are dancing on the strings!”

We were instantly and profoundly hushed.

Worse, soon after, I became complicit in hushing Mason.

Normally, Mason is very attentive, but after being disallowed his opportunity to express his joy – in my opinion – he disassociated. He got antsy, fussy, and started to ask me in a loud voice when we could go home. We stuck it out for a while. I encouraged him to dance, but he soon felt conspicuous since all the eyes in the room weren’t smiling, but glaring at me as if to say, “Can’t you control your little monster? How DARE he enjoy the music as if it were common music!”

I nearly cried. We left the hall, and while I was tying my shoe out in the lobby Mason perked up and said, “We can still hear it out here!” I thought he might like to say and enjoy the music from the other side of the closed door, at least, but he decided he’d rather go.

At least the experience doesn’t seem to have dampened his interest in music entirely, thank the Goddess. Mason says he still wants to try again when the harp and flute players are there next month. I’m a little leery, if only because I’m angry that in order for Mason to go to these sorts of events he has sell his soul. If we’re not going to spend the whole time getting hushed and glared at, I’m going to have to teach him something I don’t believe, which is that music has to be enjoyed while sitting still and being quiet.

I ended up having a long passionate discussion about this with Sean M. Murphy on the phone later on Friday, and though I’ve mellowed a little bit on my stance that art should be one hundred percent participatory, I still think that it’s a bloody, ugly shame that music (at least of the variety that involves cellos) has become something so DEAD that it’s not okay to shout and dance while experiencing it. I get that grown-ups like to close their eyes and become the music, but many grown-ups, in my most humble opinion, are kids who have forgotten how to dance.

This is one of the biggest crime our culture inflicts on children: learn to sit still and be quiet. I think in many ways, it is the root of some of the deep unhappiness that poisons modern Americans. I mean, is it any wonder people are depressed when you can’t even shout with joy when the spirit moves you?

Mason and I are going to have to find a happy medium, I know. He’s going to go to school next year and this will be the first hard lesson of his life, the whole learning to sit still thing. It has its benefits, I know.

But sometimes, man, you just gotta dance.


Anonymous said...

I have to admit to being of two minds about this, having enjoyed learning how to be still and listen quietly to classical music at a young age. But it can all be incredibly uptight and snobbish.

Four words - summer, free outdoor concerts.


tate said...


We just got the list from our city today. I think it's a perfect compromise.