Appreciation by Ergs

SOMETIMES at a concert I shut my eyes. I know that there are soulful people who feel that only with carefully lowered lids and a rapt expression can they be true music lovers. I hate to run the risk of being soulful: and as a rule I frankly like to watch the conductor, the instruments, and all the other unmusical but richly contributory circumstances of the concert hall. But there are certain experiences of sound that must be pursued with the auditory sensibility undistracted. When Mozart explores the implications of a dazzling theme, and freezes them to constellated crystals; when Bach calls the trumpets to mount step by step to heaven’s gate, I shut my eyes. This is a moment when it is not salutary to see fiddle bows wagging, programmes winnowing, or frumpish faces.

And surely some other listener has closed his eyes against my face. If so, we are one in spirit, although we may not care to observe each other externally. I feel removed and yet united; I feel myself carried off into a fathomless and ideal region, yet I have a sense of others attending me invisibly in my flight, of being richly accompanied by many who are undergoing the same transport. Anyone given to fine sayings could make one about this experience : what we imagine to be sympathy and close union in this world proves to be a cheat and turns to ashes in the mouth; but when the Alone flies to the Alone, no longer asking human sympathy, it finds that it does not go solitary on its way, but compassed about by a cloud of silent witnesses. But I leave the fine saying to be put more gracefully and in fewer words by someone who believes it. As far as my musical experience is concerned, the sense of being in rapport with other listeners at a lofty and austere level of feeling ends always in a brutal shock.

I listen, with eyes closed, to the last strain, the sure resolution of the final phrase. All that airy architecture is about to be completed, and the edifice left shimmering in its own clear realm until it melts like snow crystals and vanishes into memory. Surely these thousand people, who have helped to raise the structure by lending their perceptive organs to its creation, will not lay violent hands upon it and profane it as soon as it is done, like little boys anxious only to kick apart the castles their elders have built for them. Surely they will respect the harmonies which they have come to hear. But no, the last resolved chord has not died away before the most extraordinary response takes place. All the cacophony of a world full of subways, oil trucks, and static pours into my eardrums and begins to flog and bludgeon and worry them with a very infatuation of din. Mountains of coal delivered in cosmic chutes, avalanches of rocks cracking a swath through an ancient forest, could not make a harsher racket. And what is this noise for? Does it express a virulent hatred of the conductor and contempt for his programme? Is it the response of Yahoos to an attempt on their better feelings which they resent by gibbering? No, it is not; it is appreciation. It is the usual expression of gratitude by a cultivated American audience, the means by which it shows itself refined and hospitable to the best in music and the arts.

The eye now truly becomes a defense to the ear. I open my shut lids and look about. All around me human palms are flailing each other with orgiastic enthusiasm. Pale in the strained light of the concert hall, pairs of hands fly together and bounce apart with unpleasant reports, meeting and rebounding, pummeling, cracking, exploding, leaping across brief intervals of space for the ecstasy of audible contact, the exultant shock that sounds as little like music as anything can and therefore expresses the ultimate appreciation of it.

I observe a variety of techniques, for the extensive practice afforded by long concertgoing has reduced to a studied and familiar series of motions the art of bringing the hands together for the purpose of creating noise. There is the difference, for example, between the breadth of the arc or sweep through which the palms are made to pass before they hit. Some people clap their hands with the short, savage piston strokes of efficient boxers. Others fling their hands wide apart, endangering the faces of their neighbors, and bring them flying together through a generous segment of space. This method is certainly more demonstrative, but less accurate; besides, it is apt to hurt.

Another delicate question in technique is whether to stretch the hands, thus flattening and hardening the palms and producing a sharp, piercing tenor slap, a very stab of sound; or whether to hollow the palms, and bring them together so that a chamber of air is formed, which explodes with a hollow bass boom. The flat method is probably better for thin, small, bony hands, which cannot hope to boom; the cupped method is obviously better for large, fleshy, spreading hands, which can enclose a considerable body of air and puff it out in a deep, voluminous drum note.

These differences in technique are evidence of experiment, practice, and devotion — yes, of devotion. For what man has reduced to technique he has first greatly loved. And all this is evidence in turn of the large number of people who attend concerts not to hear music but to applaud it. Applause is the real end for which they are present; no one can doubt it who observes them. They may give every sign of indifference, even desperate tedium, while the music is going on — fluttering their programmes, heaving deep sighs, concealing irresistible yawns; but just as soon as it stops, vitality and a great joy flood through them. They rouse themselves, with the light of lust, the zeal of a mission in their eyes, and set about their work of pounding hands together with fiery energy and grim delight.

It makes little difference what has been played. Their appreciation is undiscriminating. The old, the new, the austere, the popular, a fugue by Bach or a tone poem by Strauss — all are equal provocations to the violent clipper-clapper which they are waiting to produce. The religious ecstasy of Franck, the moody evocations of Sibelius, arouse the same response. The pale flat hands break forth in a brash clatter, the great booming pudgy hands puff out their pillowy thunder. Some beat with a slow, insistent, measured, relentless rhythm, others with a nervous rat-a-tat-tat, like the spattering of a machine gun. All are united in the fervor of a devotional act. If there has been a soloist, he is compelled to return again and again — regardless of what he has played or how he played it. Five, six, seven times he returns and bows his head. Almost visibly the surf of sound breaks over his scalp and sprays about his ears, drenching and suffusing him in its hideous flood.

Now applause is an excellent thing in its way. It is good to be enthusiastic on a fit occasion. Self-expression is often therapeutic, and nothing is more healthful than to join with others in an overflowing demonstration of excitement and approval for a great work. But we need some way of expressing appreciation for music not quite so sharply in contradiction to the object we mean to appreciate. No one would think it suitable to reward a fine performance of Beethoven’s Mass by dumping a ton of coal down a chute, beginning just before the last notes had died away; yet, in terms of auditory phenomena, that is about what the clapping of an audience approximates. In the Opera House, when the tenor is perilously clinging to his high note before cascading down to rest, — clinging like the middle-aged man on the flying trapeze, to borrow Thurber’s language, — then, as I should rather hear the applause than the tenor, I feel no objection, even when it begins prematurely. But those who go to instrumental concerts have a right to ask that some less obstreperous and more consistent response to music be devised.

My personal feeling would be in favor of electrical equipment — buttons, or, still better, levers offering a graduated resistance — which would operate a gigantic but silent dial in full view over the stage. At the conclusion of the piece, everyone in the hall who desired could push the button or lever on the back of the chair just before him, and the total energy would be registered by the indicator on the dial above the stage. An enthusiastic audience, really stirred to a sacramental pitch of appreciation, could gratify itself by trying to make the indicator pass all previously recorded totals; it could even try to break the machine. The device would have the great advantage of providing both silence and physical release. It would not profane the music, and yet would give an opportunity for the expression of feelings pent up and accumulated while the performance was going on.

Nothing is more fascinating, too, than watching long-established records fall before new achievement. No doubt previous applause records would be printed in the programme book; the audience could look them up, and strive to shatter them. In this way, as far as I can see, appreciation could increase beyond limit. An element of exactitude might also be introduced into criticism. ‘A small but enthusiastic audience’ would have a definite meaning. A norm of enthusiasm, precisely measured by the dial, would exist as a yardstick of comparison.

How perfectly in keeping it would all be with the progressive and positive spirit of the times! Musical slogan for a scientific age: appreciation by ergs!