By Jet Dee (St. Louis, Missouri)
1934. In London, Sir Thomas Beecham conducts Fidelio; sitting in the Royal box at this performance are the King and Queen of Siam. The overture begins. Sir Beecham—immediately annoyed with talkers in the audience—hurls out, over his shoulder, “Stop talking!” Later, during the last act, he whirls around and bellows, “Shut up!” After the following night’s performance is similarly marred with coughing, he makes a threat much like that of one trapped in a car with an obnoxious child: “If it happens again, I shall halt the orchestra, wait for silence, and begin the overture all over again. And I will go on beginning it again—until it is played through in silence.”
In the February 1962 issue of Musical America, unsuspecting readers turned to a modest article headed by the rather surprising proclamation, “Let’s Ban Applause!” More surprisingly, the author of this was none other than Glenn Gould—well known, at that time, from his successful career as a concert pianist. And, in this article, the talented young man directly proposed a strange kind of idea under the guise of the uncomfortable (but pronounceable) acronym, GPAADAK—in other words, the Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds (or the Gould Plan, as this author shall call it). While looking back upon the occasion from the observation deck of today, it is clear that Gould’s article did not achieve its literal aim—but is it possible that this intriguing idea (which probably at first appears to be a random goal put forth by a total contrarian) might actually be seriously relevant now? And could it be just as relevant, in fact, for an even larger number of artists and audiences today, as it was for its author back then?
1936. Sir Thomas Beecham, still true to form—this time in Glasgow, Scotland—turns to the audience at the end of a performance of La Bohème and shouts “Shut up!” when the final bars are spoilt by premature applause.
The beginnings of Gould’s thoughts on this particular matter, he tells us, occurred in his home-town of Toronto, in 1960; the visiting Metropolitan Opera Company appeared for the first time at a new theatre, which was much smaller (and, not to mention, more acoustically fit) than the venue at which they had performed in years previous (a hockey arena)a. High-minded local music writers, who weren’t necessarily in touch with the traditional concert-going sensitivities of the city, had caused a buzz in the community by complaining that, among other things, this smaller setting detracted from the “spirit of theatrical excitement” by means of eliminating the “upper-balcony jeer leader”. Mr. Gould’s somewhat indignant reaction against these statements had consisted of assertions that the sensible and respectful citizens of Toronto would never have been the types to show pleasure “by rudely punctuating a work of musical theatre”, nor displeasure “by forwarding uncomplimentary noises from the stalls”—but after some thought, he had decided that, rather than allow these high-minded critics to dictate “appropriate” audience dialogue, he would recommend a better idea of his own. “I have come to the conclusion,” Gould says, “most seriously, that the most efficacious step which could be taken in our culture today would be the gradual but total elimination of audience response.” And, having made this perplexing statement (which some might call intentionally intriguing), he goes on to explain his view that such measures are necessary; playing his much-loved role of the devil’s advocate, he plays the pre-emptive role of the common fault-finder—dealing blows to the Gould Plan under varied cries of idealism and unconventionality—just as he cleverly parries each complaint as a skilled and fully-outfitted pied piper for his own cause. Ultimately, he says, the plan’s aim is to result in an “audience of the future [that is] seen but not heard”. And, before outlining a somewhat humourous, knowledgeable example of how the Gould Plan would work—beginning with applauseless, professionally-performed concerts on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays; followed by a series of performances through the rest of the week at which families (especially those with children) would be directly welcomed, consisting of second-rate performers and reduced-price admission—Mr. Gould does make the point that “GPAADAK in its early stages will require, in addition to an active promotional campaign, a measure of goodwill on the part of artist, audience, and management alike.”
1945. Leopold Stokowski directs the New York Symphony in Nat Shilkret’s Concerto for Trombone and Orchestra, with guest trombonist Tommy Dorsey as the soloist. The crowd goes wild the moment Dorsey walks on stage, and Stokowski is unable to even complete the introduction of his guest. The young members of the crowd scream and cheer at a deafening level, and finally, after some wait, Stokowski begins the piece. At the conclusion of the first movement, the crowd once again erupts into high levels of cheering, for which Stokowski waits with surprising patience to subside. But, after the second movement, when the audience again interrupts with raucous carryings-on, Stokowski is unable to conceal his annoyance any longer. “Mr. Dorsey has some more music to play to you,” he says to the crowd. “Do you want to hear it?” The entire assembly, of course, screams a response of approval, to which the Maestro directly warns, “Then, you must be quiet. The concert ends now unless you’re quiet.” The audience, chastened, does as they are told, and the third movement begins at last.
While some critics have voiced rejection of Gould's idea due to his notably idiosyncratic manner of approaching public performances—as well as the audiences who attended them—others, even admirers of Mr. Gould's own singular career, are of the opinion that the Gould Plan was meant to be taken as jest, with perhaps more of a satiric air than one of true objective commentary. But if one were to set aside the obvious good humour of the Gould Plan's author, one is left with questions: what if this were attempted with sincerity—might there actually be some kind of benefit to the musician which would, in turn, extend to his audience? How would the audience react to such a plan? And what, besides applause, would the Gould Plan encompass? The questions indeed become more interesting as one continues to think about the idea further.
Let us begin, for simplicity's sake, with the basic element of applause within the context of a performance, or even any public gathering. One can think of several events in which one is asked not to applaud, for the basic rationale that the applause impedes the procession of the event. Consider the following general examples: an instrumental recital or an a cappella choral performance consisting of many short works; a lengthy awards ceremony; a simple theatrical performance consisting of two-dozen cast members who pair up at the curtain call; a graduation processional; or even something as lofty as an annual speech by a President or Prime Minister outlining parliamentary aims and achievements. Any of these instances can easily be excessively delayed, marred—and for some, even ruined, by the presence of an audience that is over-eager to applaud, cheer, display pride, or basically extend politeness at a particular moment within the given circumstance. Many times, a great solo is marred by adoring fans who loudly clap and shriek appreciation (much as Maestro Stokowski discovered); on other occasions, a delicate final moment is shattered by the iron will of tradition: Thou shalt Applaud. Indeed, the aural result of applause—a very jarring sound which can entirely spoil the mood of a tranquil, pensive, or tragic moment in music—is often unpleasantly startling to those who are lost in the beautiful reverie of the moment. Add to this mix the occasional absent-minded attendee who claps during what ultimately turns out to be an entirely inappropriate moment, as Fanfare contributor Colin Anderson wryly noted after attending a recent performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony by the London Philharmonic Orchestra: “As for the applause that greeted the third-movement march, this may be time-honoured...but, boy, is it maddening. The twits who indulge this ‘tradition’ wouldn’t have thought of the conductor going straight into the finale, which is exactly what Vladimir Jurowski did...” Indeed, the latter was not his only stinging comment: “[There was] coughing into silent bars, general noise, and then some idiot clapped too early as the last bars of the finale ebbed into nothingness...However much stillness Jurowski might have mined at this point, we shall never know.” While these somewhat less-than-genteel observations perhaps bring to light the fact that many people, in more than a general sense, aren’t able to sit comfortably with silence—a fascinating psychological aside which, nevertheless, won’t be addressed in this discussion—Anderson’s central message is clear: the blind following of these customary responses makes for a passive audience that instead responds to what they think will happen, and not to what actually occurs. This kind of mass behaviour, especially when acted out in such an automated fashion, is certain to destroy the listening experience for more than one actually attentive audience member—and when others in the audience justly feel that their own enjoyment is being impeded, we know a problem truly exists.
1975. Jon Vickers, a popular Canadian tenor, is in Dallas, performing a matinée of Tristan and Isolde. Act Three begins with Vickers lying on a pallet, portraying a mortally wounded Tristan; as the prelude gives way to the opening lines of the Shepherd, decidedly loud and prolonged coughing fits from within the audience ruin the mood; exasperated, Vickers loudly intones: “Shut up with your damn coughing!”
Gould, of course, touched upon this topic of mass mindlessness as he presented his case for the Gould Plan, as a response to the inevitably-encountered “but-applauding-and-cheering-are-natural-reactions!” camp; this objection (in itself pure preposterousness) is simply dispelled: “One may listen to a recording of a Beethoven symphony alone or in the company of friends, and, though deeply moved at its conclusion, experience no more urgent need than a quick trip to the icebox for a soda water.” Upon reflection, one cannot deny that this is indubitably true, for only in assembled masses does one applaud—and if one does so singularly, he is usually quickly overcome with embarrassment. Gould’s next point: “If we concede, then, that it is the law of the heard that governs the response of an audience to a performer, can this response be further justified?” Ultimately, only the listener can decide...but the point is indeed a valid one.
Besides the interruptive nature of applause, there are further sounds that tend to emanate from large collections of people seated for quite a long time—ranging from any number of small annoyances that disturb listeners close to the source, to the kinds of greater interruptions which even those upon the stage are hard-pressed to suffer through with silence. There are all kinds of lesser offenders: wearers of polyester clothes who tend to scratch constantly; rustling dresses starched to the equal stiffness of cardboard; men wearing patent-leather shoes who don’t bother to keep their feet apart—the latter, in particular, being a supremely hackle-raising and insanity-inducing instance—and, of course, one can’t omit the additional punctuation of heavy breathing, wheezing, snoring, lip-smacking, and similar sounds of a varied sort, which can be seen as equally distracting if somewhat more grotesque. The performance frequently becomes costly background music for those who are unlucky enough to be stuck back in the balcony, where the orchestra is but a mezzo-piano to the polyester wearer’s forte. It’s a miserable experience. In the end, however, scores upon scores of performers feel that the worst of these offences perpetrated night after night at the concert hall is, inevitably, the cough. Consider the pointed derision of German pianist and harpsichordist, Tilman Skowroneck, upon this very subject: “The majority of coughers...have—in all their boldness—an uncanny sensitivity for those moments of the music that mean most to the performer. A sudden diminuendo paired with intensified drama; an unexpected sweetening of the timbre; an exquisite infinitesimal rubato; a quietly uttered syllable: these are the moments where people introduce their five-minute passes of rhythmic choking, their uninhibited roars, their high-pitched sneezes, their gurgles and bellows.”
1993. Alfred Brendel is attempting to perform Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata at the Kennedy Centre, in Washington, D.C. He stops mid-performance, looks into the audience, and announces: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I should start again when you have finished coughing.”
The difficult aspect of coughing (as we all know) is how impossible it can be to control it, especially if one has swallowed the wrong way, or suddenly and inexplicably needs a drink of water. But what about those patrons who have been ill prior to the performance, who can reasonably expect to cough at one or several points in the evening? What about people who, for whatever health reason, have a chronic cough—what about those seemingly tubercular (to borrow a choice word from Mr. Gould) and bronchial patrons who generally give the impression of choking out one’s dying breaths? These are people who, as unfair as it may sound, simply shouldn’t be present at concerts, yet who invariably are. And the listener need not even be in the concert hall to experience the inconvenience of his afflicted fellows—for even in radio broadcasts, amplified by several thousand watts of power, these people and their abysmal hackings are transmitted straight into our living rooms and ear canals, in beautiful stereophonic crystal-clarity—at a moment when we certainly should be permitted solace and escape from those aspects of the performance upon which the public can infringe!
1998. Kurt Masur, conducting the New York Symphony, simply walks off the stage, mid-performance, due to the audience’s excessive coughing. Not a word was said!
Despite the fact that small fortunes’-worth of throat lozenges are regularly dispensed by ushers along with concert programmes throughout the season, a steady, unscored accompaniment still tends to dog the performance; conductors and performers, usually expected to remain aloof throughout such proceedings, occasionally fail, and end up chastising their audience. Jon Vickers, in explaining his famous Tristan outburst to Dallas Morning News music critic John Ardoin, said, “Here was this fine orchestra and beautiful English horn player doing their utmost to establish an atmosphere of this dying, sick man...and members of the audience were simply not allowing them to set this mood...People must understand that coughing and other racket destroys the very thing they had paid their money to enjoy.” Obviously, Vickers felt that the problem had to be addressed immediately—even at the risk of ruining the performance (and creating the ensuing scandal)—and, unsurprisingly, he is not alone among musicians who perceive coughing as a primary means of interruption. Cellist Stephen Isserlis recently wrote that “it might be an idea to have some sort of charter for audience members and performers, to regulate behaviour at concerts,” with the added point that “For the former, the rules should address, above all, the issue of coughing, which has long been the cause of concert-platform rage among players.” Considering that these are men who choose to spend a great deal of their creative lives offering performances to the public, it certainly begins to seem that one can justifiably look askance to the public for more than just attendance—but attentiveness, too. And to this end, the ideals of the Gould Plan are perfectly suited.
2004. Michael Tilson-Thomas conducts a Mahler symphony in Miami, FL. Suddenly visibly angry, he throws down his baton mid-symphony and leaves the stage, due—as it is later explained—to the volume of uncontrollable coughing emanating from the audience.
It remains to be explained, of course, why anyone might attend a concert when they are feeling ill (or possibly just indisposed to considerate behaviour), but it can easily bring one to reflect upon previous performances one has attended, and found unenjoyable for any reason. Even something as general as a book or film during which one became bored serves for the example: why bother sticking it out for the mere principle of just doing so? When the endeavour is hopeless and truly without any subjective merit at all, one stops reading, or leaves the film house; he finds something more personally engaging towards which to direct his attention. For those remaining who still possess the capability to enjoy what they are experiencing, he who leaves through boredom will undoubtedly provide a better chance for further tranquility throughout the piece. Any potential guilt felt by the person who is afraid of being seen leaving mid-performance should easily be assuaged by the fact that as long as he will not be voicing his dissatisfaction in some other manner—be it idle coughing, scratching, throat clearing, programme-flipping, or foot-fidgeting—his honesty will be greatly preferred (and thereby forgiven). After all, there are worse choices one can make as an audience member—choices that might bear unforgivable results.
2006. Tenor Roberto Alagna, in the season’s second performance of Aïda at Milan’s famous La Scala opera house, is singing Radames’s aria “Celeste Aïda” when suddenly he is booed loudly by members of the audience. He immediately stops singing, dismissively salutes the gallery, and stalks off stage.
More extreme audience demonstrations, such as cat-calling, raucous screaming, and especially booing, can take a decidedly more sinister turn, insomuch as how those on stage respond to them on a very personal, and emotional, level. This is something to which the audience should be much more sensitive, as the implications of such actions can cause lasting problems for the performer (and possibly even for those in attendance). Depending upon when and where it happens, offending audience members can be forcibly ejected from the concert, but even this good intention raises an additional interruption to the proceedings that is sure to disturb neighbours even more than they have been already. In other venues, however—and notably in opera houses—the heckler is allowed to remain throughout the concert’s duration. There is no denying that unwanted audience demonstrations of this kind truly wreak havoc with the performer’s ability to successfully concentrate and perform at his best; this kind of interference is even doubly illogical, because no-one wants to find that they have spent money on a failed stage effort—so how could the idea of inducing, or augmenting, such an unhappy public occurrence possibly be justified? Appalling behaviour is by no means less so in the darkened rows of the upper balcony—and if it causes a performer to lose his self-control, then shame on us for goading him into it. It would be quite an ignorant thing to assume that the performer becomes invincible when he is on stage (in fact, quite the opposite is usually true); just because he is the momentary object of everyone’s attention, and does so willingly, does not mean that he is always comfortable doing so. Gould, ever knowledgeable upon this singular point, chose, in a seemingly uncharacteristic move (this odd reticence will be discussed later), to tiptoe over the matter with a mere three sentences. The third will be addressed momentarily, but the first two (starting with the voice of the Gould Plan Dissenter), beg the question: “’Everybody knows that artists are incredibly conceited and quite able to survive the taunts of an impolite laity.’ Ah, are they indeed? I ask.” The answer, obviously, is that the artists are, at that moment, in a very vulnerable position which should be respected accordingly by the attendant public.
Considering the startling amount of evidence presented here—which has long existed, and which seems to be under no promise of abatement—the suggestions that the Gould Plan makes are indeed relevant ones. The audience, if anything, only gains from the implementation of the plan; surely most people can agree that the inverse of distraction is quality, in whatever proportion. In any case, the prospective audience-member must make a choice: either Gould is right, and the assembled evidence falls in line with his (the listener’s) own past reactions and direct experiences, thus, he resolves to affect a change in his habits—or, Gould’s ideas are idealistic and possibly wrong-headed ones; refusing to applaud at future concerts will surely only get him stared atb, and he would feel uncomfortable (of course, to be fair, perhaps some other personal dissent holds him back). Still, this man is going to be hard-pressed indeed to not consider these matters further the next time he sits in the concert hall amid the ill-timed clapping, coughing, and scuffling; this man, too—if all of his neighbours have set a precedent by not applauding—is more than likely to follow suit, in the end. While it is true that a concert is certainly not going to improve just through one attendee’s determined attitude of “this nonsense be damned”, it certainly will improve if perhaps a conductor or musician opens his next performance with: “We’ll be trying a little experiment this evening...” If plentiful signs are posted calling for “No Applause”, or if a prominent explanatory leaflet is dispersed with the concert programmes, this understanding will be much easier to come by than through mere word-of-mouth alone. Indeed, Gould’s own outline of how the Gould Plan should begin implementation within the confines of the concert hall—starting with the top-notch events of the weekends—might certainly work well under such auspices; a slow-but-steady introduction will surely provide the best acclimatisation.
At this point we come to the decidedly interesting conundrum posed by Mr. Gould’s authorship of this plan; one might wonder, “Why, as a man who famously hated giving concerts, isn’t he proposing their demise—why this middle-of-road stuff? Doesn’t this seem to proliferate a tolerance of concert performance, which would technically be against his principles?” Obviously, and especially to those who can now look back and trace the paths of Gould’s anti-concert philosophies, the total cessation of concerts and subsequent whole-cloth switch to recording alone is the next (and, ultimately, most logical) step in achieving supreme control over the performance environment—for only then can the performer at last be presented, on his own terms, to an audience which can then do whatever they please during the listening experience. But, at this point in Gould’s career—it was, remember, barely 1962—Gould was still saving his concert fees in order that he might retire. And what an imprudent move it would have been to proclaim, in a nationally-circulated periodical, “I Despise Giving Concerts—But Do Come to See Me Play!”; while he made no secret of the fact that he preferred the recording studio, and that he’d long had a definite plan to retire at 30 (which was dubiously laughed off as young impetuousness by his elders and peers—especially as his 30th birthday had come and gone), it was not until four years after the publication of the GPAADAK article that the full extent of his true feelings on the matter were revealed—notably, after his retirement. So, it must be pointed out that this seeming inconsistency is not precisely that. The piece is neither immature nor a view that was eventually transcended by a greater conviction—instead, it is far more likely that Gould certainly wanted to give up concerts years before “Let’s Ban Applause!” was written, but concealed the fact out of necessity and common sense. In this light, the Gould Plan was but a stop-gap type of solution, in which the less-incendiary (and least damaging to his master plan of the earliest-possible retirement) views could at least be given some small outlet, lending a kind of therapeutic aspect to the piece. And there is indeed insight to be gained in his page-ago-promised third sentence regarding the perceived invincibility of the performer: “Or are the absurdly competitive extravaganzas of our operatic colleagues not the product of, or maybe the antidote to, the vulgar artistic hostility of those sun-baked societies who have built an operatic tradition in which their primal instinct for gladiatorial combat has found a more gracious but thinly disguised sublimation?” This, which eventually proved to be one of his favoured parallels to concert performance as justification for his reaction to its repellent aspects, is what really gives him away. Alas, the readers of 1962 had no way to really suspect this at allc. Of course, as far as the present paper is concerned, the discussion of utter abandonment of concert attendance is an entirely separate, if related, one; the purpose of the Gould Plan, however, is to provide a different means of enjoyment for those (and one could venture a guess that this is probably most people) who are absolutely not ready, or willing, to give up either public performance or attendance. It therefore stands to reason that these people at least deserve a more considerate audience environment in which to experience these events. And, for this, the Gould Plan meets the need.
Let us conclude with a fine point made by Mr. Gould in his argument for GPAADAK: “I am disposed toward this view because I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, life-long construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Through the ministrations of radio and the phonograph, we are rapidly and quite properly learning to appreciate the elements of aesthetic narcissism—and I use that word in its best sense—and are awakening to the challenge that each man contemplatively create his own divinity.” With this in mind, it is the hope of this author that today’s artists will one day succeed in helping to fashion new ideas of performance criteria within the collective conscience of the listening public. The dissemination of open-mindedness that these discussions and experiences would bring about would, without doubt, help in dispelling the stigma surrounding those who do not wish to participate in the traditional forms of performance. Certainly, let us not marginalise those who have a different rationale in their approach to playing for an audience (but, at the same time, let us not marginalise the performance itself!). Mr. Gould’s unique perspective on the matter—perhaps not universally maligned, but without question almost universally unendorsed—at least deserves a fair chance in the circles of musical philosophy. We live in a society that once thought it couldn’t possibly affect a nation-wide switch from gas to electricity, from silent to talkie, from AM to FM, from typewriter to computer, from land-line to wireless; even more mundanely, changes in everything from white-tie to Sunday best, and metal tips to plastic tips, have all been hotly disputed in the past. Obviously, society’s expectations for future behaviours are frequently negatively hyperbolic and relatively short-sighted compared to what greater technological sophistication and improvements in personal comfort are eventually attainable. So, to those who might band together and put the Gould Plan into practice, unite! You are hereby challenged—open the pathways to further acceptance of music in its essential forms!
a Gould, in writing for a larger and not necessarily Canadian audience, didn’t give the name of the new theatre—but for those readers who might be curious, it was the O’Keefe Centre (now named the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts), inaugurated on 01 October 1960 and touted as “the house that beer built”. Insomuch as his remark about the hockey arena is concerned, he was not kidding; from 1952 until the opening of the O’Keefe Centre, the Met almost annually performed at Maple Leaf Gardens—what a spectacle Carmen must have been in this facility!
b It is certainly true that, if one is sitting in direct view of the performer, and especially when said performer is unaware of the silent listener’s intention, it can cause some slight misunderstanding (and possibly even vast images of failure within the performer’s psyche at the moment). The author of this paper, who had abandoned the practice of applauding long before she discovered GPAADAK, has considerable experience in this aspect of the performer’s reaction, and has found that maintaining eye-contact and, occasionally, smiling at the performer helps to settle potential perceptions of “intentional abstrusity”, or an even more misplaced suspicion of “mysterious hostility”. In the interest of avoiding these latter cases beforehand, however, it is just best to sit where one cannot be seen!
c This author, in fact, occasionally wonders if perhaps Gould’s private fantasy at the time he wrote this article was to instead see the creation of the GPAA: the Gould Plan for the Abolition of the Audience!
Jet Dee, who is a nearly life-long inhabitant of the American Midwest, spent the last nine years in Chicago working variously in the fields of audio electronics and autism therapy. Nearly thirty, she intends to pursue a degree in Speech and Language Pathology at a Canadian university, in the hopes of further helping children with autism adjust to the difficulties of modern society. She was trained as both a soprano and alto throughout her youth by JoAnne Struck and Connie C. Tate; by now having written a volume of trifling material, she has happily spent a great deal of time in the safe haven of the recording studio. She enjoys writing essays on a variety of subjects (usually musical) and is probably overly influenced by Victorian literature and a tendency toward alliterative abandon. Jet enjoys shortwave radio, keeping pen-pals, and spending time with animals. Her heroes are the audio engineering legend John G. McKnight, famed audio-electronics designer John Hardy, and the infallible detective Sherlock Holmes. She discovered the creative brilliance of Glenn Gould a little over a year ago, and no longer feels lonely in her idealistic approaches to music performance.