In a recent article, The New Yorker’s music critic, Alex Ross, commented on the “atmosphere of high seriousness” that prevails at classical concerts in the West, something I experienced for myself on my first trip to the opera in New York. On a warm day, I had to wear a suit, sit perfectly still for the better part of at least 3 hours, and rush back from bathroom breaks during the intermissions; if the next act had already begun, I would be allowed to re-enter only after it ended. No cellphones rang, no one talked, and coughs were muffled into handkerchiefs or a neighbour’s conveniently located shoulder. The entire hall seemed to sweat with the exertion of 3,800 people trying to be as decorous as possible.
Sitting still: Western classical performances are serious affairs. David Lillo/AFP
The result, happily, is a deep silence in which each note is crystal clear — the audience’s gift to itself as much as its respectful tribute to the performers. It’s a tribute that doesn’t get paid very often in India. At Carnatic music concerts, I’ve seen people saunter in halfway through a piece, answer phone calls, read loudly-rustling newspapers, talk at strident volumes, and worst of all, pointedly walk out during the thani avarthanam, the percussionist’s extended solo. Decorum, visibly shaken by its utter failure to impose itself, slinks shamefacedly out the door.
Partly, this could be a throwback to Carnatic music’s roots as a temple art: its concerts were rendered as worshippers wandered in and out, bells rang, and priests chanted in the background. That temple was as much a concert hall as a town square, for people to meet for a chat. The informality is built right in; it needs only a nudge to roll it into boisterousness, incivility or outright disrespect.
But partly also, Carnatic music is a more interactive art than most — Classical 2.0, as it were. Audiences, discontented with merely sitting in their seats as passive receivers, turn a concert into a pleasant two-way exercise. They express their approval of particularly beautiful passages, using inarticulate snuffles and grunts or the more concise “shabash” and “balle”. They keep noisy time with their hands; sometimes, the entire auditorium resounds with the beat of regularly slapped thighs. They applaud spontaneously. As a concert winds down, they are also likely to make requests for favourite songs, often hollering across the auditorium like cowherds calling their cattle home.
That sort of excitable involvement is, I’ve always thought, terrific; it keeps the concert alive and charged. Decorum and respect are vital, but there is such a thing as too much staidness and sterility, something that Ross recognized in his article as well. “If the idea is to treat composers as serious artists, then concerts must become significantly more flexible,” he wrote. With a barely-contained wistfulness, he also narrated an anecdote that illustrated the old easy atmosphere of Western classical performances, which will sound very familiar to Carnatic concertgoers.
At one of his recitals, the pianist Franz Liszt was setting out to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Suddenly, there were loud calls from his audience of “Robert le Diable!” — the Giacomo Meyerbeer opera, for which Liszt had composed the enormously popular themes. History does not record whether Liszt hesitated or not. But he did abandon the Kreutzer, and he did play his music from Robert le Diable.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at email@example.com