How did the audience behave last time you went to a concert? Were most people on their feet, drink in hand, perhaps dancing or singing along? Or were they – were you – sitting quietly and still? Your answer will probably depend on what sort of music was being performed and in what kind of venue. Behaviour considered entirely acceptable at a heavy metal gig is unlikely to be welcomed today in an opera house. And the kind of participation you might treasure at an intimate folk session would probably get you removed from a concert hall.
For well over a century, in fact, audiences at most classical music performances have been expected to adhere to certain behavioural norms: immobility, concentration (or at least its outward appearance) and, above all, silence.
Initially those “ideals” were encouraged by venues themselves, keen to instil an atmosphere of bourgeois respectability as newly monied middle-class punters gained entry to previously aristocratic spaces. In the mid-19th century, silent attentiveness was celebrated as the modern, educated way to consume culture – allowing the ever-acerbic composer Hector Berlioz to snipe that whereas Italian opera audiences just “eat sorbets, gamble and chatter”, Parisian operagoers such as himself actually wanted “to see and to hear”. No wonder that when a new opera house opened in 1840 in what was then Constantinople, audience members were handed a leaflet specifying the rules: “No fighting for seats, no smoking and no noise.”
These days, audience behaviour is more likely to be policed by other concertgoers. Overloud whispering is met with flurries of “Shhh!”, rustling attracts glares, and even the correct timing of applause continues to provoke debate. Put bluntly, the 21st-century classical music world is one where the 19th-century ideas about cultural consumption continue to shape assumptions about the relationship between performers and their audiences.
There are exceptions, of course. The classical “club nights” run in east London by the music promoter and record label Nonclassical, for instance, where orchestral pieces feature alongside DJ sets while drinks and conversation flow in the background. Or the so-called “relaxed performances” intended to be more accessible to young children, neurodiverse audiences and those with sensory sensitivities now offered by classical mainstays such as Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and English National Opera. They’re an essential step towards making classical music more welcoming to more people. Yet ENO’s advertisement that “During these performances, we have a laid back approach to noise and movement coming from the audience” speaks volumes about what’s still expected the rest of the time.
The creative potential of the relationship between performers and audience has preoccupied Berlin-based Australian composer Cathy Milliken for decades. A founding member of contemporary music powerhouse Ensemble Modern, Milliken has composed numerous concert works, installations and radio plays for performance by professional musicians. But she has also produced a large catalogue of participatory pieces and collaborative compositions in which amateur musicians or audience members contribute as performers and creators.
“How much more can music in concert halls become even more elevated, even more the best of the best?” Milliken put it when I spoke to her on Zoom (her Australian accent occasionally inflected by German word order). It’s wonderful if more people can access classical music venues, she says – but she’s also adamant that such institutions “must continue to have as active, hands-on and participatory approach as possible”. That way lies what Milliken sees as the holy grail of music today: “creating curiosity” among audiences.
An invitation to embrace precisely such curiosity underpins her most recent participatory work, Night Shift. Premiered last year in Berlin, the piece will receive its UK premiere in a new version at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 10 March, performed by London Sinfonietta, professional vocal soloists, two community choirs (the CityLit Inclusive Choir and Sing Tower Hamlets) – and its audience. Everyone in the hall will be given a “Wonderbag” full of sound-making objects, from sheets of paper to stones and tiny bells. The resulting piece isn’t just a free-for-all: “What the audience plays, and where, is also in the score,” Milliken says. And it’s down to the conductor and vocal soloists to coordinate the various musical forces. “I just take part with the others,” she grins.
Audience participation isn’t new even in classical music. Two centuries ago, aristocratic audience members regularly clambered onstage to take part in operatic ball scenes. But they still returned to their boxes when the dance number was over. Milliken’s Night Shift, by contrast, largely dissolves the fourth wall that has so long divided audience and performers – and with it, the relative significance of one group over the other: “In the invitation to the public to play, it’s very clear that at the moment they’re playing paper, the musicians are playing paper, too. There’s no hierarchy of material or anything like that.”
Elsewhere Milliken has stressed that Night Shift is about “everyone in the hall making music together, a huge democracy” – a vision far removed from the familiar setup of performers physically separated from a silent, passive audience. But Milliken’s most energising challenge to classical music’s conventions today may be her own irrepressible curiosity as a listener: her fascination with alternative, more accessible forms of musical enchantment, beyond those dependent on the listening conditions created by 19th-century social etiquette. “A little bit of aluminium foil crinkling e-e-ever so slowly,” she muses, “that’s for me quite a heavenly thing.”