One of the most thrilling live performances I’ve seen passed with total silence from the audience. No one applauded after the songs, no one whistled appreciatively after each virtuosic solo, the hall didn’t resound with “whoos” when the performers filed out. The audience’s restraint itself was almost audible in the silence between pieces.

Sarah Royce

When, as part of the voiceless audience, I rose from my seat to leave, I was carried toward the door by the music that still swelled – an organ player ushered us out with the huge, complex sounds of his instrument.

Though the tension was still palpable, shared smiles began to diffuse the intensity of the performance, when he finished his piece with a flourish – and the silent audience erupted in noise.

The flow of bodies out the door paused as waves of applause echoed through the cathedral.

Generally speaking, it’s customary not to applaud performances in religious spaces. A great deal of art, including today’s most frequently performed pieces – Handel’s Messiah, Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem – were created in a sacred context. Some were well-received, some not. The religious space in which they’re presented doesn’t excuse them from criticism altogether, but it can exempt them from the immediate, voiced opinion of its audience.

Maybe one of the reasons the audience doesn’t voice its approval is that the creation of art in religious service can be a kind of duty, something that’s done for its intrinsic value rather than for any public reward.

The New York Times reported that people clap, illogically, during one of the newest developments in performed art; this winter, the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City began broadcasting its staged productions to movie theaters across the globe.

Audiences watch live and rebroadcasted performances of operas and clap at the usual moments. As no performer will hear them, they clap either by force of habit, familiar with the rhythm of live performance or from an impulse to appreciate that overrides logic. Look into it yourself this Sunday, when the Met broadcasts its current production to our own Michigan Theater.

Some performers play with an audience’s impulse to applaud, using the fact that it’s often a knee-jerk reaction, whether perfunctory or genuine, to make a point. In his Saturday night performance at the Power Center, poet and performance artist Sekou Sundiata repeatedly turned the audience’s palpable approval on its head. In a production that involved poetry, singers, a band and a video projection of a dancer, Sundiata offered an investigation of post-Sept. 11 America. Sundiata cleverly used our eagerness for pathos to reveal the irony of our sympathies. When exposed, we were at first meek, then eager for more. A tactful and intelligent critique, after all, is what we’d asked for. We became willing to applaud our own foolishness.

Spontaneous applause – for a street performer, for instance, who after all will play whether we “like” it or not – can feel miraculous and wonderfully uniting. Is it because people offer it up voluntarily that they stop in their tracks as though they’d paid for a seat and applaud?

Perhaps this was why the audience at St. Thomas Cathedral turned from their paths to applaud the lone organist. We really clapped for the boys’ choir, now out of sight, in appreciation of their own restraint – in not asking us to applaud.

Colodner is minoring in appreciative applause. E-mail her atabigabor@umich.edu

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