In the piece, Ross tracks the history of audience interaction/shows of appreciation at classical music performances. In the 18th century shouting your admiration whenever seemed appropriate was quite okay - today, clap at the wrong time and you're likely to get ssssh'd. Ross writes:
Perhaps it is unnatural to expect utter stillness in a public space. We may be imposing habits of home listening on the concert hall. Seated before our stereos, we've grown accustomed to brief bands of silence between movements. This may explain why resistance to the Rule subsided rather quickly. Increasingly, individuals gathered in one place to have solitary, inward experiences. Where listeners were once swept away by music, they now spoke of music sweeping over them, like an impressive weather system over which they had little control.
During the applause debates of the 1920s, the pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch said, "It is a mistake to think you have done your part when you buy your tickets." There ought to be more give-and-take between performers and audience, he is saying. Passivity is too easily mistaken for boredom. Performers, for their part, overdo the detachment. American orchestral musicians appear to have taken classes in how to show no emotion whatsoever – with the occasional exception of a slight smirk during the composer's bow or a flicker of a smile during the soloist's encore. Music is an art of mind and body; dance rhythms animate many classics of the repertory. But in modern classical music, the body seems repressed.
To recap Cardiff's work for a moment. 40 speakers are strung in a rough circle around the perimeter of the gallery space, broken into small groups. The speakers, supported by black stands, are roughly at head-height. The audience stands, mostly, within the circle, in which there are placed two benches.
From each speaker issues the voice of an individual Salisbury Cathedral Choir chorister. Cardiff recorded the choir performing Thomas Tallis's 1573 composition Spem in alium, pinning a microphone to each singer's front.
As you stand within the circle you first hear the speakers warming up and chuntering amongst themselves. Then the singing starts, and as different parts of the choir sing (the piece is written for eight groups of five voices) the sounds wash over you, advancing and receding depending on where you stand. It is beautiful, and moving. People stay in the room for longer than normal. People start crying.
When I'm in The Forty-Part Motet, my attention tends to be focused less on my own reaction to the music than covertly studying what the other people in the space are doing. The Forty-Part Motet is a strange half-way point between attending a public live performance and listening to a recording privately.
On the one hand, you can do things you normally wouldn't do at a live performance - like stand with your ear right up against the 'mouth' of a performer, shift around the space to track the music, walk in and out halfway through, or listen to the same thing over and over. The conventions of passive listening are broken.
On the other hand, you're a member of an audience that's jointly participating in a time-bound experience of listening to a recording. You can't help but notice each other as you listen to the recording. You share little smiles of complicity, or pretend you didn't actually just make eye contact. You can't help but see how people react, and think about how people might be watching your reaction. This isn't how we normally listen to music either.
What I would love is for - just for one hour, even just one performance - for the speakers to be replaced with live singers, and be able to watch how people behave then.
* I don't know much about music, but I think Alex Ross is awesome. Check out his Unquiet Thoughts blog on The New Yorker site.