A recent story about my attempts to crowd-surf during a 2013 performance of Handel’s Messiah in Bristol (originally published in the Independent) became a national headline in the UK over the weekend. Nearly a year later, that story is now going viral across the internet. Seems there’s not much to talk about in classical music over the last 11 months.
The back-story here is as interesting as the image of some science nerd carried away crowd-surfing during Messiah. In 2013, Bristol’s Old Vic theatre ran the ‘Bristol Proms’. The idea was to relax the standard classical rules to reach new audiences. This approach is a result of simple economics: with public arts funding being slashed, art is feeling the heat to generate profit, and classical music is no exception. A classical concert is an expensive affair, and the age distribution of typical classical audiences spells a real risk of the art form drying up. And that’s why Universal Music threw its weight behind Bristol’s Proms. As one of the planet’s largest distributors of classical music, they can see the writing on the wall.
Each night of the Proms, Old Vic theatre director Tom Morris marched out onstage to preach the new paradigm: “Enjoy a beer in the pit, chat when you like, clap when you like, whoop when you like, engage with the music as you like, and no shushing other people.” It was a nod to the music’s roots, given that modern classical audience protocols are less than a century old.
As an international artist with a longstanding interest in cultural theory, I’ve become increasingly fascinated in analyzing how modern power works across societies, institutions, and organizations. One of the most important starting points is to determine whether power is maintained from the top-down, or from the bottom up. Michel Foucault, one of my favorite social theorists, often referred to the so-called Panoptic model of power. He argued that power nowadays is not enforced from the top, but rather from the bottom, with everybody keeping an eye on everybody to enforce the norms. However, the bottom-up system is also more complex, because it requires that the participants internalize the rules in order to enforce them.
So what better chance to examine the mechanics of modern power than at the Bristol Proms? The conditions were perfect: the theatre director had taken it upon himself to establish new rules for an audience that is notorious for its maintenance of rigid norms. How would the audience respond to the director’s new rules? Were the rules any more than a gimmick? Who ultimately did hold the power here, the audience or the director? And to what lengths might audiences go to enforce their rules?
On the final evening, I attended Handel’s Messiah with two friends. The previous night I had been onstage introducing a collaboration undertaken with violinist Nicola Benedetti. Using a system called ‘danceroom Spectroscopy’, the vibrations from Nicola’s violin were analysed in real-time, letting her violin modulate a visualized molecular simulation. During my onstage collaboration at the beginning of the night, I made a joke, “So the rules are a little bit different tonight. I hope to see some crowd-surfing in the pit,” which got a good laugh from the crowd. My artistic contributions with Nicola earned me a complementary seat, but I chose instead to stand in the pit with my friends.
In line with the instructions delivered by the director at the beginning of the show, we permitted ourselves to freely engage with the music. Standing in the pit, the performers were nearby, and we fed off of their tangible emotion and energy. But the audience did not approve. During the Hallelujah (Praise the Lord!) crescendo, I raised my hands in praise and let out a cheer, reveling in the intensity of the 30-strong choir only a few meters away. That’s when I was knocked down by a punch to the kidneys. It wasn’t delivered by venue staff, but by a middle-aged white male audience member – a classical vigilante of sorts. As I fell to the floor, I banged my head on the stage. The man bent down and said something to the effect of, “You shut up and get the hell out of here, asshole.”
My response was simple: “If you want me to leave, then you have to forcibly eject me. I’m following the rules that were given at the start of the show.”
And thus it came to pass that I was forced out of Handel’s Messsiah by two classical audience members during the Hallelujah chorus. The previous night I had been onstage to rapturous applause. Now I’m being assaulted and dragged out. For praising the Lord, I guess.
The Theatre director immediately came out to find me. He offered apologies, and asked whether I wanted to sneak in the back and watch the remainder of the show with him in the director’s seat.
I declined. I was too shaken up and actually in quite a bit of pain. One of my friends, himself a classically trained musician, was speechless.
The post-show response was even more surreal: a steady stream of audience members and performers, having seen my exit, tracked me down to congratulate me for my performance. Brilliant, they said. It seemed so authentic – an excellent bit of staged violence in the pit. Most refused to believe that it was in fact genuine physical assault.
Responses to my cheering are fascinatingly polarized. Several folks, including musicians, thought that it was just the sort of thing that needed to happen, and that it was a good step toward liberating the classical art form; plenty of others were very unhappy at the disturbance.
Nevertheless, my preferred mode of enquiry is the scientific method: formulating and testing hypotheses by conducting experiments both in the lab and beyond. My preliminary results hint at two conclusions related to classical music:
- It is the audiences (not the director, and not the performers) that run the show. They have internalized the norms and they enforce the norms. The norms that they have internalized might only be a few generations old, but they are very strong.
- The extent of internalization is strong enough to lead to violence in the form of physical assault, an excellent example of how it is actually we the people that perpetuate the very violence that we despise, in line with observations made by theorists like Zizek.
As far as I know, we have yet to see a sustained classical crowd-surf. I took baby steps to pull it off, but didn’t even come close. Shuffling of the feet combined with a little bit of cheering quickly catalyzed enough violence to get me ejected. The image of some science nerd crowd-surfing at a classical concert is simply too good to let go, and I sincerely hope that I do live to see the day when somebody can carry it farther than I managed. The amount of support that I have received over the past few days gives me confidence that I will see this happen.
But beware. This is dangerous territory. Science can be profoundly disruptive, especially with crowds this tough. And you can rest assured, there are even tougher crowds out there.