The Clap-Trap

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I’m sure you’ve heard this happen: a choir reaches a dramatic pause after the climax towards the end of their performance, and some of the audience think they’ve finished and start applauding. The choir re-starts to sing the last bit of the song after the pause, and the applause fizzles out, and everyone sits there feeling a little bit awkward and thinking that they didn’t really get the benefit of the intended musical shape.

What’s usually happening here is that the applauders are responding to musical gesture, but not harmony – they hear the swell and the break, but they don’t pick up that harmony hasn’t come back home to the tonic yet. Or at least, they are in some doubt about harmony – the applause is never as whole-hearted as it is after a big ending in the right key.

We heard a couple of these at Llangollen, and what was interesting there was that we also heard choirs perform dramatic silences in the middle of pieces without audience members making that mistake. And, since it was basically the same audience, with the same level of musical nous, we need to ask why it was that they sometimes fell into the clap-traps and sometimes didn’t. Was it perchance something to do with the way that the choirs performed the silences?

My working hypothesis is that the difference lies in what’s going on in the director’s and singers’ heads during the pause. The point of a dramatic pause is to give the audience the opportunity to live with the musical and emotional moment that immediately precedes it. If the audience is to experience this, though, the performers also need to keep their attention there. If the performers take the opportunity of the silence for a moment of ‘time out’, the audience will also lose track of the imaginative thread that holds it all together.

You can recognise when this happens because you see the singers visibly relax (even if only slightly), and re-inhale to carry on. It is that moment of relaxation that creates the clap-trap, that fools audience members into thinking that the performance is over. The point about dramatic pauses, after all, is to stretch out the moment of maximum musical tension to intensify its impact. That actually takes quite a lot of emotional effort and mental focus. If you don’t make that effort, you interrupt the journey your audience was taking with you; you make them get off a stop early and walk home in the rain.

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