Audience intimacy and good manners

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It is something of a truism that getting intimate with your audience is a Good Thing. It shows trust and honesty, and will give them a more genuine human experience. But is this a one-dimensional value? Is it the case that more intimate is always inherently better?
Whose little girl?Whose little girl?

I ask this because of something that David Wright said on a recent visit over here. He was quoting Val Hicks (and I think that Val:David = David:me in terms of capacity to supply really useful things to think about) on psychic distance. This is the obligation to leave the audience room to use their own imaginations. If you are singing about a little girl, let the audience think about their own little girls. If you mime holding the baby, you are making the little girl your own and taking away the audience’s power to contribute their own meanings. Literal staging can thus be an invasion of the audience’s imaginative space.

This resonated with one of the nonverbal communication theories I examine in Choral Conducting and the Construction of Meaning: the intimacy equilibrium model.

This shows how people will use different dimensions of nonverbal behaviour to maintain what they feel is an appropriate level of social intimacy; for instance, if they move further apart physically, they will increase eye contact to compensate. Conversely, people will manage what they consider to be excessively intimate behaviour by adapting their own actions. So, if someone stands too close to you, or talks too loudly, you’ll avoid eye contact and give away no personal information about yourself.

In my book, I use this idea to examine the relationship between conductor and choir – how over-conducting incites singers to look at the conductor less, and to sing with less support and resonance to compensate for the conductor’s overbearing behaviour.

But the discussion of psychic distance also made me realise how the idea of intimacy equilibrium explains why we find some performances make us uncomfortable. If a performer appears to be trying too hard, if they seem too loud for the space, or too assertive for the musical content, we may draw back from them, not just mentally, but physically too. We’ll drop our gaze, and close our body language. And if the performer perceives our lack of response and tries even harder to connect with us, we’ll just withdraw further … not a healthy dynamic.

This in turn suggests two things. First, that terms like projection need to be used with a little care. Yes, even the people in the cheapest seats need to hear the pianissimos (to use Liszt’s point), but it’s not just a matter of broadcasting performances out into the world. Second, that models of performance that encourage us to think of the listener as an active participant in the creation of meaning (such as Anthony Rooley’s) are probably more useful for the development of effective performance skills than those that see the listener as the passive recipient at the end of the musical chain.

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