Incivility and Intention: The Orchestra Version

During a performance of the refined and grand Mahler’s 9th symphony at the New York Philharmonic on Tuesday 10 January 2012 the moment was interrupted by the unmistakable marimba ring tone from an iphone in the front row. The conductor, Alan Gilbert, stopped the performance. He spoke to the front row offender; whatever he said was not recorded. After an interminable time that included shouts from other audience members, the phone was silenced; the performance continued.

This incident provides some insight into intention and incivility. People certainly know that silencing phones is a fundamental part of concert going. As usual, an announcement to this effect was made at the beginning of this concert. Doing so is nearly a ritual, such as flight attendants explaining the operation of a seat belt: if you don’t know how to operate a seat belt you should not be out of the house without supervision. In light of the implicit and explicit cautions against phone rings, the culprit’s neglect goes beyond unintended to gross neglect.

But another view emerges from Daniel Wakin’s New York Times piece on the incident. The offender was a regular concert going an active donor to the New York Philharmonic. He had received the phone the previous day at work and was unaware that the alarm clock was set and that the alarm clock on an iphone would override an off-setting and ring regardless. The slow response to the ring was that it took a while for it to register that his phone was the offending device and then to figure out how to turn off the alarm (btw the alarm does not turn itself off in a reasonable time unlike a phone call that would shift to voicemail after a few rings).

From this perspective, the offender’s neglect was to bring a potentially disruptive device into a concert venue without becoming thoroughly acquainted with it. But how many people actually read through the documentation accompanying a new device? How many people would actually anticipate the situation to leave their new phone in the car? Although the individual could be criticized, doing so sets a high bar for anticipatory device management. And the individual did apologize. He spoke directly to Mr. Gilbert the next day.

In addition to a lesson on civility, the situation provides one on the special status of a live performance. One of the qualities that make such performances special is the possibility that something can go very wrong; will we make it through this performance without untoward events occurring? We always hope for success, but the tension adds to the experience.

A final note: Wakin’s article notes the following:

In a Twitter message, the composer Daniel Dorff said, “Changed my ringtone to play #Mahler 9 just in case.” Now that is looking ahead!


  1. Dear Dr. Leiter:

    I have a particular opinion about this kind of events. Certainly, it was an explanation for this unintentional interruption, but since people found common to hear background music, performers are treated as “devices” and people find normal to interrupt music with commentaires or different sounds. I know it because I’m also a musician.
    It gets worse when the performer decides to stop. I find that this attitude, is a part of today’s uncounsciousness. Real Music happens only one time in both performer’s and listener’s lifes, recorded music is an illusion. Real life only happens once and it should motivate respect and admiration. This is an essential life’s warning that only few people read in life’s manual. Finally, those electronic devices are now like the big doors of ancient cathedrals,face to them, human size remains the same.


  2. Heriberto
    You make excellent points on the value of real music and real life. It is certainly a challenge for people to find ways to share space and time and sound together. It is wonderful when it works.


    1. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour happens all the time. People have no idea of civil behaviours for concerts or while at the theatre. At our local, live theatre, there was once a man sitting in the front row. In the middle of the live performance, his cell phone rang. Instead of embarassingly turning it off, he answered the call and proceeded to talk on the phone in the middle of the production!
      What would Emily Post have to say?


  3. Laura
    That’s an awful story. In that case the intention was deliberate without consideration for the performers or the audience. It’s hard to imagine the thinking that goes along with that behavior: does he see other people as so kind and accommodating they will tolerate anything he may do? Or is he completely oblivious to other people as legitimate beings?
    So, is interrupting the performance necessary for this kind of situation?


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