We call it the ‘Voice of God’—that authoritative disembodied voice over the PA system:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to ~name of theater~. Please remember that flash photography and recording are prohibited. And please remember to silence your phone.”
(When I was staff conductor with the Saint Louis Symphony, I would make the announcements in my radio voice: deep, resonant, articulate, and hilariously unlike my normal speaking voice. Afterward, orchestra members would ask me who made the announcements. I’d just shrug my shoulders.)
The ubiquity of the Voice of God message got me thinking about just why we turn off our phones. Is it simply because they are a potential source of distraction—an intrusion of the digital into the analog? Surely an errant iPhone “By the Seaside” would be an unwelcome aesthetic bumper car during an intimate Brahms slow movement. A stray e-sound is sometimes enough to shatter the fragile magic of pure, acoustic live performance.
But is there more to powering down than the risk of embarrassment for the person with the double misfortune of leaving their phone on and getting a call at precisely the wrong time?
I think the ‘phone off’ plea is perhaps less about distraction and embarrassment, and more about granting permission. By turning our phones off, we allow unencumbered engagement with an art that begs for total immersion and temporary exile from the outside world.
Our smart phones have been a huge boon—allowing us to create personal, portable contexts. The subway, or the airport, or the checkout line are all a faint background to our self-made e-environments. We have built electronic fortresses that protect us from the onslaught of analogue reality. That can be wonderful.
But connectivity has downsides, and many of them orbit the premise that disengagement from the ‘real’ world can be perilous. In the most unpoetic sense, the dangers are corporal. We’ve all seen the video of the distracted texting man who runs into a bear (Google it if not).
But smaller misfortunes happen in theaters and concert halls where the casualties are the arts. By not allowing music or theater to be mainlined into our souls, instead asking it first to breach a tech barrier, we hobble art.
As a performer, I know how delicate the creative and recreative process are. As a conductor I build the composer’s architecture. It is a carefully balanced structure that an errant text ding, phone ring, or thumbs-up bloop threaten to topple. But less acknowledged, and just as vital to the balancing act is the audience’s will, whose disengagement is betrayed by those very dings and rings and bloops. An addicted engagement to the outside world destroys the theater’s one native species.
The audience’s psychokinetic ability to help hold up the art is more real than Uri Gellar’s spoon bending. We can tell, up there on the stage, when the audience is with us and when the audience is rapt and focussed. That energy and focus give us on stage the permission to build our architecture higher, broader, more delicately, more intimately, more powerfully. That emboldened spirit in turn further engages the audience.
That relationship we creators and re-creators have with our audience is the reason we keep making our art. We don’t make it for you, we make it with you. That’s why performers like full houses (and audiences do to). In the end, that’s why cutting the e-umbilical cord for a couple of hours is so important. Disengaging from technology allows us to engage with each other to divine, together, these big, relevant, moving messages for all of us. Engaging in a lifeline to the outside precludes building one inside. Next time Voice of God makes its pronouncements, hear it not as a practical reminder to proactively quash distracting sounds, but instead as an invitation to engage in the power of the analog.