What is it we do when we applaud a music with enthusiasm, when it registers above politeness and conformity? It is the achievement and striving of all the players we applaud, though in fact focus is usually on the one, the leader or soloist. Or the group is honored through its name, since a unity of the diversity of players is hard to conceive apart from a strong name. (For this reason performers are usually pressured to come up with a group name if, like improvisers, they don’t have one.) We applaud their success as if our contribution enables us to ride the wave created by the persona embodied in the music. We are joined to the producers of the music, mythically participating as a substitute for and displacement of our absent playing, our enforced confession that we cannot do what they do, cannot have their success directly. In fact we are their success at the same time we want to be it, hence all the commercial consequences–records, t-shirts, gigs, commissions—ritual gifts and sacrifices to the gods that both establish the gap and seek to overcome it.

For those kinds of music that are effectively presented in publicity as endangered species–a mythic form well attuned to our age–we consider ourselves vital to their survival. We even push for its expansion because we implicitly know the competitive framework of all cultural offerings, like a leftist cause it will presumably die without our support. Our sympathies are engaged, as for a minority otherwise crushed under an oppressive mainstream culture industry. In fact a common ploy is for announcers to urge us to “support” the music, which both assumes that we identify with this music and ignores whether we were swept away by the performance.

Music into which we are drawn embodies some part of ourselves, which we camouflage as our selective “taste.” We want to feel that it needs us while in fact we need it, which we express through our encouragement. It completes us and frustrates us at the same time, because it makes us need more, and the only we get more is by being consuming spectators. If the players want success, and define it in a way that seems to include us, then we join them in a symbiosis. We project into them our own hunger and they ride on our shoulders like conquerors, however small the victory. The mass character of our behavior is that we don’t make this judgment alone, there are always hidden or obvious others we look to for confirmation.

Applause at a concert is a natural for this dynamic relation. There are leaders who initiate, thinking they represent the judgment of the audience, and expect to be followed by a wave; if not they can moderate their enthusiasm. When the applause rises beyond a certain undetermined level (perhaps compared to an earlier performer) it can let loose a flood of feeling that carries it higher–shouts, calls, whistles, and the familiar “whoo!” (The “whoo” is from an individual, confident that there is sufficient unaminity of judgment that he or she will not be embarrassed by making this ejaculation incorrectly.) We want to give back what we have gotten –gratitude through volume and duration of sound–or maybe to surpass it by proclaiming it unsurpassable. We are competing with the players, envying them, vying in a good natured way to see who can overwhelm the other. We may have entered individually or in small groups but have become a collectivity, knowing but forgetting that we were once and could again be a mob, a political threat, a democracy. Our noise is the song of our collectivity in its moment as an active subject, its spontaneous uprising, and like any true uprising no one knows for certain how far it will go. Yet ritual limits were established long ago (the late 19th century), when the canaille was tamed, and spontaneity came to be defined by proper limits. So today, the applause reaches a well-known peak. As individuals we can feel our own presence and effect as it begins to wane, we can keep pressing harder, but feel the pressure to subside. Once again a consensus has been reached.

Our ecstasy is unleashed by them and theirs by us–that is the modern myth and ritual that holds this intentional and transitory community together, just as a traditional community is bonded in its belief system, that it is in no way intentional, transitory, or fortified through ecstasy. Confirmation that we have an ecstatic effect on the performers is more evident in the applause cycle than in calm deliberation  of which of their articles to consume. For one thing, there is more immediate continuity; we read into each next piece our previous enthusiasm, without thinking to judge them separately. As the cycle progresses they play our song, our song is a request for theirs and we play their song. We keep upping the ante.

Once established this cycle is inhibited only by the formal structure of a performance, established either by commercial rules (the contract stipulating so much music for so many dollars), by programming (deference to other groups who must perform), by player manipulation of audience feeling (make them beg for the programmed encore and then refuse to give, creating a sadistic/masochistic bond in disappointment, creating an aura of superiority, untouchability and mystery) or by retreat in the face of an orgy of ecstasy, fearful of what is unknown and unpredictable. Ultimately it is the depression attendant upon realistically acknowledging that we must return to the normalcy of a world unchanged by all that exuberance. Once again we have learned our lesson of impotence.

In an art performance the cycle I have described is suppressed by a sense of decorum and propriety, as if art is a matter of proper judgment and education, and requires a public restraint and critical distance. One enters with a predisposition not to lose oneself, even to be disgusted by displays of intense emotion and fervor. A “good” performer will know instinctively when they have an art audience and will adapt accordingly. Both will conduct themselves as if an older relative had shown up whom they must take care not to offend. Sometimes it seems as if this audience would rather be in the security of their living rooms than in a mass; indeed it is affected by the all the factors that announce and present the event as “art” rather than a mass event. The artists, by muting and disavowing the ritual of the mass event appear to be and perhaps really are expressing disavowal of ego interests: don’t confuse me with the popular “artiste,” who will do whatever necessary to get approval. But such disavowal is a necessary part of the persona the artist wishes to project and of the effective myth of Art. It is self-control over the hunger for success, which would offend the art audience were it to be glimpsed through the mask.

The art performer’s stance of egoless detachment is still a pretense, for it is a serious dilemma what to do with the response from others. Performer means audience, they are halves of the same entity, joined in a kind of love, bonding and struggling with each other, needing the others’ completion in a way that is more disguised in the visual artist, who only “performs” at the exhibition opening. The performer-audience relation has been pacified by being translated into a commercial exchange, a clear sign of which is that players’ judgments of their performance normally will take into account the size of the crowd, if not the money brought in. Likewise many audiences are disappointed–for themselves and for the players–when they are not numerous (relative to the type of music), as if they are responsible for those who did not show up, the greater collectivity of followers. In spite of the pretension of art, that an audience is composed of discrete and judging individuals, they feel far less affected by the performance without numerous, anonymous others. They sense those others’ presence negatively, as if those absent had come as ghosts and sat on their hands, leaving in the minds of those present a depressing feeling that there are dissenters to one’s judgment, a brake on enthusiasm. Since art is supposed to be important to a significant number of people, perhaps this music is not really art after all, perhaps they had made a mistake in coming.

What the art audience then misses is the kind of informal sociality found in the small concert. Here is a relaxed atmosphere in which no strong collective judgment, imagined (as in art) or real (in the more well-attended popular event), hovers over those present. The rules are rather transparent, as when the series organizer announces the forthcoming concerts to five or so attendees as if there were hundreds present. Here is music without the ritual separation of the proscenium stage, music that might escape some of the oppressive pretensions of art, music truly in our midst.