Game, sssh! and match to the chatters

From the Wimbledon stands to a Texas cinema, the need for silence is absolute, but how do we decide what calls for quiet and what needs noise? David Stubbs finds out

At the Alamo Drafthouse cinema in Austin, Texas, they're cracking down on noise. If you talk, tweet or text during any of their movies, you will, and they mean will, be ejected. Their pre-movie ad gleefully incorporates an indignant message left on their answerphone from a patron who found herself ordered from the cinema for texting during a show. As the text pest blusters away in protest at what she sees as an infringement of her right not to pay attention, it is hard not to punch the air that at last, the ranks of the anti-social and inconsiderate are getting their comeuppance.

Mobiles have certainly added a whole new dimension to the blight of noise during public performances – Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, master of the Queen's music, has called for those whose phones go off during concerts to be fined and the proceeds given to the Musicians' Benevolent Fund. But it's not just phones that are the problem. It's the out-loud talkers, who cut across the demographic range from rowdy yoofs to foghorn-voiced middle-class greybeards unable to resist expressing themselves via speech balloon rather than thought cloud.

Inconsiderate, anti-social. And yet, perhaps the problem isn't the noise but the expectation of silence. When John Cage wrote his piece "4'33"", his point was that the condition of "silence" is actually impossible to achieve and maybe something similar should be conceded with public performances.

Take the so-called "silent" era of movies. In the cinemas, it was anything but. The cranking of the machinery, the running commentary, the accompanying music and the chatty audiences themselves made for a cheerfully noisy experience.

Take also the Raj Mandir cinema in Jaipur, India, whose meringue-shaped auditorium is among the biggest in the world. It's an ear-opening experience. During the show you'll see and hear rows of young mothers with babies screaming away, men taking and receiving calls on mobiles and a permanently high level of chit-chat. Who could "shush" in these surroundings? It would be anti-social to do so. Inconsiderate, even. Once you accept that this is the norm, you can relax, your enjoyment and ability to follow the film unimpeded.

I've been shushed at twice at public performances – both times at rock concerts including a show at the Tate Modern by the once incredibly noisy Throbbing Gristle. Sitting in the upper tiers of Arsenal's Emirates stadium recently, I was dismayed to find below me silent spectators whose presence at a football match was mystifying. Stand up and bellow, as is a football fan's wont, and they would crane round and stare quizzically at you.

In other sports, the same expectation of silence is similar to that required by cinema-goers – as Andy Murray throws to serve at Wimbledon this week, or as Rory McIlroy putted to win the US Open or in snooker, or darts, key moments are watched in silence. The fear is that a single yelp might put them off their stroke. Suppose, however, there was a constant thrum of noise, like in football – would that be a distraction, if it was simply the norm?

It is proper that there should be "quiet zones" in this life, the possibility of uninvaded peace and contemplation. It is good that the Alamo offers the choice that it does. Maybe it's also worth examining the value, the cultural origin, of the expectation of silence at public performances. Is it merely about consideration, or is there a bourgeois aspect to it? A means for certain people to distinguish themselves from the boors, the riff-raff, the culturally different?

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