Longer Burning, Short Fuse

We got a heckler at the Pamela Z viola show Sunday night.

He prematurely ended the performance by Jhno, who was building an improvisation in his usual format: long electronic washes of sound and feedback, some of it using a viola as source instrument.

Yes, it was loud. The man, an elderly gentleman, decided the loudness was physically painful. And so, he abruptly started to applaud and yell “Bravo,” clearly indicating he’d had enough.  Jhno continued, maybe even turning it up a little to drown out the distraction. (At the time, nobody knew it was the loudness that bothered the guy. I think most of us assumed he just didn’t like the nonconformity of it all.)

The guy didn’t quit. He started rapping the floor with his cane — how stereotypical is that? — and started shouting over the music: “Thank you! Over! FINISH!”

Jhno wasn’t able to shrug it off. He threw the viola to the ground and stormed off. The viola was destroyed, the neck snapped apart. The rumbling tones he’d set in motion just lingered as audience members started heckling the heckler, telling him what a jerk he was, asking why he didn’t just leave.

Luckily, an intermission was programmed after Jhno’s set. Friends of Jhno’s turned his equipment off and cleaned up, and the audience dispersed and cooled down. It was a long intermission.

The heckler stuck around and was more than willing to explain his position. He was a violist himself — with one degree of separation from the Kronos Quartet, it turns out — and he probably did object to Jhno’s presentation, where the viola came through only in warped, distorted form. But what got to him was apparently the volume, which he decided was worth causing a scene.

I still don’t understand why he didn’t just step out. But at least, he was calm afterwards, and he welcomed discussion with the detractors who tried to engage him (although he did repeatedly call Jhno’s piece an atrocity). Joan Jeanreneaud, the cellist, debated him for a long time; they parted peacefully but didn’t convince one another.

The program’s second half went smoothly, including Jhno silently returning to the stage, as scheduled, to help with Hank Dutt’s performance. At the end, when Pamela Z asked for some extra applause for Jhno (who’d apparently left the building by then), the heckler joined politely.

What he did was ridiculously selfish. (I don’t think his wife was happy with him, either.) But Jhno didn’t help matters by smashing his viola, something I think he’s going to regret. I understand how interruptions like this can throw someone off their game, but there had to be a better way to respond.

I’ve been at performances where people didn’t like the music, but the only other time I remember actual catcalls was at the Starry Plough — a bar in Berkeley that’s willing to host the occasional experimental show. A group of Irish fellows (I got the impression they were a casual soccer team) made a few disgruntled noises during an improv set. It didn’t last, though, and in fact, one member of the group shushed the others, encouraging them to give the music a try. “This is what I like about the Plough,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get.” And he applauded enthusiastically for each piece.

Me, I’ve been to three performances where the music made me physically uncomfortable. Never once stopped a show because of it. I’ll save that for another time; 570 words about this is enough.