Max and the mobiles

Why Sir Peter is quite right to attack the phone pests

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A couple of months back, an angry letter dropped on to the editor’s desk. 'Either you leave Sir Peter Maxwell Davies alone,' it demanded, 'or you will soon be one subscriber fewer.'

The letter was referring to successive months’ coverage in our March and April issues of, firstly, Max’s attack on lazy conductors and then his objection to muzak in restaurants (the latter article accompanied by a suitably tongue-in-cheek illustration). A fair point, maybe, but the Master of the Queen’s Music doesn’t exactly hold back from making the odd public statement here and there – and given that he normally does so lucidly, intelligently and with just that little bit of attitude, he’s something of a news editor’s dream.

And now he’s on the warpath again, directing his ire at mobile phones going off during concerts. And on this occasion, he has my whole-hearted support. In the opinion of Maxwell Davies, those ‘artistic terrorists’ who let their phones ring mid-performance should be fined. Too lenient by far, Sir Peter – there must surely be some worse punishment we can think of? How about forcing them to sit on stage in a big pointy hat with a ‘D’ on it?

On the face of it, a short burst of a ringtone – whether it’s a conventional trill or one of those wackier numbers seemingly designed to herald the presence of a half-wit –doesn’t seem that big a deal. It is, after all, usually only a few seconds of a concert that may last up to a couple of hours. But, of course, the impact is much more than that. When it’s gone off once, you find yourself wondering, is it going to happen again? Maybe its owner doesn’t even know how to turn it off? Will he or she start talking next time? It’s remarkably unsettling.

More damagingly, it could break the concentration of the performers. Admittedly I have rarely seen a singer, player or conductor give even the slightest indication of having been distracted by a jingle-jangle from the seats, let alone break off mid-piece to complain. But they surely can’t be completely unaware – and most are probably just too polite to say if and when they think it may have affected their performance.

But, for me, the worst aspect is that mobiles are real sanctuary wreckers. The concert hall is one of the few places where it is possible to seclude oneself from normal life, where you are free to concentrate on the music and the music alone without any other distractions. I want it to be just me, fellow concert-goers and the performers. I don’t care whether the bloke a couple of seats along has his phone on silent, is only texting or whatever – the very fact that his mobile is on and so in contact with the outside world is an invasion of my concert space. In short, I don’t want it there. Humph.

So, hurray for grumpiness. I’ll gladly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Sir Peter on this one. Though, of course, I should point out that Max has his very affable and engaging side too and I feel somewhat duty bound to redress the balance. So, I should let you know that from 11 July, he will be spending four days at Benslow Summer Music Festival in Hertfordshire, taking part in masterclasses, introducing his own Naxos Quartet No. 8, performed by the Ligeti Quartet and generally making himself available for a chat. Well worth a visit. Just leave your mobile behind.

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine