Classical recital etiquette protocols? Thought you’d never ask

22 February 2010

Classical, or chamber, music recitals were not events I went along to a whole lot until I was introduced to the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) last year.

Going to see a band, either in concert or at the local pub, seems — to me — like something that requires no thought it’s so natural, but what about a classical music performance, isn’t that, you know, different?

Aren’t there dress codes (top hat and tails?) and other protocols to be observed? Or, you’ve been asked to go along to a show with the company’s CEO, have no idea what happens, and are keen not to distinguish yourself for the wrong reasons?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person to have ever wondered about such things, so here we go, a guide and some tips to the etiquette and protocols of attending classical music recitals.

What’s the dress code, what should I wear?

This seems to be the main concern of many first time recital-goers, and I’m pleased to report that top hat and tails are generally not necessary.

For me though, someone who only wears a suit once in a Blue Moon, dressing up is part of the fun of going along to a recital. I don’t usually bother with a tie though, I only wear those once every couple of Blue Moons, but at the very least think “smart casual” if wondering what to wear.

Be punctual, there’s nothing worse than being shut out

The best idea is to plan to arrive early.

There’s an important difference between going to a movie and being late, and a recital and being late, the recital is a live performance.

Unlike their big screen counterparts, live performers find it a lot harder to ignore the distraction of latecomers trying to find their seat, which is invariably at the front of the house.

Then there’s the matter of trampling on the toes of audience members sharing your row, and blocking the view of others behind.

In all likelihood though, if you are late, you’ll be barred from entering the auditorium, until there is a significant break in the music, or at intermission.

So, arrive early, have a drink at the bar, and acquaint yourself with the show program, while you wait for curtain up.

Applause, when do I clap?

While pauses during a song or composition are common to all musical genres, classical music is replete with silences and breaks. This can often confuse those unfamiliar with the music being performed, who often think it is complete, and start clapping.

You don’t want to be that person. Unless you are well acquainted with the music, wait until everyone else is applauding before you join in.

Also watch the performers for end-of-play cues, members of the ACO for example usually raise their violin or cello bows above their heads at the conclusion of a piece.

Photos, recording, and mobile phones

Taking photos and video recording during a recital are generally a big no no. A few snaps of the concert hall, and empty stage, before the performance may be ok though, but the check show program, or ask someone, before you pull your camera out.

Needless to say mobile phones should be switched off or set to silent mode.

Take some time out at intermission

Most recitals have an intermission break after about 45 minutes, which tend to last for about 20 minutes. If you need to go to the bathroom, or return an urgent call from the boss, intermission is the time.

It’s also a good idea to get up and stretch your legs, the show will be a little more enjoyable if you don’t feel restless.

How long does the show usually last?

While it depends on the pieces being performed, recitals tend to run for about 90 minutes with a 20 minute intermission about half way through, so all up, about two hours. The show program should have the exact times of the performances.

Read the show program

I’ve mentioned the show program a few times, and trust me, it’s a good idea to read through it, especially if you are not a regular recital goer. They usually include details of recital and intermission times, and of course information about the music being played.

There’s nothing like looking as if you know what you are doing.

Originally published Monday 22 February 2010.


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How does the Oscar nomination and voting process work?

16 February 2010

NOTE: this is a legacy article published in 2010. Much of the information presented is likely now out of date.

While the movie buff in me takes an avid interest in who wins what in the Academy Awards each year, I’ve never given much thought to how a film reaches the winning list, aside from the fact it must be good — or reasonably good — and was favoured by members of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), who preside over the venerable award.

And as it turns out, after doing a little research into the process, garnering an AMPAS member’s favour is the very first thing a film must do, if it is to set itself along the Oscar winning pathway.

Favour, choices, AMPAS branches, and nominations

The nomination process commences when each of the 5,777 members of AMPAS, or the Academy, are asked to select their favourite eligible 1 films — usually five — from the preceding year.

The Academy is split into 15 branches, which represent the various aspects of the film production process, and include actors, directors, writers, producers, and visual effects branches, to name a few.

Branch members are only able to nominate “in-house” however. For instance members of the Writers Branch can only nominate film writers for an award, they cannot, for example, choose actors or directors.

Member numbers can vary across branches, and the Academy as a whole, from year to year, and this can have an effect on the overall process, but more on that shortly.

Preferential voting and magic numbers

The choices made by branch members, which are ranked preferentially from one to five, are sent to accounting and auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), who then count the selections — manually — and after much sifting of paper, eventually determine the top five choices — or nominations — in each Oscar category.

To be in the running a film must receive at least one number one ranking from a member, or it is eliminated from the count. PwC go through all the votes, or selections, short-listing the top five number one ranked films in each category.

Taking the Animated Feature Film category as an example, here’s how the nomination selection process might work. This year the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch of the AMPAS has 340 members.

PwC divides this number by 6 2, which equals about 56. To make the grade therefore, a film must secure at least 56 number one votes from members of this branch.

For example 63 members might have selected “Coraline” as their first choice. Another 62 might have chosen “Fantastic Mr. Fox” as their first choice, another 61 “The Princess and the Frog”, 60 “The Secret of Kells”, and finally 57 “Up” 3.

Any other animated features that may have been voted as a top choice by members of the branch are now eliminated, as they did not receive enough votes to make the top five in the category.

It gets complicated — sometimes very complicated — however if five movies do not reach the minimum vote threshold, and this is where the preferential voting system comes into play.

They [the PwC team] then look at the piles still left on the table and get rid of the one with the smallest amount of votes, redistributing them to other piles ranked on the 2nd favourite film on the ballots. If the number 2 choice has already been eliminated then they go to the 3rd choice and so on. Once that’s taken place they count again, if a film hits the magic number it’s taken off the table and is a nominee.

Changes to the number of Best Picture nominations

This year, for the first time since 1943, there are ten movies competing for the Best Picture gong, rather than the usual five, meaning the PwC team would have short-listed the top ten, rather than top five, number one voted films for this category.

The Visual Effects and Make Up categories are the only other exceptions to the five nominations per category rule this year, each sporting three contenders.

Voting and electing the winners

The final voting process is relatively similar to the nomination process.

Once nominations have been finalised, Academy members are sent ballot papers, and again using a preferential voting system, make their selections.

At this stage though, just two people at PwC are involved in counting the votes, and they remain the only ones to know the final results, until the winners are announced on Oscars night.

Controversy in Best Picture decisions

For all its mathematical precision, there is still no guarantee that the best film will be accorded the Best Picture award. 2005’s Brokeback Mountain, a superbly made movie in my opinion, could be considered a case in point.

Despite winning a slew of other film awards, and five Oscar nominations, it nevertheless missed the Best Picture award. It was suggested the Academy shunned the movie in the final round of voting as members were uncomfortable with a gay love story.

After “Brokeback Mountain” won an unprecedented number of precursor awards for best picture — 26 — it entered the Oscars with the most nominations and was considered a shoo-in to win best picture. That is, until the majority of its members — straight, ole, self-absorbed, guy geezers, as legend has it — refused to embrace the gay movie and so they gave their top prize to “Crash.”

That said, “Crash” was still a very good film.

And, to date, no science fiction or animated films, have received a Best Picture award, suggesting the Academy prefers only certain film genres.

Other factors influencing Oscar nominations

While nominations ultimately boil down to the individual tastes of the Academy’s 5,777 members, certain factors may sway their decision.

For example in 2008 sociologists from Harvard University, and the University of California, found female actors appearing in dramas, rather than comedies, were more likely than their contemporaries to score an Oscar nomination.

Academy Award nominations tend to go to performers in dramas, who are female, who have been nominated in the past and who command a high rank in the movie-credit pecking order.

And finally if I were a member of the Academy…

My ten choices — for Best Picture — this year would be:

  • An Education
  • Up
  • The Road
  • Up in the Air
  • Watchmen
  • Star Trek (a long shot, but…)
  • Looking For Eric
  • (500) Days of Summer
  • Beautiful Kate
  • Is Anybody There?

These are not, unfortunately, ranked preferentially (though “An Education” would still be very near the top), plus I’m not 100 per-cent sure that all titles are eligible for this year’s awards.

And just so you know, this year’s Oscar awards take place on Sunday, 7 March, 2010, or Monday afternoon, 8 March, as it will be in this part of the world.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Radio 1 Movies Blog, Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Live Science, Gold Derby.)

  • 1. To qualify for an Oscar nomination, a film must open in the previous calendar year, from midnight of 1 January to midnight at the end of 31 December, in Los Angeles County, California.
  • 2. Dividing the total branch membership by six ensures there will be at least five nominees. If it were divided by five the qualifying vote threshold, or “magic number” may be too high, which could result in only four films making the grade.
  • 3. The numbers I have used here are of course fictitious.

Originally published Tuesday 16 February 2010.


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There was once a place called Doggerland in Europe

3 September 2009

Doggerland, map by National Geographic Magazine staff

A landmass that connected what is now Great Britain to continental Europe, once existed up until about eight and half thousand years ago, and is known as Doggerland… at least by more contemporary geologists and scientists, that is.

Map/illustration by National Geographic Magazine staff.

Originally published Tuesday 3 September 2013.



Colliding galaxies, an insight into Milkomeda’s formation?

12 July 2009

Eventually our galaxy will collide (or, if you prefer, merge) with the Andromeda galaxy forming a new body some are already calling Milkomeda.

But this photo of four galaxies colliding — by the way — at speeds of up to two million miles (or 3.2 million kilometres) an hour, may be indication of what to expect when Milkomeda does form.

Originally published Sunday 12 July 2009


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Babies’ names are not carried far and wide by the internet

3 July 2009

Interesting premise, the rise of the internet, and even globalisation, has not quite created the global village that many people predicted it would.

At least this is the opinion of two researchers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, after studying names given to babies since 1995. They found naming trends tended to remain local rather global, despite the rise of email and the ability to spread ideas, and share information, quickly online.

The two researchers’ study of the spread of new names was prompted by their discovery that the relationship between the number of private e-mails sent in America and the distance between sender and recipient falls off far more steeply than they expected. People are overwhelmingly e-mailing others in the same city, rather than those far away.

Originally published Friday 3 July 2009.


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The chances of colliding with a star are a million to one

18 February 2009

My recent mentions of the eventual merger/collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, giving rise to “Milkomeda”, has prompted some reader questions about the likelihood of a star from Andromeda colliding with the Sun, during the “merger”.

One thing to remember is the collision is billions of years away, should it even happen, but the chances of stars from either galaxy colliding are extremely remote given the astronomical distances between them:

As with all such collisions, it is unlikely that objects such as stars contained within each galaxy will actually collide, as galaxies are in fact very diffuse – the nearest star to the Sun is in fact almost thirty million solar diameters away from the Earth. (If the sun were scaled to the size of an American quarter, 24.26 mm (0.955 in), the next closest quarter/star would be 700 km (475 miles) away.)

Originally published Wednesday 18 February 2009.


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Lost in space, the final days of the Solar system

11 February 2009

We already know it is likely our galaxy, the Milky Way, will merge (a subtle way of saying collide actually) with our, for now, distant neighbour Andromeda, forming an entity called “Milkomeda”.

It is also possible however that our Solar system will see out its days completely alone somewhere in the cosmos, if it is somehow ejected from the Milky Way during the Andromeda “merger”…

The future is never certain, though, and alternative endings can be written. There is a slim chance that the whole solar system, sun and all, might be thrown out of Milkomeda intact. Out in the emptiness of intergalactic space, the planets would be safe from marauders. There they could continue to circle our darkening star until their energy is eventually sapped and they spiral inwards. One by one as they hit the black-dwarf sun, a few final flares will rage against the dying of the light.

Originally published Wednesday 11 February 2009.


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Twitter novels: when will they be the next big thing?

9 February 2009

Would you read a novel that was served in 140-character instalments? Text message novels are already proving popular, especially in Japan, and with the ever increasing reach of Twitter, it’s only a matter of time before the 140-character novelists put aside their phones and try the idea online.

In fact, there are already several people tapping together Twitter novels, though at the moment their efforts are generally being greeted with the response: “what’s the point in that?”

Then again, there are still plenty of people questioning the point of Twitter itself, so while Twitter novelist superstars are yet to emerge, writing-off the potential of the idea is definitely premature.

After all, people have built celebrity around themselves in the past by way of all sorts of seemingly unfathomable means, including webcams, YouTube, and even blogging, so it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along with an idea for a Twitter novel that has mass appeal.

“The confessions of a lovelorn sex kitten” anyone?

Among some of the 140-character novelists currently exploring Twitter as a literary medium though, thoughts of fame — or notoriety — seem to be far from their minds.

For example Nick Belardes who writes “Small Places”, which he describes as “a very compartmentalized love story”, thinks Twitter is a great environment for developing a novel, but little else:

Don’t write a novel using Twitter, but mold a novel, transform a novel using Twitter. In my opinion, Twitter isn’t a scratch pad. Any good writer should have a plan, and so should either use a completed manuscript, or a portion, as is my case. The line-by-line rebuilding of the manuscript should be challenge enough. There should be lots of note-taking, forethought, and not just random phrases thrown at readers.

Mike Diccicco, author of The Secret Life of Hamel, sees composing a novel using Twitter as a way of improving his writing skills more than anything:

No — this is about the creative challenge of trying to be interesting and engaging and telling a story under a significant constraint. Plus, after years of preaching “compression” to copywriters in my ad agency, it’s time to see if I can practice what I preach.

For many Twitter novelists the challenge lies in building up a following, and maintaining an on-going interest in the story, something however that is all too familiar to many people already pedalling their wares online.

It’s just a matter of finding the right mix of the usual ingredients, a sticky idea, some deft execution, and a little bit of the WOW factor.

Originally published Monday 9 February 2009.


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When galaxies collide well be living in Milkomeda

28 January 2009

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is destined to “merge” with our giant neighbour, Andromeda, in about five billion years.

Currently both galaxies are approaching each other at speeds of 120 kilometres (km) per second, and “Milkomeda” is one name that has been dubbed for the combined entity.

Before the collision occurs though both galaxies will fly past each other twice, occurrences that could possibly result in the Sun, and its family of planets, being drawn into the Andromeda system.

There is also a remote 3% chance that the Sun will jump ship and defect to the Andromeda galaxy during the second close passage. “In the night sky, we would then see the Milky Way from a distance,” says Loeb.

Just to put the distances into some perspective, moving at a rate of 120 km per second means covering about 3.8 billion km per year. The planet Neptune is some 4.46 billion km from the Sun, so we are talking about some very, very, vast amounts of space here.

Originally published Thursday 28 January 2009.


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What will happen when Antares explodes?

13 January 2009

If search engine queries here are anything to go by, the prospect of Antares, a red giant star located in the constellation of Scorpius, exploding seems to intrigue some visitors, so I decided to learn more about the imminent (anytime in the next million years, that is) Antares supernova.

In a word though, it will be spectacular.

While it will be unmissable in the night sky, the remnants of Antares may – for a short time – be visible during the day, and even alien astronomers in distant galaxies will temporarily see our galaxy, The Milky Way, outshine many other galaxies that are visible to them, as a result of the explosion.

Despite the galactic light-show the explosion of Antares will not however pose any direct danger to Earth.

There are fears that an exploding star, or supernova, could threaten our planet by way of debris from the blast, or that the resulting radiation and gamma rays could destroy Earth’s ozone layer, in turn triggering a mass extinction.

It has been found however that a supernova needs to be within 26 light years of Earth to cause any sort of harm, and Antares is some 600 light years away.

The only possible risk lies in the glare that any supernova could generate, which may be blinding, according to Dr Nick Lomb of the Sydney Observatory.

Antares isn’t the only potential supernova-star in the stellar neighbourhood either, and Eta Carinae, about 8000 light years away from Earth, could also explode at any time.

Originally published Tuesday 13 January 2009.