Why applaud? To make a noise, to show approval, because it’s part of the social contract of seeing a performance. (The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt, who has hearing problems, reportedly requests that his audience shows its appreciation by snapping fingers instead of clapping.) Applause is an artless noise; it reinforces the power relationship between the receptive mass slapping its palms together and the (relatively) focused expertise on the stage. It also can be a demand for a present everyone knows will be awarded, a way to call back a performer for the inevitable encore, the lagniappe without which we consider our experience incomplete.
If you want to hear applause for its own sake, there’s Autodigest’s A Compressed History of Everything Ever Recorded, Vol. 2: Ubiquitous Eternal Live (Ash International/CrÃ³nica). The back cover describes it as a “spontaneous, improvised, slow crescendo by every audience ever.” It is exactly an hour of applause, bookended by a commanding voice twice announcing, “Thank you! Good night!” It’s not just the kind of ooh-that’s-good applause heard on Burma’s live albums; it’s riotous, maniacal, progressively louder and more rapturous clapping and cheering from an audience that demands more. Shrieks leap out of it like dolphins. As the shouting and clapping redoubles and layers over itself, faint patterns emerge. They become overtones, notes, even faint tunelets. The applause can become the featured attraction, and does to anyone who buys or hears the album. It can go on forever. “Best played in ‘Repeat’ mode,” a note says.
There’s one other brilliant joke on Ubiquitous Eternal Live: When you put the CD in a computer, it identifies itself as “I am sitting in a room.” That’s the title of a 1966 piece by composer Alvin Lucier, in which he recorded himself reading a short text about what he was doing (and stuttering a bit), then played it back in the room where he’d recorded it and recorded that, and repeated the process until the decay of the source material and the room’s resonant frequencies had together evolved into a single faintly fluctuating tone that sounds like the overtones of the applause. (Mission of Burma’s Miller actually did something conceptually similar on his 1990 album Oh (guitars, etc . . . ): “F.W.R.,” short for “The Fun World Reductions,” is a series of playbacks of Burma’s recording “Fun World,” doubling the speed each time, until it’s no more than a quarter-second burst of trebly static.)
On the front cover of Ubiquitous Eternal Live, there’s a picture of an empty bed being hit by morning sunlight; the audience is still out clapping, or maybe we’re the audience. Behind the disc itself, there are two X-rays of hands. An audience’s unsated desire for more can make them slam together hard, hundreds of times. What will it do to those bones?