Remystifying the Concert Experience

July 22, 2017 | Tags:

Introduction/Statement of Purpose

As those who work in the arts question their role in the new millennium, there are many discussions about how arts organizations should be reaching people. The author of this paper believes the conversation about how organizations can reach people better can only occur after some core questions have been thoroughly examined and spoken about. Critical to our identity, and thus to our plans and growth are the following basic questions:

  • How do the arts reach, move, and affect people?
  • Why do people participate in the arts?
  • What is a performance?
  • What are the interactions between artists and their audience?

We as artists, administrators, and grantors must first invigorate our sense of what the arts are and what the arts mean or can potentially mean to individuals in our society. Only then can we ask ourselves how we can serve our populations, reach broader populations, function as a relevant positive force in society, and effectively promote the arts in our civilization.

This paper will attempt to examine and give a clear if unconfined response to the most basic questions of what it means, in the most essential way, to be involved in the performing arts.

Remystifying the Concert Experience

Assumptions: We all know what a concert is, no matter what style of music, right? Aren’t the basic ingredients the same, though the specific flavorings differ depending upon the style of the music being performed? It seems reasonable, then, that we should all understand why we go to concerts, and why people perform them. Here is a list of commonly held notions about performance; in each case, I believe the answer, though often conventionally accepted, is either wrong or incomplete:

• You go to a concert so you can observe the inspiration the performers are undergoing
• People perform concerts so they can showcase their talent
• It’s a social thing; you go to the concert to see and be seen in a pleasant, tasteful setting
• You go to a concert to see if you like the music enough to buy a CD
• Musicians perform concerts because they have to get out certain pent up feelings
• You go to a concert to space out, and just let the sounds calm you down
• Composers write music because they have something specific to tell us
• You go to a concert to hear as close to the ideal of what Beethoven sounded like in his day
• You go to a concert to hear a definitive interpretation of a work, or to check out all the hoopla over a new hot performer, and evaluate whether the fuss is justified
• As a listener, you are the consumer of a product—entertainment—that is made by the musicians. Concerts should be “accessible”; that means, not just that prices are reasonable, the venue convenient, the atmosphere warm and welcoming to all, but that you shouldn’t have to think, or engage your attentions to fathom every facet of what is presented. You should be able to absorb it as though it were a summer film, anticipate its next move because of its well-known and unvarying formula, and “get” what you ask for. After all, you pay for the ticket, you should get what you know you like.
• There is a necessary barrier between the performer and the audience that creates the tension of a “show”
• There should be no divisions between the performers and their fans
• Performing is active; listening is passive

Rather than elaborate on each of these assumptions and discuss their inadequacies one by one, I would simply propose a very different concert dynamic than one represented by the above notions. On the basis of conversations I have had with concert-goers, I do not think that the dynamic I will discuss runs counter to people’s concert experiences. I do think, however, it is distinct from the usual axioms articulated about music, whether by listeners, grantors, concert promoters, or makers of curricula for education.

Before discussing this dynamic, I would like to say that this concept is a direct result of my experiences performing for adult audiences and for young audiences, as well as of my experiences in attending concerts. Also, in presenting my own scripts of what I tell young audiences, I found that many adults, and well-versed adults at that, believed too few adults were really aware of what I was explaining to children; most certainly these adults had sensed this concert hall dynamic, but they had not really heard it explained or read about it in a contemporary context.

On Cells and Merging

As a conductor, I am in an unusual position on stage. How many other performers have their backs turned to the audience during the entirety of their performance? In theater, this position is a basic no-no. This very specific physical position during concerts, however, has made all the more palpable the performance dynamic I have discovered for myself.

Here is my basic belief and experience: Performances seek a merging of every consciousness convened for that occasion—composer, orchestra musicians, conductor, audience, even concert hall. This merging means there are no hierarchies of experience. There are moments in performance (ideally an entire performance) where, with my back to the audience, I can feel the absolute oneness of what is occurring. It is as though the whole group of people—orchestra, audience, conductor, and even the composer, are living and breathing that moment in a complete union. Even more astonishing, the hall itself—and it can be a rather inadequate hall acoustically—seems to vibrate or breathe in synergy with its occupants, including the composer’s consciousness, no matter whether the composer is dead or alive. In the case of both audience and performers, the quest for this merging may well be subconscious. (One may come as a performer with the stated goal of being “true” to Mozart or his intentions as we understand them, or even to find what Mozart has to say to us today; as an audience member one may come with the desire to take comfort in the polyphonic glories of Bach.) The experience is even more surprising when I realize that I cannot witness it with my eyes; the sensation of merging is mine only by “feeling” the audience and hall through the back of my tail-coat, or all around me.

When that oneness occurs, it’s as though the whole hall is a single-celled organism, with composite parts—the walls of the hall feel like cell walls. Better yet, perhaps the hall is just a single cell of the multi-celled organism of the cosmos. In truth, the oneness of the hall does not feel limited to that hall, but can reach beyond the confines of those walls.

The Thursday Night Phenomenon

I have often heard music buffs remark, “I like to go to the Symphony on Thursday nights That’s the night the music-lovers go.” What is implied in that statement is not only that the speaker appreciates the attitude of those around him or her in the audience, but also that the whole encounter, the connection with the orchestra differs. By the way, I have always heard this phenomenon referred to as “music-lovers’ night,” not as “connoisseurs’ night”—a huge difference, dividing those who revel in musical experience and absorb it from those who critique and rank it.

In this “Thursday Night” dynamic, the audience is not merely a collection of witnesses to a more polished, slightly more adrenalized, stylized read-through of what happened at dress rehearsal. (In fact, when this unfortunate read-through phenomenon does occur, I believe it is precisely because the performers are not in tune with oneness of the concert experience with the audience. Unfortunately, this mindset can lead to bad downward spiral: the listener then doesn’t know why he or she is there, and so the performer feels more isolated. The listener in turn feels less attuned to the event, etc.) On the contrary, the difference between dress rehearsal and concert can be as pronounced emotionally, spiritually, and consciously as that between a wedding rehearsal and the actual ceremony. (These two models—the negative downward spiral, versus the wedding ceremony—are not opposite in process but quite different. The downward spiral is causal, and seems to take place in time, one bad attitude reflects back and forth intensifying as it goes. The positive model however, seems time transcendent, curiously simultaneous, and out of the realm of causality or narrative time.)

On Barriers

Today, we hear constant talk about “breaking down barriers.” This is, I believe a failed proposition from the outset, because there are no real barriers in the concert hall, only perceived ones. (Barriers in getting to the concert hall is a topic for another paper.) Rather than trying to break down something that is imaginary, we should simply be transcending the limitations that word suggests, and thus constructing a more helpful model or image.

Paradoxically, while there are no true barriers within the concert hall, there are distinct roles that are necessary in concerts. Certainly a concert is not just a free-for-all, where composers, performers, and audience mingle at random as at a cocktail party. Clearly, we don’t start as one consciousness with a uniform relationship to music, but rather come with distinct vantage points. We need to acknowledge this reality, and should embrace it as a necessary precondition for the merging of experiential consciousness to occur. So the notion of “removing barriers” may actually be working against us by unwittingly erasing a necessary distinction of roles and thus creating anarchy instead of a better concert experience.

Nonetheless, I believe that if, when I perform, I have anything other than the music in my consciousness—meaning if I strive to merge with an audience—I cannot open up my experience to the audience. This is perhaps because I must as much let the audience come to me as I need to reach the audience. Put another way, my meeting point with the audience and orchestra, with hall itself is the music. But what, exactly is the music? What do we share really? In the concert hall, we share the liveness, the spontaneity of what is happening—the music in its fullest sense. And nothing on video or CD can compare.

Let’s continue the cell metaphor. Let’s assume between the performers and the audience there is a kind of cellular membrane, a highly permeable two-directional wall. This image allows for our distinct (not separate) purposes, and also provides the opportunity for a merging of consciousness to occur, to the better health of the whole. In the US, with a less homogeneous population, the distinctness of the participants is all the more pronounced than, say, in Sweden. The act of merging, then, is a greater challenge perhaps, but also yields therefore, even greater reward.

On Secrets and Potentialities

Curiously, I believe a parallel role delineation and eventual merging exists in virtually the same configuration between composers and performers. (I would again stress, these delineations are not hierarchies, rather different zones in a Venn diagram that come to intersect and eventually coincide.) I have spoken with several composers, and at length with Bay-Atlantic Symphony Composer-in-Residence James Grant, about this phenomenon, and they have shared this sentiment. There are countless anecdotes where the composer tried to give the performer too much information—too many extra-musical descriptions about what the composer was going through when he wrote the piece. In fact, composers often later retract (or try to) descriptive titles, I believe, because they eventually realized that they hadn’t allowed for the initial role distinction; for the performers to approach the music from their world and unlock the secrets of the music through intense personal interaction. (Two works immediately come to mind: Mahler’s First Symphony, which we are supposed to forget was ever dubbed “The Titan” and Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “more an evocation of feelings than tone- painting.”) These secrets, then, are fundamentally wordless, though we may, being creatures of language, try to convey them with words at times. Moreover, these secrets are not predetermined in number or content; the process is something of an open book, and the “secrets” are potentialities, perhaps to be discovered in rehearsal and at concerts.

During a wonderful evening of discussions with and Jim Grant, I shared the notion that, when I study the score, working my way through how the piece feels it wants to be shaped, I often subconsciously imagine the orchestra in the hall—with some imaginary audience. Jim knew exactly what I meant and told me that, when writing, he has a similar spatial image/experience as he conjures sounds, and as sounds find him.

On Children and Clarity

Let’s return to our discussion of the concert experience. When attempting to be clear for children, I found myself surprised at how much clarity in my own thinking resulted. Here is a paraphrase (and elaboration) of what I tell children at education concerts:

Why do musicians want to perform? It is not to show off, or even to “express” to an audience. It is because we only really find out how the music wants to live when we perform it for people, which means when we share it—back and forth—with listeners. I don’t mean to say that we have to road test it for listeners. I mean that by sharing the music with an audience—and asking the audience to share the music equally with us—the music takes on a life of its own, and in that moment we also find life at its fullest, freshest, most striking. Moreover, every performance is different in part because the audience, and our shared space and interaction with that audience, is different every time. So then, your role as listener is as important as anyone’s in the room. Without you, there is no concert. Your role is to listen actively, to allow these sounds to work on your imagination, and to allow your imagination to work on these sounds. We will sense your attention and share our music very personally with you.”

Then I usually have young audience members practice applause, so they see how much their response affects the orchestra, and how truly and simply linked we are to each other, in that concert hall on that day.

Hands-on experience for young people is irreplaceable in developing a feel for the power of arts. However, I have witnessed that educators and grantors in this zeal, have at times inadvertently minimized the potentially tremendous effect of listening—actively—to a concert. Neither activity is more needed than the other.

On Keeping it Live

How “passive” is listening to concert music? Not at all. No more so than performing it. No more so than writing it.

In this discussion so far, I only touched in passing upon the question of the music itself, the usual point of departure for discussions of concerts. Rather than discuss the merits of any one kind of music, or discuss the music as an object unto itself, let’s briefly develop the idea mentioned above of music as the focal point of the merging of consciousness. In order for the fullest merging of consciousness to occur, I suggest that the music—our focal point, our initial point of intersection—should be the richest point of immersion imaginable. There is nothing wrong with sharing fluff, but fluff, I believe, can only lead to a limited convergence.

This belief about the music being the focal point for a merging of consciousness has stemmed from my concert experiences, and motivates me further, I believe, to seek in my explorations of the orchestral score the latent richness and fullness these works provide. Every gesture has import and implications as a means of communing with something greater. The score as a whole, and even the concert program as a whole has potentialities that performers crave turning into singular, charged experiences.

In our era of TV, VCR, film, and radio, we should cherish our live performances: theater, music, dance. Unlike mass media, these live art-forms demand interaction with an audience, and allow the audience the opportunity to take part in creation, not merely to consume a product. It is a bond forged the minute you enter the concert hall. Most performers I know or know about dislike, or at least are very mistrustful of the act of recording. (Glen Gould was a notable, quirky exception.) Perhaps, in producing and listening to a CD, the music really never comes to life in this shared way that has been a part of performance since the dawn of humanity.

In answer to the isolation and dissociation with which our society is struggling, let us revel in the act of making music: listening to it, performing it, and writing it. Let us undertake these activities—these highest joys—with gusto, abandon, and conviction. Let us rejoice in our distinctness so that when we do merge in the concert hall and jointly touch something sublime, the union is all the more astonishing, powerful, and fully human. Demystification is a buzzword of our times. How unfortunate! Rather we should remystify our experience instead. And in our strategic planning sessions and promotion campaigns let us remember our endeavors draw their strength from an essentially ineffable dialogue among audiences, artists, and the art itself.