Archive for the ‘concerts’ Tag

Participatory performance in classical music

How does the post-modern world’s culture of participation and interaction transfer to the world of orchestral music? In recent training workshops I led with one of Australia’s symphony orchestras, we examined the concept of the fourth wall in order to prepare the ground for developing more flexible, interactive, connecting performances.

The ‘fourth wall’ is the invisible wall between artists and audiences, creating a sense of a separate world in which the performance exists. It is created by way the environment is organised – audience seating, the lay-out of the performance space, and presence (or not) of a stage – and the performance style – including the amount of interaction between performers and audience (such as speaking, introducing, eye contact, smiles, etc), the performance dress, and even the behaviour of performers and venue staff. In orchestral concerts, we can see how every aspect of the performance environment and style communicates that the music is the focus.

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: roomman via Compfight cc

Such an intensely formal and distancing approach to performance can jar or distract when transferred to community contexts. In community performances, the music is not the only focus. It is the musicians and the music, and the people who are there, and the relationships that form when music is the medium and the reason everyone is there in that space at that time. Of course, the music is the primary attraction for the audience (they probably wouldn’t be there without it), but they are also attracted by the opportunity for proximity, or intimacy, or insights, or the chance to feed an interest and learn new things, or to access something different in their local environment.

Many musicians have told me that interactive performances and workshops feel less important for them as performers than main-stage concert hall performances. The music may be less technically or intellectually demanding. A less formal environment can imply that the qualities of musical performance matter less. Audience interest in the person behind the instrument in some way undermines the importance of the music for the performer. These are important challenges to overcome if the inherent value and quality of what you do is one of the primary ways you derive satisfaction from your work.

Thomas Turino’s distinction between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’ performance approaches is useful to consider at this point. In his book Music as Social Life, Turino suggests performances should be understood as existing on a spectrum between ‘presentational’ and ‘participatory’. Orchestral concerts – indeed, most concerts – typically fit into a ‘presentational’ approach to performing. ‘Participatory’ approaches are more interactive. The following table sets out some of the primary characteristics:

Presentational Participatory
Clearly-defined artist-audience distinction No distinction – all are participating or are potential participants
Highly skilled group, and assumption that audience does not share similar skills and is not supposed to join in Core group of skilled leaders, but inclusion of wide range of abilities. People participate without judgement
Artist skill and ability determines performance content Inclusion of all abilities can constrain what may take place musically
The music has a set form, which the artists know and work to. Notation and the through-composed nature of the work allows for increased musical complexity. Music is often cyclic or repeated as many times as suits the group. Reliance on memory and direction from within the group rather than notation limits musical complexity.

Turino also argues that the two approaches to performance are so different, they should be considered on their own merits and according to their own values, rather than compared to each other. Therefore, a key step in developing more interactive, or responsive performance formats is one of adjusting mindset and understanding the different values that support these different approaches to performance. Participatory performance is not ‘lesser’ than presentational performance. It is a different approach to performance entirely (even if the musical content remains the same).

There are clear trade-offs that take place when developing a participatory approach to performance. The presentational model allows for lots of predictability, little improvisation, and little risk. The participatory model is more unpredictable, more improvised (although with an overall intention and framework about how the participation will be managed), and riskier.

In other words, by increasing participation and participant-led content, you deepen audience engagement with the music and musicians; however, there will be a corresponding increase in unpredictability (in terms of musical outcomes) that you will want to manage, and an increase in constraints on what can take place musically.

A ‘participatory’ model of musical performance suggests music is more of an activity than an autonomous thing. The way that participatory music practice is enacted implies a belief that musical participation is something that everyone can do (therefore a human behaviour, rather than a special talent), and that participation is an entitlement, or a right. This suggests a belief in the importance of music participation to individual (and collective) thriving and flourishing. Translated into performance contexts, this belief necessitates a level of reflexivity, so that the performance work evolves in response to the participants as they are on that particular day. The emphasis on people and experiences means that process is often as important as the finished ‘product’, even more important sometimes.

Why is it useful to unpack and discuss the values that underpin performance traditions? It’s important for musicians to feel good about the work they do in community settings. If they don’t, they will be less inclined to initiate or take part in these performances, and our communities will be far poorer as a result! Furthermore, many orchestras and classical music organisations are under pressure from funding bodies to engage more directly and meaningfully with communities – that means being responsive to what communities would like from them. Putting on a free concert in your normal venue then shrugging and saying, “well, we’ve done our bit” doesn’t really cut it any more.

Examination of underpinning values helps performers to position the meaning of the work in a larger social context. Armed with this understanding, and of the different elements that make up a perception of a ‘fourth wall’, performers can begin considering and playing with these, making them less rigid or less distinct. In this way, performances become an invitation to connect and share in something in which everyone has a stake.

The future of classical music?

I came across this blog by Greg Sandow today, which I’m adding to my blogroll. Greg is based in New York, and writes about classical music, audiences, new media, and many other things. He is exploring many different aspects of the classical music world, from the point of view of performers and composers as well as audience members. I found it interesting reading.

I puzzle over what it is that I personally want from orchestras. I don’t always feel very patient with the typical performance format. I’ve blogged about my desire to only attend concerts that are in some way life-changing – a tall order, and you can read that post here, if you wish follow that train of thought further.

Last week I went to hear the Australian Art Orchestra perform their Miles Davis: Prince of Darkness concert, and the two pieces that everyone wanted to talk about afterward were the new work by Anthony Pateras, which used the vast, broad space of the Melbourne Town Hall to great effect, and was an incredibly engaging, intriguing work to listen to, and the techno-inspired interpretation of Davis’ Black Satin which was loud but vibrant and fascinating in the way he utilised the band and the electronics. (Gratifyingly, these were also the two pieces I chose to focus on with the young musicians in the Signal Art Ensemble. I chose well!). Continue reading

Thoughts on concert-going

It’s occurred to me recently that going to a concert is no longer the huge attraction it once was. In the past, concerts were opportunities for connection with other performers, with friends and colleagues (both on the stage and in the audience), and to be moved or transfixed by the music.

Nowadays, I feel more reticent to head out. Perhaps this is a result of too many Melbourne Festival tickets bought for performances that failed to please. Perhaps it is a delayed reaction to the many, many orchestral concerts I went to, in the days that I worked for an orchestra. Mostly though, I have to confess that it is a response to the growing sense that I often have after going to a concert (or any other performance) of a kind of blankness, when I wake up the next day and have absolutely no reaction to it. It is simply…. nothing, really. An experience that hasn’t really impacted on me (in the true sense of the word) in any way. It isn’t about ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.

It seems a ridiculously tall order, but I want my performance-going to be life-changing. I want to come home and have it rolling over in my head, again and again. Questions, or issues, or ideas, or challenges, or puzzles to ponder. Or delights, or a remembered experience of connection with the music and the expression of the artists.

It has become a kind of assessment tool, in a way, prior to buying tickets. “Will it be worth it?” by which I mean the investment of effort and the time on my part, rather than the actual cost.

Last week I went to the Melbourne Recital Centre to hear the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra perform three works under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner. Andrew Marriner (his son) played the Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

How was this concert for me, given the above criteria? Well, I know that I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the company I was with, and I very much enjoyed the orchestra’s playing, as I haven’t heard them for quite a few years.

I loved Andrew Marriner’s performance of the clarinet concerto. It’s a piece I know very, very well, and it was truly a delight to hear such familiar lines being performed so well. There is a delightful fluency, or lightness, in the writing. (I know, it is silly to comment on the delicious craft of Mozart’s writing as we all know he was a genius… but truly, this is such a wonderful piece, and as I listened to it I was reminded of this again, and again, and again…). I enjoyed noticing some of the interpretive decisions Marriner made – his choices in articulation, or in cadenza. I know that he studied with the same teacher I studied with for a year, so I listened for ‘Hans-isms’ in his playing too.

But here is the life-changing bit: it made me want to go straight home and dig out my well-loved score of the concerto, and my Music Minus One CDs, and play it again! I think this is a fine concert experience to have. It reminded me of how I loved playing this piece, way back in my classical performing days, how much I love its phrases, harmonies and structures still, and that these are still there for me to return to, whenever I want.

I haven’t yet had time to get my clarinet out, but I shall, very soon. And I am looking forward to revisiting the Mozart Concerto when I do.

On another note, I realised that night that the traditional concert length no longer suits me. I would have been happy to go home after the Mozart, as there was so much to digest and process from the experience of the first half of the concert. This is absolutely not meant as a disparaging comment on what took place in the second half. The second half of the program was a new work by the Melbourne-based composer (and virtuoso organist) Calvin Bowman. He wrote a song cycle, English in tone and turn, with echoes of Finzi, Delius and even Michael Head and Warlock (to my ears) which was absolutely gorgeous, filled with light and shade and colour. We had the treat of hearing the songs performed by a lovely soprano, Jacqueline Porter… so really, it was all quite delightful.

However, as we walked to the car, I commented to John my companion that the first half of the concert now felt like a distant memory, our heads were so full of the most recent piece we had heard.

Thus, I find myself fully in favour of shorter concerts that allow patrons adequate time for reflection and digestion. Or perhaps concerts with a dinner break between the first and second halves.

Found!

Such joy – the keys turned up. The Arts Centre security staff had them Either they were found or handed in. So you see, my mantra, so far, holds true. It is hard to lose things.

Time to start humming and whistling old favourites like ‘Raindrops Keep falling on my head”, “What the world needs now”, “Walk on By”, and my personal most beloved, “Do you know the way to San Jose”…. because, people, the mighty Burt Bacharach is in town! I go to his concert on Saturday night. Very excited.

Oculus of Pantheon

A photo from my trip – the oculus of the Pantheon on a rainy Rome day.