Travels Beyond the Concert Hall

By June 28, 2020Blog

In 1979 a biologist, Professor Richard Abbott, discovered a new species of plant. It was growing in a patch of scrubland next to a car park in York. An overlooked, unloved place… a non-area, no-mans land… Richard thought no more of the ‘curiously attractive weed’ until he returned to the site in 1991 and noticed a large population of the plant. Something of major evolutionary significance had taken place. It was the sixth discovery of a new plant species in Britain in the last 100 years.

The story of the York Groundsel (as the plant was named) inspired the work of Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, two British film-makers and self–proclaimed ‘no-goods’. Their work is focussed on in-between areas – the places where things grow and proliferate in gaps, cracks and fissures – and the different ways that people inhabit spaces. At the heart of their work is the concept of the wanderer… the drifter… an urban reincarnation of Baudelaire’s gentrified flâneur. A book about their 2004 exhibition in Oslo and Paris was called ‘We don’t have the option of turning away from the future’.

As we urgently debate possible and necessary futures for classical music, these two small, connected stories came back to me. In amongst the desperate need to rescue the sector, many artists and industry professionals seek positive change for classical music. Gaps, cracks and fissures have opened up… all tensions and dichotomies are under scrutiny: change and tradition, freedom of the arts and government function, music needs to be accountable and liberating, innovative and responsible, sensitive to individuals and for everyone. And attention is turning to ways of doing things differently that have already been quietly taking root in overlooked, liminal areas…

Whilst these real and psychological gaps-cracks-and-fissures are open, I have been thinking about what music might be. Living in an unimaginable world without venues and concert halls is a constant devastating reminder of what has been lost. Yet it has also brought into sharp focus the extent to which we consider and discuss classical music mostly in terms of the spaces we put it in. We have grown so used to the concept of The-Concert-In-The-Concert-Hall as the absolute centre of classical music that it seems impossible to think outside it. The ideology is, in fact, so strong that it may have inhibited other things from happening. Have we lost a vital sense of how music could behave, how it could be more impactful and representative? Has the tethering of music and the places where we care for it (preserve and conserve it) become so ingrained that it has prevented music from evolving in ways that it might have done?

This blog is a ‘what if...’ It is an attempt to depart from the concept of the institution as the heart of classical music. It is a peregrination, a drift through in-between landscapes where music is nomadic and the spaces in which we encounter it are junctions or meeting-places rather than an end-point or a predetermined destination. I have thought about containing music – that most ethereal and airborne of all the arts – not in physical spaces, but within communities and the ways that it is ‘consumed’.

Thinking outside and beyond the concert hall does not mean rejecting the concert hall as a building. Instead, its about re-positioning music in the wider world which begins with curiosity about the ways people engage with sound and the spaces around them. It is about freeing up space (not filling up existing space) so that new ideas can take root, so that we can change the things we want to change and enable these new ways of thinking about music to filter back into the buildings themselves. Music in the concert hall is, to repurpose what artist Marcel Broodthaers said about the gallery, ‘only one truth, surrounded by many other truths worth exploring’.

Why is it so difficult to distance Classical Music from the Concert Hall?

Three hundred years after its conception, ‘the concert’ remains the predominant ‘ideal’ type of live music event; specially designed spaces with specially designed acoustics, perfected for listening. A phenomenal body of repertoire, created for and nurtured under these conditions, includes some of the finest cultural achievements in Western history. Such is the extraordinary dominance of the concert hall as the optimum place for hearing classical music, that virtually everything is organized around this concept. Early radio and recordings were marketed and sold on the basis that they allow the listener to have ‘the concert hall experience’ at home, sitting in ‘the best seat in the house’. Many recordings and radio programmes are still created on this premise.

In most venues dedicated to the performance of classical music, concert habits and rituals are reinforced with each performance. This vision of music making is therefore largely accepted and further reinforced by each generation of musicians and audiences, who may have little influence and opportunity to intervene in policy-making and institutional practices. And they may not wish to: being part of a live concert hall experience (performers and audience) is an incredibly powerful and much-lauded experience of ‘togetherness’, an overwhelming sense of solidarity, community and belonging with other ‘rooted’ people. In her book The Need for Roots, philosopher Simone Weil argues, ‘to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul’.   We live in a time when more and more people are rootless and the thought of being ‘uprooted’ generates a fear of losing physical (environmental) and spiritual (emotional) connections to others, to the past and to places in the world.

Concerts in concert halls have strong conceptual macro-structures too, consisting of associations that surround them. The expectation of being ‘addressed by the event’ is an example of this; audiences expect to be entertained, moved, perhaps challenged by a performance. The flow of movement is from music to audience – music is delivered, received, consumed. Status is another example; the space itself may have status (a venue with a rostra of stellar musicians who have performed there, a history of standout premieres) and what we put into these spaces also assumes that status. By indefinitely repeating the classical music canon, the two continue to bolster each other. The hall is a signifier of greatness and the things in it are turned into cultural currency.  Such is the power and depth of association that a lesser-known work or artist can gain almost instant kudos by being showcased in a high-status venue. Conversely, a symphony by Beethoven can effectively ‘raise’ the status of a concrete car park once the symphony is placed inside it.  The car park subsequently becomes accepted as a concert hall and all its associations with astonishing ease, as do stadiums, gardens, warehouses…. The stronger the surrounding structures, the stronger the concept becomes and the harder it is to change practices inside and think beyond the dominance of the concert hall.

How might we think beyond the concert hall?

Oliver Payne and Nick Relph’s film-work is based on the concept of psychogeography (the impact of geography on emotions and behaviours) although I didn’t know this term when I was an undergraduate. What I do know, is that I spent hundreds of hours as a music student wandering aimlessly and purposelessly around the broken, unloved and ‘in-between’ areas of Manchester… flat, featureless 1960s shopping arcades, the decaying crescents of Hulme, unkempt places where a Manchester Groundsel might well have sprung up…. And I knew that somehow this was connected to the music I loved – and the music I hoped to make. I wanted to be lost and I wanted to see what could flourish in the gaps. 

What better way to experience a piece of music than to become utterly lost in it? The first hearing of a new work is like a wander through a fantastical landscape… I might impart a few scrag-ends of wisdom or insight to myself, but in this kind of self-exile I feel largely disassociated from historical associations or prior knowledge. It is possible to get lost like this in more familiar music too; returning to music again and again with freewheeling abandonment can reveal and illuminate forgotten, discarded or marginalised aspects of a much-loved work. I like to walk or drive when listening to music. The physical traveling seems to aid a fresh interpretive listening experience, removing the idea that music is being delivered to me and replacing it with a shared journey that connects sounds with the spaces and places we pass through together.

I like the putting music in places that encourage or emulate this kind of drift… musical houses, musical streets, musical cities… environments where you can go back and have another listen, talk to others about what you hear. I like the idea of music that works with environs, where life and art sit side-by-side. Visionary curator Jean Leering said ‘it is no longer sufficient for the museum to be a forum for contemporary art, because it should give the visitor the opportunity to became aware of their cultural position in a dynamic society’. Leering curated parallel exhibitions where the visitor viewed art and artistic issues set against similarities in everyday life. ‘Exhibiting’ the music and thought-processes of composers within wider, global, contemporary contexts such as ‘resistance’, ‘silence’, ‘rebellion’ would re-position their music at the heart of a rapidly changing world. Placing a narrative next to music does not explain or solve music; it simply allows us a new entry point into the fascinating enigma of listening.

Concert Halls are designed to shut out the surrounding sounds of a community.  But music that goes beyond the concert hall could welcome local sounds, finding ways to weave them together with both older and new repertoire. Music created in combination with source music (church bells, nature, the sounds of a building, music in the street, car radios… ) shifts perspectives on sound and actively engages listeners. A small but brilliant example of how effective this can be is Oliver Leith’s  Honey Siren – II. (Full like drips)  performed by the string group 12 Ensemble in one of the Barbican’s underground loading bays. Plaintive, mesmeric and achingly beautiful string sirens and Doppler shifts wail and mingle with the sounds of traffic and the city. And in 2017, Langham Research Centre created a response to Handel’s Water Music, 300 years after it was premiered on the Thames. The group ‘played’ the live sound of the Bridge’s river and road traffic using hydrophones in the river and contact microphones on Tower Bridge. These two examples seem to compress and squeeze music out of the environment – a thrilling experience where boundaries of authorship are blurred: who owns what and who is curating the sounds that we hear? In film, discussion of the relationship between source sound (diagetic) and composed sound (non-diagetic) is commonplace. Writer Robyn Stilwell, well-known for her work in music and film, calls this space between diegetic sound and non-diagetic music a ‘fantastical gap’ – a kind of rich, liminal border, a destabilised and ambiguous zone that exists between the story and the ways of making meaning from it. This not a new idea for music, but it could be scaled up and gain traction.

Weaving music around and through environments not only repositions it in the heart of modern life, but respects and allows people more freedom to shape and enjoy their own musical soundscapes. I am curious to explore how self-generating, self-evolving models – musical ‘machines’  – might be set up to work with the sonic environment and have a continuous, constantly changing life of their own. A piece of music or a way of programming that changes with every community it visits, taking on the hall-marks of each locality, could replace the traditional concept of the ‘run’ (repeated performances in one place). How is it possible to add (or take away) things to a piece of music so that it changes yet remains meaningful?  Could such an idea travel around the world, adapting and proliferating in each new environment?

None of these expansive, borderless frameworks could happen without the input of wider and brilliant artistic voices, both within classical music and beyond. In my attempt to think how music might behave in other realms, I’m drawn to other fields, often those where the boundaries between disciplines are already fuzzy… architecture, urban planning, design… the sectors that seek out counteractions to straightjackets and strangleholds as a way of life.

The case for music-beyond-the-concert-hall is essentially a humble one: people, their choices and the ways that they live matter. It is hard to categorize. Is it about replacing one set of (static) behaviours with another, more fluid type? Is it a radical and anarchistic response to top-down decisions? Its not anti-venues and its not anti-concerts, but it is about changing mindsets associated with tradition, conservation and preservation. I see it as a bottom-up, artist-led, people-driven approach that presents artists with an almost limitless set of frameworks combined with a ‘light touch’, non-prescriptive curation allowing growth to happen in organic and surprising ways. We cannot tell which innovations will germinate and multiply and which ideas will die. Nor can we know how people will continue to organize their lives or how their tastes or patterns of living will develop. But a city or a community has a pulse and heart-beat of its own and I would like classical music to be part of this, not exist outside it.

Post script

In 2010, the York Press reported that the York Groundsel had accidentally been killed with weedkiller by the local council. The botanists from Natural England were philosophical. ‘There is no reason why this hybrid couldn’t happen again in the future’ they said. And Richard Abbott stresses that its not so much about the plant, but catching the evolutionary process in action that is of critical interest. As unexpected things begin once again to grow in the cracks, gaps and fissures of this pandemic, we would be wise to care for them, learn from them, nurture and nourish them, enable them to evolve and proliferate. Ideas and practices that are flourishing outside conventions, unfettered by heavy-weight traditions and associations, can change landscapes forever.  The key is spotting them in the first place as we travel the less-trodden paths.