The classical concert hall is inherently undemocratic and needs a rethink, says Tania Holland Williams
Classical concert-going is akin to a self-prescribed, short-term prison sentence, occasionally impinging on some essential civil liberties. We as audiences are prepared to sign up to this contract, in the anticipation of an experience that will transport us far beyond the chair to which we are bound.
That was my pitch (paraphrased) to an audience at a recent Davy Jones’ Locker gig. It was a response to a query about why I launched the Living Room concert series and why the focus is on living composers. I went on to add that should a programme feature new and unfamiliar works, the whole package becomes a huge ask of an increasingly reluctant audience.
I am convinced that concert halls are inherently undemocratic spaces. It is not just the limitation of movement implicit in standard concert-going experience, but also the psychological geography of space that elevates the performer, giving one protagonist reverential status, the other – something infinitely less. Our thirst for ritual applauds but only if we feel that we belong to that particular ‘tribe’. As the boundaries between music genres grow ever more blurred our sense of music ‘tribalism’ finds itself under increasing pressure, so the high church, also known as contemporary classical music, begins to lose devotees at an alarming rate. This same phenomenon can also drive new audiences towards the work of living composers but only if we start to dismantle the barricade-like legacy of the last century a little.
Being in the business of trying to provoke curiosity and interest in contemporary arts and particularly new music, I’ve drawn together three underlying presumptions that I believe 21st-century audiences bring to bear on their interaction with music and the arts:
1) 'I am the captain of my cultural voyage'. Some years ago Tate Modern ran a lunchtime series where visitors identified themselves and their route through the exhibition from a range of choices such as – 'Romantic Lunch Break', 'Frazzled Friday Feeling', etc. It worked brilliantly because each visitor was able to put themselves at the centre of their experience in a specific and collaborative act between curator and visitor.
2) 'I’m pretty creative myself'. Let’s face it we can’t get enough of all those multiple platforms for creation and curation. One might assume that exposure to such an enormous variety of free to access arts participation would encourage audiences to be more adventurous. But my feeling is, that when having to part with cash for old-style encounters and feeling overwhelmed by choice, audiences increasingly take refuge in the familiar.
3) 'It’s good to talk'. We want to talk, to each other, to creators, to other consumers. This is surely one of the best and worst things about the 21st century and needs a whole other blog to properly do it justice. While there is a notional freedom of speech surrounding the concert hall setting, the possibility exists only in so far as there is a shared vocabulary around the form. Contemporary classical music has inherited 100 years of paucity of conversation, with very little public debate in comparison to the visual arts and even less in the way of a confident common parlance around the form. We are now reaping the consequence of this long mutual silence between performer and audience.
So if, like me, you agree that democratization is germane to a 21st-century audience experience what can be done? The learning from the Davy Jones’ series is unambiguous on two points: don’t dumb down the programme; do be imaginative about ways in which the audience might contribute to the event drawing from their pool of knowledge and interest.
I’d like to think that the 21st century becomes famed for 100 years of stimulating conversation and inspirational exchange – let’s ensure that music is central to that legacy.
Davy Jones’ Locker is funded by Ideas Test and Arts Council England.