Sinfonia Cymru’s ‘UnButtoned’: a radical overhaul of the concert experience

Pwyll ap SiônTue 10th September 2013

But is it difficult to ‘unbutton’ centuries of practice and tradition?

Audiences attending Sinfonia Cymru’s ‘UnButtoned’ event on Friday, September 6 were provided with a fascinating insight into the way future classical music concerts will be experienced.

The performance was held at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre – a venue more accustomed to experimental theatre and cult cinema than Beethoven and Bach. Described on Sinfonia Cymru’s website as ‘Wales’s first-ever late-night classical music experience’, a group of string players played Mendelssohn, Ravel and Tchaikovsky quartets and sextets to the accompaniment of flickering images reflected on two large video screens placed on either side of the theatre’s open space. Where one might normally expect to hear applause, pulsed electronic beats and ambient textures punctuated the gaps. The ‘concert’ was held in semi-darkness; audience members were encouraged to wander in and around the performers and become immersed in the multimedia experience. There was no interval, nor was there a programme with a list of the pieces performed or the performers’ names. ‘UnButtoned’ ended as unceremoniously as it begun, with a string sextet arrangement of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, to which audiovisual artist Tom Raybold added an evocative electronic soundtrack.

Inevitably, perhaps, given that the main aim was to try to ‘develop new ways of experiencing classical music’, there was much discussion during the question and answer session that followed as to whether the event had been a success or not. The animated discussion, which became quite heated at times, represented something of a moral victory for its artistic directors, Luc Morris and Matt Green, and Sinfonia Cymru director Sophie Lewis. At least such criticisms showed that people still passionately care for the way classical music is presented and performed.

But what the event illustrated more than anything else was how difficult it is to ‘unbutton’ centuries of practice and tradition that have served to straitjacket the concert ritual experience. Give audiences the freedom to walk around and become more fully ‘immersed’ in the moment and they actually decide to sit down. Replace the awkward silences that frame the ends and beginnings of each performance with other music, and audiences decide to applause in any case. Add some abstract images to go along with a piece of classical music and people complain that it’s ‘distracting’ or ‘inappropriate’.

Even if some listeners greeted such jarring juxtapositions with confusion and frustration, others, I’m sure, felt curiously emancipated from the vestiges of a bygone and at times moribund tradition. One of Sinfonia Cymru’s main objectives has been to ‘democratise classical music culture by giving musicians and players direct control over major aspects of the orchestra’s work’. One can be fairly sure, then, that ‘UnButtoned’ reflects the players’ own views – the classical music concert format is in desperate need of a radical overhaul.

All of which reminded me a little of the Scratch Orchestra. Founded by Cornelius Cardew, Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton in the late 1960s with the aim of revolutionising both the orchestra as institution and its performance practices, by the mid-1970s the Scratch Orchestra had fallen apart due to internal ideological and political disputes and arguments. Sinfonia Cymru is admittedly far less anti-establishment, but history does have a strange habit of repeating itself …

Maybe what ‘UnButtoned’ is proposing here is not so much a radical alternative as simply a way of (re)presenting things. We must not lose the excitement experienced just before the entrance on stage of a performer or conductor – the way our visual, aural and olfactory senses respond to that heightened moment of anticipation just before a concert begins. But we shouldn’t be scared of shaking things up a bit too. We are all guilty of becoming conditioned and immune to the concert experience at times. But attending a classical music performance is, by its very nature, a diverse experience – we all notice and get excited by different things at different times. So let’s celebrate this diversity and enjoy classical music in any number of stimulating and imaginative ways.
 
If you are interested in Sinfonia Cymru’s ‘UnButtoned’ project, two future events have been planned, on Saturday November 16 and Friday December 13, 2013, both at the Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff.

Pwyll ap Siôn

Gramophone reviewer Pwyll ap Siôn is senior lecturer in music at Bangor University. His monograph on The Music of Michael Nyman was published by Ashgate Press in 2007. Other books include The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music and an edited volume of Michael Nyman's Collected Writings (both due out in 2013).

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