24 August 2017

Alien Concert Settings

Concert organisers and performing musicians worry about the nature of traditional concerts.  They believe that the conventional layout of an audience sitting in silent, serried ranks before the musicians on stage, separated by both a physical and psychological gulf, is partly responsible for the fact that classical music concerts attract only a tiny minority of the population.  It encourages, they would tell you, passive listening rather than active involvement, and makes people feel alienated.  I’m not sure audiences share their concerns and, in any case, a change in the physical set-up of a concert would alienate many of those who regularly attend.  People who attend classical music concerts are, by and large, pretty conservative in their tastes, comfortable in their existence and mature enough to have the finances and spare time to sacrifice for it; this is a significant sector of society and should not be ignored simply because political correctness demands we try to attract the poor, the needy, the dispossessed, the socially primitive and the young.

My personal opinion is that, while the environment should be made more friendly, for many the attraction of concert-going is precisely that sense of observing a spectacle rather than indulging in an activity.  What keeps the huge mass of population away from classical music concerts is more connected with conflicting pressures on time and wallet, poor publicity and, most of all, an ingrained disinterest in the art-form.  No amount of tweaking the arena in which it is performed will overcome that.

Singaporean percussion virtuoso, Joachim (the stage name of Joachim Theodore Lim), put on a solo concert last night and made the effort to break with that traditional concert-setting.  I would like to tell him he need not bother. 

Joachim is a brilliant and dazzlingly gifted percussionist, who in last night’s concert gave an unforgettable account of the Xenakis Rebonds and a truly mesmerising (and I use the word in its proper context here) performance of Andy Akiho’s Karakurenai.  Joined by Marvin Seah in a fascinating piece involving a plethora of small containers containing seeds which they shook rhythmically in an unbroken flow (not even momentarily put off track when Joachim dropped one of them on the floor) called, appropriately enough, Seeds, there was also plenty of visual stimulation.  Indeed, Joachim understands the visual drama of it all and displays athleticism as he dances around his marimba (the principal instrument of the evening) and clearly recognises the visual appeal of intense concentration.  In short, this was a concert of great musicianship and tremendous showmanship.

But Joachim was not prepared to risk everything on his own performing skill, and in long, rambling talks, barely audible (those of us who, aware of the decibel properties inherent in a percussion concert, chose to sit or stand at the back, lost almost every word Joachim uttered – next time, use a microphone please!) and constituting at least 50% of the concert’s hour-long duration, told us that this was not going to be a traditional concert and that we were free to talk, walk about and participate.  He then suggested that some people might find this distracting, so we should respect that.  In the end I had no idea what we were supposed to do, and in the event only the handful of very young children in the audience felt free to talk, fidget and move about. 

He also told us he had organised the hall in an informal manner.  Yet the only obvious manifestation of this was the chairs placed in a slight arc and widely spaced - a trick usually employed to negate the effects of a small audience (something Joachim never needs worry about in Singapore; his reputation proceeds him and he attracts a goodly crowd).  In short, it looked pretty traditional to me.

Other devices used to “break the traditional mould of concerts” were a programme presented on paper in a different sequence to the order in which it was performed, and the inclusion of something which was not on the programme but included “at the last minute”.  This may have been a deliberate attempt to add informality, but for my sceptical mind, it suggested a lack of preparedness.  He also brought in his colleagues from the Lorong Boys, who gave a desultory and aimless display of mediocre ersatz-jazz which never went anywhere, never lost its firm footing in minor tonality and seemed not so much un-rehearsed as made up on the spot.  You would have been hard put to associate this dismal drivel with a group who have become hugely popular in Singapore.

But the most peculiar break with tradition was the handing out to the audience of a piece of blank paper and a pen.  “What’s this for?”, I asked the steward as I entered the hall.  “You’ll see”, I was told, “It’s an interactive concert”. 

It wasn’t.  The paper – which I half thought might be used to add an aural dimension to one of the pieces by being collectively shaken, hit and torn by the audience – was used just once.  Before a performance of Jacob Druckman’s Reflections On The Nature Of Water Joachim told us all to write down what we thought the piece was going to be about and what we thought each of the six movements would represent.  Since the programme printed clear and descriptive titles for each, I failed to see what possible object was served by this, and wrote on mine “as the title suggest” six times, merely changing Druckman’s “Fleet” to “fast and fluent”.  Joachim waited patiently until we had all written down our ideas and then performed the piece.  All the way through I was dreading that moment when we would be asked to read out what we had written and compare it with what we had heard.  It never came.  The writing idea was stillborn and pointless, and served only to distract my attention from the music.

If there is something perceived to be wrong about conventional concert settings, for goodness sake do not make changes unless you are certain you have a better alternative.  I left what should have been a stimulating and amazing display of performance prowess feeling distinctly dispirited and even quite alienated by an environment I simply did not understand.

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