Sunday, January 13, 2008

Shake Up, and Shakin’ It

Via Chris at CPB, because I read Bloglines before I read my Sunday Times, this article about “audience practice” over the years. (How did that grammar error in the first sentence make the final draft?!) My favorite paragraph: “Another time, late on a Spanish evening many years ago, I heard a village band competition at the bullring in Valencia. The playing was astonishing, and as a particular performance gradually took hold of the audience, low hums of approval would grow into something approaching wordless roars. It was the most profound concert experience of my life.”

This fueled a post I’ve been building for a while about the “indie classical” movement and what exactly we’re trying to shake up here. Folks like the admins and performers at New Amsterdam Records, composers like Nico Muhly and Caleb Burhans, bands like Secret Society, Alarm Will Sound, Brooklyn Rider, and Ljova and the Vjola Contraband: I think all of these musicians have “shake up” as part of their mission statement. Heck, I'd even add Andrew Bird to that list. Secret Society is a “steampunk big bang” and Vjola Contraband is “chamber-jam music for the "remix generation".” Brooklyn Rider says they want to “invite audiences into a greater shared dialogue.” Liszt seemed to have a similar mindset: “When Liszt did his solo acts, there was none of the march-on, march-off stage ritual of today. Liszt greeted patrons at the door, mingled in the audience and schmoozed with friend and stranger alike.”

So what are we trying to change?

Last weekend, TM was here for the CMA conference and we took in a few other sites and sounds around town. Friday, I watched the second half of the CMA opening concert; I heard three works/groups/performances and had three very different reactions. The first was piano trio by Leon Kirschner. A piano trio is already a very traditional ensemble (piano, violin, cello), and the young ladies playing the work sat in the usual set-up and wore very traditional attire. A little too traditional, if you know me, which you do: floor-length, jewel-toned satin gowns, each a different style and color but obviously very coordinated. The women looked beautiful, and they played even more beautifully, but it was just a bit… I don’t know. Safe? Done? It wasn’t boring, because the music took care of that. But how could it have been “newer?” Does it matter? The work was written in 1998, but if I’d just been watching and not listening I would have assumed it was from 1898. How can performance practice reflect the music? Should it? Does it matter?! It obviously matters to me, ‘cuz I can’t stop thinking about it...

The second piece was the first part of Pierrot Lunaire, performed by eighth blackbird and Lucy Shelton, who I adore. This performance rocked. First of all, it was from memory, which freed up the performers to move and to interact with each other. I loved it. They were all over the place: kneeling, changing positions to play with each other as the ensemble changed, turning their backs to the audience. It was a lot, but it never felt “busy.” Their movements never felt affected or showy because their attitude was one of ease. This was simply their performance, their gift to the audience, and they weren’t wasting energy worrying about how it was going to “go over.” They were being, not doing. And even with no “doing,” or rather, because there was no “doing,” there was a long, breathless pause after the final movement, as the audience slowly freed itself from the spell the performers had cast. It was magical.

The final performance of the night was by So Percussion, whom I have loved since I saw them last year at the Whitney Museum. Four guys, each with his own style, comfortable, casual. Their performance of Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood” absolutely blew. my. mind. It was the most visceral reaction I’ve had to a performance in a long time: my palms were sweaty, my heart raced. Was it the performance? The piece itself? The perfurme of the woman next to me? Who knows. But they got something right. I was again under a spell. When I saw them at the restaurant after the performance, I went to say hello and thank them; I felt like a girl talking to her high school crush…

That’s how I want an audience to feel. Know what I mean? Excited, turned on, drawn in, breathless… not unlike the feeling I had seeing The Shins or The New Pornographers, now that I think about it. Or Die Walkure...

So, what about a “recital” at a place like Webster Hall? How would I feel, as a performer, if people were coming and going, drinking beers (spilling beers), talking on their cell phones, etc.. How much is a rock band aware of that stuff? They are up on stage, removed, listening to their monitors, maybe unaware of most of the activity beyond the footlights. Is amplification the key? Things are loud enough that the audience doesn’t have to sit quietly, afraid to talk for fear of missing something, and the band can tune out what they don’t want to see/hear/know. Is it a respect thing? Why do we respect classical concerts (showing it by sitting still and being quiet and clapping where “appropriate”) more than rock concerts?

CT the DT tells of a performance of a jazz group (I can’t remember who, a pianist-led group, I think) where, at the end, when people started clapping, the pianist looked up and seemed to be almost surprised to see that audience there. The band had been so into the music, into working together, that they had almost forgetton about the “performance.” Is this good? Part of me says yes, that it can be just about the music, but then part of me wonders if it is disrespectful to the audience to “forget” about them. How does the performers’ relation to the audience affect the overall feeling of the performance? How can performers focus on “being” and still give the audience a show worth the price of admission (or more).

Man, the more I write, the more questions I come up with.

TM and I also saw a concert at ICO Music (formerly VIM: Tribeca). There were several elements that indicated “we’re trying to shake things up here:” the venue, free booze, the dress of the performers. And yet. As TM said, it was still musicians with stands and an audience that sat quietly until it was ok to clap. So what are we shaking up here? How can we do more? What will we sacrifice? What will we gain?

6 comments:

CC said...

How about viewing it from the other side?
Matt Haimovitz, for example?
Or me, really.

I truly think that there has to be a HUGE change, almost a homogenization of all music, for all of us (and this glorious music!) to survive!

Oh, and miss you. :)

CMT said...

The show I saw where the performers forgot the audience was Chick Corea several years ago at Jazz Alley in Seattle. Unfortunately, I don't remember who his band was for that particular tour. But I do remember being utterly enthralled by this one piece they played. Yes, I think they forgot that the audience was there, but instead of making us feel like they didn't care about us, it made us feel like our presence didn't make things hard for them, and probably enhanced their experience as well. We were quiet in that club, yes. Some conversation, but at a low hum, and not too many spilled beers at the bar. And utter silence by the end of this piece. I guess I felt that my presence as "audience" didn't affect their ability to really saturate themselves in what they were creating. There was a purity to it that was different than more interactive concerts where it's obvious that audience participation, even simply audience *presence*, is a part of the show. This was a purity of creation that I was honored to witness, and that others in the club felt honored to witness as well.

Maury D'annato said...

Once in a while I've been to a...pop, or whatever, concert where the audience acted largely like the audience at Carnegie Hall or somewhere like that. I remember seeing the Brooklyn band Hem at Schuba's in Chicago and everyone was rapt, and quiet.

I like the points you're making, though of course as a dour librarian of an audience member, quick with a shoosh that kills at ten paces, I do hope shaken up classical music won't be an excuse for people to talk during the performance. Because that's not a matter of some stuffy, needlessly sedate form of respect for the music; that's about letting the people around you listen.

abner said...

This is a great issue! Here's a feeling I've long had from the audience perspective. I listen to all kinds of music, and rhythm is central to all of it. The body wants to move! But so often we restrain ourselves, for all sorts of reasons. Partly it's the ethos: you're supposed to sit still. Partly it's that many people are reluctant to dance in any setting; we've all heard "I need a few drinks first" before someone feels comfortable dancing. What if chamber music (and I use that term as broadly as possible) were played in settings where people could ... if not talk (we do want to hear the music!) ... at least move! Their bodies! Dance if they want to. Chamber-dance. With drinks as needed :) As a way to develop new audiences of younger people, this could be a big help.

JSU said...

Holland, as usual, jumbles together a lot of disparate things. For example, the legendary "chatty listener" of yore. Shall we ignore that the original concert audiences were aristocrats, who would of course prioritize their own (ostensibly transcendent) social ordering over the transient states of "listener" and "performer"? We can hardly go back there, nor would we want to. Transient orderings are all we've got in 2008, but they're no less essential for all that. The contemporary thing, it seems to me, is to *recognize* that they're transient, but stick to the good in them (including the stuff bequeathed by performance tyrants like Wagner, Toscanini, et al.) nonetheless.

Nor do I think it pays to confuse different sorts of aesthetics... Not to say that the genres don't/shouldn't mix in any particular thing, or that much "classical" music works as (or in fact, like much of the virtuoso stuff, was actually intended for) performance in the popular mode. But I very much doubt there's one unitary performance form/relation/whatever in which everything today wants to converge.

Charlotte said...

I don't think it's necessary for performers to consciously take the audience into account. Depending on the performance situation, I think it's often better if they forget that the audience is there once they've started playing, the Chick Corea concert being a perfect example. I really like the idea of shaking things up in the world of classical music (or music in general), but no matter what kind of music is being played, where a concert happens or what people are wearing, I think the only things you need (the things you must have) to create a memorable concert experience are very emotionally generous, open performers, and an engaged audience.

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