"I'm often asked 'What is Soundstreams?' and while there a lot of ways to answer that question, I like to think that here at Soundstreams, we're story-tellers.” To immerse the audience in the culture and context of the music they present – that's the vision Artistic Director Lawrence Cherney has for the company he founded some thirty years ago. I've heard him offer these words twice in recent weeks, once at one of their Salon 21 events and another at their Tango! concert. And while it all sounds well and good, I wonder if it's less straightforward than that.
I like context for the music I listen to, and the healthy attendance at the Salon events shows other people do, too, however, anecdotal observation hints this represents mostly two groups of people – those with music history degrees and those in their 50s, 60s, and above. And while Soundstreams and other arts companies have tried various ways to interact with and, ideally, diversify and expand their audience – salon-type events, pre-concert lectures, post-concert meet-and-greets – it appears as though the WASPy baby-boomer set still prevails. Why is this? Leaving aside well-worn discussions of the potentially alienating effect of the formal concert hall and of contemporary music, I've kind of got the impression that some undefined majority of people aren't interested too much in social context or historical back-stories for the music they listen to.
Is it because for many people music is an experiential pursuit rather than an informational or educational one? Take tango, for instance. It's one of many genres with a fascinating history: its musical roots are complex, changing political atmospheres have influenced it, as have such seemingly mundane things as instrument manufacturing. But for many it's likely only a dance genre and nothing more. Even given an easy opportunity to find out more about tango's history (such as the more sparsely attended pre-concert lecture), I'm skeptical a lot people would take it simply because of how often I hear people talk about music as a relief from the daily grind, a way to relax; learning about it, then, however casually, is counter-intuitive – it seems like effort. This may change over the course of many individuals' lives – as people get older, they might feel that they have the time and will to 'indulge' in luxuries such as learning about music.
Then again, maybe my opinion here is unduly influenced (jaded?) by my own personal experiences. Too many times I've encountered people who feel that learning about music is not so much a boring, academic exercise (although that attitude can occur) but that deconstructing cultural context can actually harm one's ability to enjoy music. If it's not too cliché to say so, I wonder more and more if music, in a largely secularised or non-religious society, is filling in a sort of quasi-religious or ritualistic function -- a universal, shared experience in increasingly mixed societies.
One day, I hope to have worked through this a lot more thoroughly and coherently, but for now the kernel of my thinking here runs something like this: music's alleged powers to help listeners cope with problems, alter mood, recall memories, and create transcendental states, along with talk about 'authentic,' 'real,' and 'organic' music having some unquantifiable 'essence' all speak to a treatment of music as mysterious and magical. And, a teeny little bit like when various scientific discoveries laid bare simple natural phenomenon as not being the work of god, the theorist's or musicologist's* research into music's under-pinnings, or even the composer's explanations of intent can cause a negative reaction, the feeling that you've peeked behind curtain and ruined the magic trick or killed the fun by explaining the joke. For others it may simply be a worry about over-exposure – if they spend to much time with the music (either by listening directly or by contemplating its context, etc.), they'll get sick of it.
None of this is to discourage Soundstreams or anyone else from staging learning experiences about music. If nothing more than for my own enjoyment, I very much hope things like pre-concert lectures will continue and even proliferate; the attendance will probably remain steady, just don't count on it to contribute to audience diversification.
*Initially, I was going to include neuroscientists in this list, but the widespread popularity of books by professionals in this field such as Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin proves they don't belong there. Perhaps neuroscientists positive mass reception is in part due to their work dealing less with specific pieces and genres of music and more with music as a general human phenomenon?
The past couple of weeks have touched on a few of different perspectives regarding the confluence of movement, space, and musical performance. It started at a Soundstreams' Salon 21 event where R. Murray Schafer discussed his work Isfahan for three brass quintets. Commissioned in 2006, the piece was inspired in part by the venue where it was premiered (St. Anne's church in Toronto) which, in turn, reminded Schafer of a visit he made to the Shah Abbas Mosque in Isfahan (or Esfahan), Iran in 1969. The excessive echo of the mosque's dome influenced the work's compositional structure in numerous ways, but on a more conceptual level it led Schafer to want 'to create a piece that would linger in the space as if it belonged there and would remain forever.'
Not only did this require a close study of the acoustics of the church, it also involved utilising a greater amount of space during the performance itself. In Isfahan, the 'stage' expands – perhaps even dissolves – beyond that single, central focal point at which all the audience is facing and gradually encompasses aisles and alcoves throughout the venue as the musicians move about whilst playing, literally bringing the music from once place to another. The movement is carefully choreographed, too, so that each change in position makes its own contribution to shaping the music (mostly in terms of dynamics and accent) and evoking the idea that sound is coming from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Some alterations are required with a change of venue, as was the case with the October 30 performance at Koerner Hall (thanks to Jennifer and Inés at Soundstreams for setting me up with tickets!), but nonetheless the effect of the choreography was an apparent and stunning component of the work.
I began to think about all this in contrast to your standard rock show. Many forms of popular music are noted for their prominent kinetic elements, not least of which is the physical energy of the performers on stage (statue-like bands such as Portishead or shoegazers excepted). But, apart from the occasional crowd dive or run-through, most rock shows are exactly the same as most classical concerts in that the stage is the fixed performance location. The micing of rock shows adds an unavoidable uniformity to the sound as well – while a blaring PA system can equally saturate every inch of a performance space, no matter where the musicians move to or a listener is situated, the sound will remain largely the same (feedback and equipment failures excepted). Even if this wasn't the case, the musicians' mobility within the venue can still be limited by patch and mic cords.
Then there's the audience. At classical concerts, the standard and sometimes derided practice is one of immobility; the audience ought to listen attentively and sit stock-still. Despite this constraint, they might yet make an occasional impact because, as one attendee to the Salon asked, wouldn't a full house versus a half-full or empty house change the acoustic effects of so delicately constructed work as Isfahan? Indeed, it would. Conceptual and aleatoric works such as Cage's 4'33'' can also be influenced during a live performance by the actions or even mere presence of an audience, but such effects and especially active audience participation are much less common in classical music.
Rock shows are, of course, another affair altogether with a very different set of expectations for the crowd: if they aren't moving around, visibly and audibly demonstrating their enjoyment and appreciation of the music being played, they can be seen as cold, reserved, or plain up-tight. Toronto audiences in particular have a bad reputation for this. It's a little strange to me to think of an audience as sucking because, well, they didn't show up to perform, they came to observe, but interaction and reciprocation are much more highly valued, encouraged, and even demanded in the popular music world.
That said, can you really blame people if they only want to casually take in a band and not deal with the chaotic negotiation of space that goes on at rock concerts? Just look at this Reddit post titled 'Made it right to the stage at a concert? Great! Now GET YOUR GIRLFRIEND OFF YOUR FUCKING SHOULDER!' and we can see there's a lot to contend with:
Do NOT show up right as the show starts and attempt to "squirm your way in front". People there waited in line for hours.
Do NOT make your way "back and forth because [you] need a beer or a smoke or have to pee." If you do, don't expect your place to be saved.
Do NOT stand right at the stage and attempt to photograph and/or record the entire show with your cell phone. You're there for the music, not to upload shitty quality videos of every song played on YouTube or Facebook. Try and listen to the music, you might actually like it.
[Digression: Here's another plus for classical concerts – they don't allow this recording business at all. I witnessed a new level of this unfortunate trend at rock concert recently when I was standing near one of the venue's numerous flat-screens simulcasting the performance on stage. People – many people – stopped to take photos just of the flat-screen.]
Do NOT go to a concert and assume a location in the standing section with the expectation that others around you do not plan on moving.
This is getting more complex than classical concert etiquette! It also sums up pretty well why I usually stand at the back or as isolated from the rest of the audience as I can get (I also don't like blasted by the stacks). Then again, maybe I'm an all too typical and reserved Toronto concert-goer...
Anyway, the last item involves an entirely different kind of space – outer space – and I mention it because I thought it was neat and I hadn't heard about it previously. In 1986, Rendez-vous Houston was a large outdoor concert intended to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the city of Houston, the 25th anniversary of NASA, and an album release concert for the event's headliner, Jean Michel Jarre. A friend of Jarre's, astronaut Ron McNair, was going to play a piece on his saxophone during his next mission in space, the video of which would then be projected on a multi-storey screen during the concert and accompanied live by the other participating musicians. Unfortunately, that next mission became the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster and the concert ended up being a memorial one, but, nonetheless, it was quite the multi-media spectacle and it's a shame there was no attempt to finally realise Jarre's 'space collaboration' idea before NASA discontinued its shuttle program. Maybe it will eventually be picked up and carried out elsewhere?