Felix Profos, a friend of mine, recently wrote an article on how new music makes you lonely.
The central idea is that contemporary art music is built around certain features that force the listener into a state of ‘aloneness’. In this it reflects and imposes on its audience its own marginalised state: By structurally avoiding elements that can be anticipated or allow for a sense of corporeality on the part of the listeners, this form of music denies its audience a collective sense of experiencing the music together.1
While one might take issue with the point that physical and psychological patterns of expectation alone provide the basis for collective listening – after all was it not Cage’s lesson that freedom from these patterns can open up for another kind of (collective) listening. I thought of sitting on a mountaintop in the Alps with Felix and listening to the sounds of nature together. Even though there might be sudden (and sometimes quite extreme) changes in the weather (and the sounds that it produced) we had a joint listening experience. Granted, the intentions at play in a music performance can alter the situation somewhat, but the possibilities nevertheless exist. These concerns aside, the article brought into relief for me some aspects concerning listening to this kind of music in concert situations:
I find the point that ‘new’ music provokes a different kind of collective listening a pertinent one. It makes it clear that one can’t expect to simply serve this kind of music up to audiences in traditional concert situations and expect to get away with it. Something as simple as a regular seating grid can make or break the experience. I experienced this again particularly strongly at the recent Klang festival where many of the concerts took place in a hall with seating arranged as in the picture above.2
During certain concerts I simply wasn’t able to bear being squashed into that grid any longer and chose to leave midway even though there were works later in the program that I was interested in listening to. For my piece Antjie in Berlin I realised that it was necessary to take hold of this aspect if the music was to work at all. I found it extremely important when setting up the performance space(s) to make sure that the seating was loose and in the round, i.e. with performers in the centre of the performance space and the audience seated around them, avoiding grids and a clear us (the audience) and them (the performers) feeling. Only then was it possible to find some kind of sense of individual space as a listener, a state crucial to the piece – perhaps more like the kind of situation one has with certain Cardiff & Miller installations, for example. At the same time one still has a sense of experiencing a performance together, a curious mix of individual and shared space – when it works.
Perhaps this kind of looser seating would help a lot of new music concerts – don’t press people into a collective grid when it doesn’t fit with the music that’s being played.
Another aspect touched on in Felix’s article is the negative weight associated with being made to be “alone” – and yet the freedom of being in ones own personal space while at the same time being surrounded by others is an aspect of Western culture that has been strongly cultivated during the last 500 years, perhaps largely due to the growth of literacy and the development of the ‘art of the novel’ (as Kundera would put it). Sitting on a train or bus, enveloped in the world of the novel one is reading, is an extremely private experience that we all know and take for granted and for the most part is well respected by those we find around us. The potential social aspect of that experience comes later when sharing and discussing the book with friends and community, whether online or in person.
Music has traditionally been an intensely social experience and very powerful in its ability to move masses. Perhaps it’s long social history and recognised value in creating social cohesion mean that we are uncomfortable in giving ourselves over to a more individual experience of it. Of course the world of reading a novel on a train has found its counterpart in the technology of headphones and portable music players but that’s still something other than sitting in the same space as real live musicians. At a concert we want to forget ourselves and be swept up in the performance as we are with movies. A double awareness of ourselves and the performers and performance is still too much too handle. Where are we to place ourselves…?
In my experience simply ensuring enough physical space and suitable lighting can go a long way. Chris Watson has spoken of the importance of this in relation to his live ‘performances’ of ‘compositions’ based his extensive and fantastic field recordings. Finding setups that open up for the kind of listening that we might experience in nature, to return to the mountaintop listening experience.
Chris Watson also speaks of the highly individual nature of making field recordings – of occupying a unique point in the world when immersed in the sounds coming through ones headphones while making field recordings. This personal experience is then recreated in a collective setting, perhaps leading to something like the recent phenomenon of collectively listening to radio shows in a theatre – an individual medium in a collective (concert) setting.
In English ‘aloneness’ has a potentially more positive connotation than the German ‘einsam’ which has more of a sense of being cut off from others. ↩
I should point out however that many of the festival concerts in other venues did experiment with alternative concert forms and seating arrangements.
Jexper Holmen, the composer who happens to be in the picture has otherwise no particular connection with the content of this post. ↩