Location: Ghetto or Niche?

'Concert hall versus everywhere else'.

In new music circles there is a bit of a refrain that music has to move out of the concert halls and go and reach out to new audiences. I have always found this rather tiresome, to be honest. What is wrong with going in to a specifically designed building? What is wrong with going to a concert hall to find music? Should we pester people into listening by sticking music into strange places where they least expect it?

But there are people out there whose allergy to institutions extends to the cultural institutions. The problem seems to be the faint afterglow of a class issue: that old chestnut that ‘classical music is elitist’. Unfortunately there are two sorts of elitism that usually get mixed up in these discussions: basic class snobbery on the one hand, and on the other, the sense that listening with patience and a little mental effort is somehow elitist too. While the association of Mozart and Haydn with princes has faded to nothing, unfortunately the association of social climbing with getting a bit of education is as strong as ever among the middle classes. So anything that suggests you might just be parading a trained mind rather than an untrained one is open to suspicion.

My first response to this implied problem is to recall the story about Karl Marx visiting the workers in Manchester to express his solidarity with a strike. He stepped off the first class carriage and was met by a comrade who was extremely agitated that he did not express a bit more solidarity by joining those in second class. His response? ‘The purpose of the revolution is to eliminate second class, not first class!’

However, as the revolution seems to be…behind schedule…perhaps we should not waste time thinking that we all have to like the same things. The people who market ice-picks put their ads in Mountaineer Monthly rather than Hello magazine. There is nothing objectively wrong with producing a niche product for a niche group.

But to return to the issue of concert hall vs. everywhere else, I am not actually against music in other places, I am really just calling for a reasoned consideration of the issues. What sparked off my thinking about all this was my attending concerts in various places: the open air in St Stephen’s Green, a chapel at RHK (IMMA), and the Beckett Centre in TCD. The indoor concerts were pretty much in the usual new music sort of venue, while the St Stephen’s Green concert stood out; as the audience there was a mixture of contemporary music people, for want of a better term, and ‘the unsuspecting public’ who just happened to come to enjoy fantastic weather and sit on the grass.

At this concert there was an extraordinarily wide mixture of styles, from traditional music through Gershwin to Lassus and on to Enclave, a newly commissioned work from Benjamin Dwyer to celebrate 125 years of allowing the public into St Stephen’s Green. It occurs to me now that the width of styles that ran before the Dwyer piece was deliberately designed to prepare the audience for the unexpected. In any case, as I listened to Enclave I was sort of on tenterhooks as to whether people would leave during it: something that would be very easy to do in this context and very unlikely in the indoor settings (this idea itself is refreshing!). Then as the piece unfolded I had the feeling that the composer had also considered this possibility. I may be wrong on his motivation, but I thought that he did a good job of creating something that maintained general interest without at all writing down to an abstract ‘general audience’. The result was a multi-sectional piece with simple but contemporary gestures. Even though the piece ran across the 2pm line, very few rose until the end.

Enclave was a piece that sits well in Dwyer’s oeuvre, since it fits in but also declares new avenues of interest. Ultimately, though, the ideal setting would be indoors, with a ‘general audience’ somehow lured in (free lattes perhaps?), since what also struck me was that among the winds, brasses, electric guitar and percussion were a double bass and cello that sounded a bit dire; purely because these are not outdoor instruments. Once put through amplification and released to the open air they sound alarmingly close to the skiffle ‘tea-chest and string’ bass. The tradition of using brass, reeds and percussion for bandstand bands is not some freak of history, after all, but based on sound practice.

On Sunday 17th July there was the concert in the chapel of IMMA. This was in connection with an IMMA exhibition of paintings from the ‘White Stag’ group, from the 1940s mainly. Brian Boydell was painting as well as composing back then, and is associated with this group. The concert programme consisted of three works of Boydell’s from 1939 to 1949. Having attended both the exhibition and the concert I was struck by how much really good artistic work of all kinds gets lost (or, in this case, not quite) as time moves on. We may know that Boydell was a major figure, but it easy to forget why. Here, after all, is a composer who wrote 31 orchestral works, 48 chamber pieces, 29 songs and various pieces for films and plays. And these are substantial works. Having just read The Life and Music of Brian Boydell, I can’t help thinking that his habitual personal modesty has something to do with why he is not celebrated more. That, and the usual problem of the ‘non-existence’ of Irish composers. (Speaking of which, I note that the Irish Times reported on the St Stephen’s Green concert without mentioning at all the new commission or the composer who organised the whole event.)

The audience at IMMA was largely made up of people who actually knew Boydell, and was extremely thin on the younger generations. At this concert, the ConTempo string quartet, with Síle Daly, Ríona Ó Duinnín and Roland Davitt, played three pieces, including the substantial oboe quintet and first string quartet. It was fascinating to note the stylistic leap forward once the war caused him to cease studies in London, and after his getting to know the White Stag group. The performances were all extremely convincing and polished, while the extensive wood panelling in the chapel really strengthened and warmed the timbres of all involved.

Reaching out
Back on the 24th of June the Crash Ensemble played in the Beckett Centre, TCD. This is a theatre where the ensemble has performed before and Opera Theatre Co. have put on many productions. It has a similar feel to Crash’s other venues, which are all dark rectangular theatres. Such places virtually require the use of amplification, as the acoustic is designed for the speaking voice, and that kind of dry acoustic suits instruments only variously. There is not room here to go into detail about the seven pieces performed that evening, but for Lachenmann’s very intimate piece Pression, for amplified solo cello, the problem of background humming from some device (air conditioner or humidifier) was quite irksome. This sort of problem exists also at the Hugh Lane Gallery and the Bank of Ireland Arts Centre, where a lot of contemporary music is heard.

Also of interest was that a large part of the audience on this occasion was made up of musicologists bussed in from UCD where a major international conference was taking place. Most of these (at least the ones I spoke to) were pretty revolted and negatively predisposed towards the general Crash Ensemble repertoire. ‘Outreach’ will always mean trying to cross many barriers, but well done, Crash, for trying to re-educate the over-educated.

‘Outreach’, then, is one of those terms that somehow conveys the notion that everyone must agree that it is always a good thing. But for it to succeed, or be meaningful, it must really be examined. Equally, the idea that getting music out of the cultural institutions is always a good thing is one that must be questioned. The most flawless concert in this discussion took place in one. However, the best audience situation was the public open air one, while the piece I most enjoyed was actually Donnacha Dennehy’s A Game for Gentlemen Played by Thugs from the other one.

We haven’t really had much debate about this in Ireland yet, nor have we had many really striking examples of it in practice. Once you start to loosen the assumptions about concert practise you have an awful lot of thinking to do if the alternatives are to succeed. The conscientious promoter has to fit the style of the music to the different audience; has to figure out who will come, for example, if the concert is at 10pm, or midnight, instead of 8pm. But as well as caring about the audience, and to some extent its psychological state, the promoter should care about the music; that it gets presented well, which means considering above all the issue of acoustics. Leaving the concert hall also means leaving behind a resonating chamber that is almost an extension of the body of those instruments that have one. That’s why winds, brasses and some percussion retain their colour out of doors, but strings and pianos do not. Amplification is a different thing, and can only make a partial contribution, e.g. to correct a gap in an indoor acoustic (even then it requires a level of expertise that is rare). Also, concert halls tend to have fewer extraneous noises leaking in, which is a problem everywhere else. Individual pieces can and should be examined for their suitability to each situation; all this has to be thought through.

Therefore intelligent choice of venue is a tricky act, and is not served well by naively unbridled enthusiasm and artspeak mantras.

Published on 1 September 2005

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info


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