Today people go to concert halls looking for answers
Reaching a wider audience is seen, quite rightly, as classical music's number one priority. Yet the strategies for reaching that wider audience are, with a few notable exceptions, based on ill-founded hunches imported from the entertainment industry, while actionable data on what might actually appeal to a wider audience is resolutely ignored. One such example of actionable but ignored is a new survey by think tank Theos which reports that 52% of people believe that spiritual forces in some way influence their lives, while 77% believe that some phenomena cannot be explained by science. These findings resonate with the views expressed by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks in an interview that accompanies the recently released and highly recommended recording of his piano trio Canto Perpetuo by the Boulanger Trio seen above. In the interview Vasks explains that:
...people go to the concert hall because they are looking for answers. Above all for a way out of their difficult, unhappy lives. In the concert hall, then, it is not our job to show how the world is, how much aggressiveness, how much brutality there is. People experience those in their everyday lives... We have gigantic technological developments, but the souls of people are neglected. I always ask myself how I can compose so as to bring more light into this world. That is the purpose of music.Let's at this point dismiss any ideas that Peteris Vasks is a Latvian Graham Kendrick. His Canto Perpetuos contains several aleatoric episodes and the use of sonorism links him to Penderecki and Górecki, while the juxtaposition of the work on the new CD with Shostakovich's grief stricken Second Piano Trio is apposite. And Vasks rejects charges of religiosity with these words:
I come from a pastor's family but am not an active churchgoer. Nevertheless, the spiritual dimension is the most important of all. We exist in a horizontal dimension, but the spiritual - the vertical - is of greater significance in my music. And this is not church religiosity. My church is nature.Compelling support for the argument that people go to concert halls looking for answers comes from uses and gratifications theory (UGT). This explores why people use particular media, rather than what the media does to its audience. UGT, which focuses on needs rather than content, originated in the 1940s but has been applied recently to research the uses and gratifications of social media. In the words of one academic study using UGT "there are many different types of music and we choose from them to fulfill a particular need". The message from uses and gratifications theory is crystal clear: classical music must stop indulging in cosmetic surgery and start answering the needs of its new audiences. As Peteris Vasks explains:
Cold intellectualism alone does not satisfy listeners, whether in the west or in the east or in the north. . And when something hurts it hurts intensely, not just a bit. That is in keeping with my mentality. That becomes clear in composing. For that reason everything can be heard in my music. And concertgoers seek precisely that emotionality.A graphic example of how concertgoers are looking for answers was provided in a concert yesterday (Oct 20) by the Britten Sinfonia. In a typically brave example of programming the Britten Sinfonia juxtaposed contemporary works by Nicholas Maw (1935-2009) and Anna Clyne (b1980) with Stravinsky, Mozart and Haydn. It would have been so much easier to have programmed more popular works to boost the audience on a very wet Sunday evening in musically conservative Norwich. But, with the help of a meta content-rich pre-concert talk by Jacqueline Shave who conducted the Anna Clyne work and Nicholas Daniel who was soloist in Nicholas Maw's Little Concert with yours truly curating the discussion, the contemporary works won the hearts and minds of the audience. The buzz around the concert hall foyers after the performance of Anna Clyne's Within Her Arms, a fourteen minute elegy for strings in memory of the composer's mother, echoed Peteris Vasks' words that "concertgoers seek precisely that emotionality".
But beware of thinking that one size of emotion fits all. The answers that concertgoers are looking for are, like the audiences themselves, very diverse. Some seek spiritual reassurance, while others seek a less overtly spiritual life enhancing experience. We should not forget the latter experience can be provided by music completely outside conventional concepts of spiritual, as this passage from Jonathan Cott's 1974 Stockhausen Conversations with the Composer tells us:
And the notorious fragmentation of contemporary music into factious ideological 'camps' cannot disguise the fact that the finest recent compositions - whether by Morton Feldman, Lucian Berio, Stefan Wolpe, Harry Partch, Pierre Boulez or Elliott Carter - attain to an experience beyond their intricate or incidental structures.A convincing case can be made that today people are going to concert halls looking for answers. But the fashionable trend of turning classical music into entertainment, coupled with an unhealthy preoccupation elsewhere with musical existential angst, works against providing either spiritual reassurance or anything remotely approaching a life enhancing experience. Is it surprising that classical music is finding it so difficult to reach a wider audience?
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