A while ago I posted the response from one of my Eastman students to a question I gave my Eastman class on a takehome exam. How would you design a concert to reach students your own age? Leah Goldstein thought she’d get people in the audience to help write the music.
So now here’s another answer from Kara LaMoure — long, detailed, smart, and passionate. Of course I’m putting it here with Kara’s permission. I’ll let her speak for herself, but note two important points she makes. First, that people her age don’t want to be educated at a concert. And, second, that — no matter what older people might think — people her age don’t need visual stimulation at a concert. Instead, she says, they’re likely to find it gimmicky.
Here’s what she wrote:
This question is considerably harder [than the other question on the takehome exam] because it involves something that doesn’t exist–that is, a symphony or similar entity that performs with my age group in mind. I wonder if I am the right person to devise a solution to the problem, though. In this course we have established that only a teeny-tiny percentage of young adults make up the classical music audience, and since I am a fanatic and avid student of classical music, I don’t know that I would be a good representative of my generation in this instance. Besides, for me, the current status quo is good enough. When I attend symphony concerts with my fellow music students, we analyze the performance as a spectator does at a sporting event, laugh at the composition as one might for a line in a movie, and gossip about the performers like tabloid journalists. The symphony as it is works well for people like us, which is why I propose an alternate kind of group altogether for a performance geared toward lay young adults. This group would be a chamber orchestra that goes on tours much like a rock band would (I’m pretending here that money is no object). When making artistic decisions for this group, I think it is important to focus on what the people of my generation, unlike the older audience at the symphony, do not want from a concert.
The first thing that we do not want is an education. We have already spent our entire remembered lives in school, and now we think that we can discover things for ourselves. We want to bike across entire continents, run campaigns for politicians and parties we just learned about, impart our vast newfound wisdom to the poor younger generations, and take up wild new hobbies like skydiving and classical music. If we really want to know something, we will go to Wikipedia.com, and if we are among the lucky many who have ditched our Bachelor’s degrees in Medieval Literature and Philosophy for jobs in finance or analysis, chances are we will access the website immediately from our iPhones. All this is to say–enough with the program notes and the pre-concert lectures! In my generation, we already know everything, and if for some reason we’ve missed something, we will learn about it ourselves (maybe by going to more concerts!). Program notes for my traveling orchestra will feature headshots and bios of musicians, even the ugly or strange ones. After all, fat Indie rockers who hide behind their hair and their glasses still end up marrying hot actresses. Artist statements are a must. The audience needs to realize that the performers are just as smart, hip, and funny as they are. Composers, too! For a piece by Mozart or Brahms, I would let the composers speak in their own words by publishing excerpts from their personal writings about the piece or their work. Including an old dead guy with the living composers would be seen as humorous but also trendy.
My program might include the following:
A commissioned brass fanfare. This would be played in “surround sound” with the instrumentalists standing in all areas of the theater. Brass players are lucky in that they can play as loudly and as passionately as they want to. I would never tell them to back off during rehearsal, even though they might blow out an audience member’s ear. The beauty of placing performers in the audience is that each person hears the piece with a different balance.
[Arvo] Pärt: Tabula Rasa. I did not discover the music of Pärt until I was in college. At the time I was not majoring in music, but I was taking a seminar about contemporary art and noise, so I brought Tabula Rasa in to share with my classmates. I had planned to play only a small section, but when the music started, the whole room sat in awe of the piece, and our teacher allowed us to listen to the entire work. This piece is amazing in that it can facilitate meditation, relaxation, or just the absorption of its beautiful sounds. Another piece that would work similarly is Kayhan Kalhor’s Silent City.
Stravinsky: Pulcinella. I say Pulcinella, but I think any of Stravinsky’s chamber works, like the Octet or Histoire du Soldat, would work very well. They allow the audience to really appreciate the virtuosity of the performers while not completely overwhelming them with strangeness. The way that Stravinsky mixes in many different styles of music and manipulates the timbres of instruments never fails to blow me away. I also think that smaller works such as these can pave the way toward an understanding of the composer’s great masterworks, such as his ballets.
Improvisations over drum-and-bass or other electronic music. People in my generation listen to music so loud that they can feel it. Honestly, it’s the most powerful way to experience it. In the absence of a Mahlerian orchestra, complete with pipe organ and massive regional chorus, I think some nice bass beats could do the trick. If the jazz musicians that play at Java’s Coffee are any indication, watching people improvise is one of the most amazing ways to connect with a musical performance. Let’s combine these two elements and see what happens!
Original compositions for world percussion and chamber orchestra, or any other world music ensemble. Here I am thinking about the Silk Road Project, which must have been one of the most successful civic music projects in recent memory. The music satisfies my generation’s cravings for the exotic and also eliminates any worries that my group is pretending to be a symphony orchestra of the same old Western tradition.
Pieces by well-known indie artists (we’ve discussed Jonny Greenwood…how about Sufjan Stevens or Jonsi Birgisson from Sigur Ros?). Works by these composers, or songwriters, or however you would like to call them, already contain many of the same elements as “classical” music, but they are way more popular and way more exciting to listen to. I suggest that we just forget that there is actually a distinction between classical and rock and just play some amazing music for the instrumentation of my ensemble.
Which brings me to my next point of what my generation does not want. We do not want just a “rock concert” or a “classical concert”. We want a concert of the artists that we like, who are of course very independent and defy all classification. My hypothetical ensemble would be marketed as primarily that ensemble and not so much as a group of compositions to come hear. Yes, the composers of the music are important, and the music is nothing if it does not convey its story, but the audience members must first make a connection with the performers in order to enjoy a performance.
My generation doesn’t
need bells and whistles, either. I am thinking of the popular trend for symphony orchestras to play video while music is being performed or for actors to act our scenes that correspond to the music. I think that a generation of people who grew up with the over-stimulation of video games, computers, and busy soccer schedules would see these things as gimmicky. If we cannot go to a progressive classical music concert and feel like we’re escaping the normal flow of life, then what is the point? My ensemble will wear all black, and we will not constantly keep the audience separated from us by darkness. If the whole orchestra is playing, then the stage will be lit accordingly, but if something is happening in the audience, or if there is just a soloist playing, the lighting will change. The Pärt might be played in darkness, and a rousing world music piece might be played with all the lights on.
The composers and conductors will participate in the music-making–they will serve as members of the ensemble when their pieces are not being played. This way, all the musicians are on a level playing field, really. And there will be multiple conductors. Conducting is of a higher quality when someone can be an expert on the piece, and if the audience members come to talk to us after the concert, we can refer them to different conductors who each have different strengths.
I close with this thought: it is important to keep in mind that not everyone will like the music that we play. Even the most popular rock bands have their haters, and I hope that the classical music world or my imaginary ensemble won’t be offended if we can’t convert the whole world to the wonders of our craft. We must simply do what we can as performers and hope that we have somehow helped satisfy the audience members’–and our own!–desires.