From Nicole Canham: Opening up what we do (1)

[From Greg: Nicole Canham — an Australian musician, festival director, creative producer, scholar, and innovator — is, as you’re about to see, someone who fits perfectly with what we’re doing here. She herself was attracted to my work, and contacted me a few years ago when she was in New York. I later met her in Sydney, when I was visiting Australia to give a keynote speech at what was billed as a “Classical Music Summit,” a conference that brought people from around the country together, to talk about where classical music should go. 

[We stayed in touch, and at one point recently, in an email, Nicole happened to tell me what she’d done as artistic director of the Canberra International Music Festival. She’d introduced great amounts of new programming, and developed a large new audience. But there was something extra, I thought, in what she told me. Not only did she succeed in doing something many people would like to do, but she talked about it in a way that made it seem possible for anyone — as I’m sure it is.

[What could be more natural, then, for me to ask her to do a guest blog post about that here? Happily she accepted the invitation, and you’re about to read the result. I had to divide the post in two parts, because it had to be long. And the payoff, for many people, will come in the second part. 

[But I love the way Nicole introduces herself, making clear why these issues matter to her, and raising an important question for all of us. Why do we sometimes think the new ways and the old ways, in classical music, are incompatible? Nicole strongly thinks they aren’t, and I strongly agree.

[And now over to Nicole.]


photo: Chris Canham

In my career I wear many hats.  I received what one might call a very orthodox classical training, undergraduate degree in Australia, postgraduate studies in Paris.  My father always thought I should be playing jazz and as time goes by I understand why:  in my heart I am an improviser.  I love form and structure, but I want to put my own stamp on things.  I love creating, rather than reproducing.  The kind of musician I am, in terms of what I communicate and why, matters to me a great deal more than playing one kind of repertoire, in a fairly fixed, concert hall ritual.

So I would call myself an indie classical artist, in the sense that I create and produce my own work, experiment with performance formats, and mix art forms, working with a lot of artists who are not classical musicians. I don’t conform to what might be a stereotypical view of the classical musician.  I have also worked as a festival director, an animateur developing programs and workshops for young people, and I’ve been a committed advocate for developing audiences for classical and new music.  I like making things happen and involving others in that journey, especially finding ways to share classical music with new people.

Something I’ve observed and find difficult to understand is why in our discourse there isn’t more tolerance for integrating both the best of traditional practice with a realistic understanding of contemporary culture. It has been my experience that these two approaches, rather than having to compete with each other, can be combined to create a more exciting and alive framework for sharing classical music. I have never, for some reason, felt like I don’t belong at a concert or in an art gallery.  Art is such a natural part of life for me – like breathing – that I feel everyone has a right to encounter it for no other reason than we are all human, we all know what it is to feel, that the experience of life should be as rich in emotion as it possibly can be and that art is a fundamental and powerful expression of what it means to be human.

When I program, I look for ways to treat audiences according to that philosophy: more unusual things I’ve tried have often been motivated by the idea of wanting others to have a positive arts experience and to see themselves reflected in it.  Initially I expressed this a lot in my work as a performer and producer of chamber music, and then from 2005 to 2008 as the artistic director of the Canberra International Music Festival (CIMF) I had a much broader objective, which was to reinvigorate an ailing event and bring it back to life with a new direction and a new audience.

CIMF is a boutique Australian chamber music festival held each May. It was founded by Ursula Callas, a Canberra resident who was passionate about chamber music, and for many years survived on volunteer effort and a great deal of goodwill. At the time of my appointment, the festival’s future looked uncertain mostly because the audience was not growing and therefore it was getting harder and harder to generate the level of income we needed to survive, let alone grow.  One of the challenges I faced was how to develop and expand the program without losing the loyal audience the festival had.

The year before I was appointed the artistic director, I did some part time administrative work for the festival and one of my tasks was to conduct an audience survey. To my surprise I discovered that although there seemed to be a group of very vocal, dedicated and passionate attendees (most of the people surveyed had attended the festival before), very few of them attended more than one or two concerts. Why had the festival been structured around a style of concert that appealed to a small group of people (which was not growing), many of whom were not actually coming to most of the concerts programmed for them?

A second experience also remained in my mind: one Sunday morning a couple in their 30s came to attend a concert with their small baby. The program featured a work for viola that was very delicate, and when the baby began to make some noise, the couple felt obliged to leave. They had probably only been able to listen for about 10 minutes. I offered to refund their money, but they hurried away seeming embarrassed. This encounter made me wonder…why doesn’t this festival have concerts for people with young children? And, perhaps more importantly, how many other people are not even considering coming because the current concert format doesn’t meet their needs? Needs which may have nothing to do with what is on the program.

To me, it seemed logical to take into account the new opportunities I perceived in addition to what had come before, and this was reflected in my programming.

[In part two, which will appear here tomorrow, Nicole will tell you, in lively detail, all about the new programming she created in Canberra. And she’ll show what a success it was in attracting a new audience. Very worthwhile reading!] 

Read part two

Nicole Canham is an independent professional musician (clarinet and targato), festival director and creative producer specializing in chamber music and collaboration. Nicole has performed around Australia, in the USA and the UK, and in Mexico, Belgium and France.  Nicole is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland.  From 2005-2008, she was Artistic Director of the Canberra International Chamber Music Festival.  Nicole is a Churchill Fellowship recipient, and was ACT Artist of the Year (2008), State Finalist, and Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year (2007) and has served as a board member for Canberra Arts Marketing and ACT Cultural Council. Her platform paper, Democracy versus Creativity in Australian Classical Music is published by Currency House Press. You can read her blog here.

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  1. says

    “why doesn’t this festival have concerts for people with young children? And, perhaps more importantly, how many other people are not even considering coming because the current concert format doesn’t meet their needs? Needs which may have nothing to do with what is on the program.”

    Sadly, the normal concert environment isn’t particularly kid-friendly. I’d love to see more programs developed specifically with young children in mind. Looking forward to reading how you addressed this!

  2. says

    I just came back from a workshop on improvisation for classical musicians with the ‘cellist Eugen Friesen. The participants were 4‘cellists, 6 violinists, 2 pianists, 2 singers, several with long performing and recording careers. Some had improvised, several not a bit.
    We explored structured approaches to improvisation, but a great deal was freely improvised, no preconceptions. What amazed me was just how good the music was. Classical musicians are exquisitely trained to listen and respond to nuance, dynamics, articulation, intonation, emotional affect, form, and harmony. So we can converse with each other musically on a sublime level. The results were compelling. Why isn’t everyone doing this?

  3. says

    Thanks for posting this, Nicole.

    “I have never, for some reason, felt like I don’t belong at a concert or in an art gallery.”

    I think that’s true of many of us around here (“here” being ArtsJournal and web sites like it). And it can be hard for us to fathom why anyone would feel she or he didn’t belong at a concert or art gallery or play. We – okay, I – may come to be aware of some reasons on an intellectual level, but deep down I just think, “Why on earth would you feel you don’t belong? It’s there for you, for all of us! Just go already! It’s great stuff!”

    And figuring out how to entice new people to come and enjoy the arts can be challenging when you ultimately can’t comprehend why they’d be uncomfortable coming in the first place.

    • says

      Just to clarify my position a little further: I feel glad that I enjoy classical music and feel comfortable listening to it. But sometimes other audience members can be very off-putting for new comers, or in our planning and programming we fail to take into account a wider set of audience needs than some of our ‘performance traditions’ seem to allow. I feel it is part of my job to connect audiences with the artist and the music, and that there are a range of means available to do that. Not all of them draw upon traditional classical music approaches or rituals and that is fine with me – it is more important to me to belong to a living tradition than to tend to a museum exhibit in what I do, and in that sense although I have a classical training, I am very much a contemporary artist. From that perspective, it is easy to see why people might not enjoy some of the classical or new music offering, or feel hesitant to give it a try and that’s what I love about the challenge and the opportunity of programming: how to reach out to new audiences and best frame the music at the same time. As a general rule, though, I’d suggest that the change in thinking needs to occur on the programmer/performer/presenter side of the equation rather than expecting the reluctant audience member to change first.

    • says

      I’ve come to believe the trick is simply to see BOTH sides of this coin of understanding. We know why we come to concerts and are comfortable. To some extent we also already know why those who don’t come aren’t comfortable… we’ve heard it in passing, we’ve heard it from kids and popular culture constantly… we just haven’t chosen to BELIEVE them. (Classical is long, boring, soft, antiquated, white, stiff, formal, restrained, cold, dressy, pricey, etc.) And if we DON’T know, we can prompt valuable answers from the same demographics WHEN we’re willing to hear them.
      Actually, we only need to spend some time in the presence of the audience we’d like to reach as they take in what they consider art (ie. entertainment). Contrast pop and art music styles and make a list of what is in common and what is different. Ask what is MISSING for them from our tradition. Consider it a given that we won’t LIKE these answers and consider a compromise met with platonic love and honest humility. The central question will then be about balancing art with entertainment. You don’t have one without the other anyway. The E hand washes the A hand as we COMPLEMENT the traditional experience with introductory and participatory experiences.