I’ve just spent the weekend at Transit Festival/Festival2021 in Leuven, an excellent festival of contemporary (broadly) chamber music in Belgium. Thanks to Ward Bosmans from Flanders Arts Institute for the invitation.
The weekend was excellent, some music I liked and some I didn’t but that is the point of a festival. It makes you think and talk.
The experience has certainly got me thinking about the experience of concerts as a whole and weirdly nothing at all to do with the music itself.
Since starting The Night With… I’ve been very instinctual about how the concerts run and the format. The three 15-30min thirds, with standing room just felt right to me and audiences seem to agree. The weekend I hadn’t realised how wrong and off-putting ‘normal’ concert presentation was.
Throughout a lot of the concerts even though I was enjoying the music and engaged with it, I was uncomfortable, wanting to move or change position. If I wasn’t uncomfortable, the darkened room made me want to drift off. It was only when I decided to ignore the etiquette and stand at the back of the hall, did I truly feel comfortable and able to listen without distraction. This was seen as weird by every usher in the space – I think I was asked five or six times do I want a seat or a seat pointed out to me that was free.
This got me thinking more deeply about what is wrong (and yes, I do mean wrong) and weird about traditional concert presentation. So here are some thoughts in no particular order.
This is nothing to do with the music itself and this post should be read as my analysis of the ‘normal’ (bad) concert presentation style rather than specifically linked to one festival.
As a 6ft 2 person, normal concert seats are just not comfortable. They were built for the average person about 150 years ago (around 5ft 4 from a quick google) meaning there is barely enough room for my knees even if I’m sitting bolt upright and ‘properly’. But ‘proper’ sitting has never been comfortable for me anyway – I’d rather cross my legs or sit at a bit of an angle. This means there’s two levels of discomfort going on. I always try and sit at the end of a row so I can stretch my legs out or if the seats are that moveable kind that are locked together, unlock it and twist it a little. Sitting front on is generally not comfortable especially in normal concert seating.
If there are programmes given out there should be enough light for audiences to read the notes. The concert hall shouldn’t be impenetrably black. While I am someone who never reads programme notes before a piece, I do want to read a note after a piece finding it impenetrable to see if there is something to latch onto. A bit more audience lighting please!
Though not too much… one concert had quite a nice audience wash going on but one of the lights was pointing directly at me. I am someone who lights ambient light on the darker side of things but this was very unpleasant and distracting from the music.
Performers should be human / Remove the Fourth Wall
Not a single performer stood up and said hello. This was a chamber music festival so there is a huge opportunity to do so. There was the typical clap on stage, bow, sit and play. This ritual became even more obviously weird when one of the performers had forgotten something, ran off stage, came back and sorted themselves out without any word of apology or explanation. A simple joke or comment would have been well received by the audience and removed any weirdness.
I am definitely not advocating for a performer to stand up and tell us about the music by essentially reading out the programme note (when to read the programme note should be left to the audience, and not forced on them by the performer) but a simple ‘hello, thanks for coming on this shitty night’ would be nice.
Concert dress is another thing – why still concert blacks?!?! Especially when it comes to chamber music!
I know it comes from the flawed logic that it is meant be to stop the performers distracting from the music by looking human but it is such a weird concept. The performers ARE the music. There are so many layers of mediation between the composer’s brain and the listener’s ears. I’m much more interested in a performance when a performer shows they are a human and not faceless note regurgitating machine. The amazing thing about performers like Roomful of Teeth is they look like someone you would bump into in the line for a coffee and then they walk out on stage and sound amazing.
On a programme angle, there should always be performer biographies or at very least a link to their website. If you don’t have anything about a performer in there you are relegating them once again to being a note regurgitating machine.
Programming and intervals
There is a famous quote from Alfred Hitchcock “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”. I think the same kind of logic should be true of concert programming. A 90 min concert, while definitely not longer than bladder capacity, needs at least one interval especially when dealing with complicated music. A chance for an ear sorbet, get another drink, a chat with a friend about the first part or just sit in silence thinking about what you’ve just heard. This is mainly true for multi-piece concerts not necessarily true for a work imagined as longer form. Though an interval between movements could interesting to experiment with in some pieces.
Basically, don’t over programme a concert.
There was only one concert where the players came out as if they were fully prepared, their entrance was even part of the performance. Why can’t this be true all around? Why can’t players rehearse the entrance onto stage so there isn’t much faffing? Or if there needs to be some time it can be covered in some way – I refer back to welcome comments, someone saying hello could be a good way to get around any needed faff.
Why does almost every concert hall have a sign saying ‘no food or drink’? I’m guessing it is to do with cleaning but why do some halls allow it for some concerts but not others? It is just weird and reduces the whole experience.
Weird niche one here but being stung by a wasp really doesn’t help the concert experience. I know this from a rather unpleasant experience during one of the concerts! Thankfully I’m not allergic to wasps or it could have been very different.
All of the headings above I’ve fixed instinctually with The Night With… but I hadn’t realised how much they change the concert experience for me. How adding the ability to stand really increases my engagement with the music.
Some of these points are much easier to fix in normal concerts and concert halls than others but something everyone should be aware of.
However, silence if definitely needed for a good listening experience.