Last year before Fusion‘s November concert, I wrote a short article for the Music Council of Australia about ways to help audiences appreciate live classical music when listening to a programme of music that might be almost entirely unfamiliar. It was just for one of their weekly e-bulletins and thus the article itself was only online for a short time and didn’t reach a terribly wide readership, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about again recently so I’ve rewritten it slightly for the purposes of this blog. And in this format I’ve also been able to include the musical examples which I reference throughout the article.
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Trying new things comes naturally to some people. Others are more hesitant but may be persuaded once someone they trust gives them a hearty recommendation. Many will try new foods, travel to new places, see new films, and discover new authors, all with reckless abandon because they don’t think they have anything to lose. Classical music, on the other hand, can be a whole different story. Rarely are people so hesitant – even when they are already self-confessed lovers of classical music – as when they are invited to a concert of works they don’t already know. Mozart’s Requiem? It’s a full house. A programme of music by composers you haven’t heard of? Hmm. Suddenly going to a movie instead seems more appealing (and yet ironically, the chances are that you’d choose to see something you haven’t seen before).
While there is a small percentage of music lovers who actively seek out new works by emerging composers and up-and-coming performers, musicians know that it is a constant struggle to entice audiences to classical concerts of all kinds. The struggle is amplified when we don’t expect the audience to already be familiar with the programme. And yet we also know that our growth as musicians, both personally and professionally, comes from expanding our knowledge and appreciation of music – and that means choosing to seek out the unfamiliar.
Fusion is a vocal ensemble based in Brisbane and directed by Debra Shearer-Dirié. Their November 2012 season consisted of music from Spain and Latin America. Entitled Tapas, the concert was something of a ‘tasting plate’ of choral repertoire, from rich Mexican Baroque through to a lullaby arranged by a contemporary Venezuelan composer. To the best of my knowledge, none of it is repertoire which is performed frequently in Australia. Inspired by the theme of the concert, I began thinking about ways in which the metaphor could be a useful way to approach any performance of new or unfamiliar repertoire. If audiences need a helping hand to explore new music – and it would seem that sometimes they do – then perhaps a short ‘tasting guide’ is what’s needed.
If you wish to gain something more from your next experience of listening to new music than you get currently, then below are three elements you could consider. For each of them there is a repertoire example from Fusion’s Tapas programme, but the concepts could easily be applied to almost any music, live or recorded.
First of all, consider the component parts of the music. In the same way that you would judge a meal by its ingredients, notice what’s in the music, and what’s happening. Notice voices, instruments and how they interact. Think about the texture – is it sparse, dense, or somewhere in between? Who or what stands out, and does this change? Pick one or two things that you make a point of listening out for, like a particular instrument or voice, just as you might do when you concentrate on a mouthful to see if you can identify a flavour.
Francisco Guerrero – Ave virgo sanctissima: The two soprano parts are in canon four bars apart for the duration of the piece. Listen to the dialogue between them, and how the sound changes with the movement of the lower voices.
We all know that what food looks like plays a part in how appetising it is – a well plated dish is visually enticing, and we often assess food’s appeal by its colour. This is harder to do with music of course, when you need to rely on information primarily received aurally. But you can still ask yourself what mental pictures it creates for you. What does the music look like? What colour is it? What words or images do you find yourself imagining? Is it a still lake with barely a ripple on the surface, or is it a blur of movement so frantic you can’t keep up?
Diego José de Salazar – Salga el torillo hosquillo: This vibrant piece from 17th century Spain depicts a bullfight and is full of movement and excitement. Create a movie in your head while you listen, and focus on the colours, images, words or other sounds that come to mind.
Food and music are both deeply connected to emotion: both are involved whenever we celebrate, and we often turn to both for comfort. Music doesn’t have to be analysed on a cerebral level to be appreciated. What does it make you feel or think about? Who, where or what does it remind you of? Just sitting with the feelings that the music provokes, even unpleasant ones, is a way to engage with music.
Gerardo Dirié – Pomegranate Friends: This new work for 4-channel live electronics, saxophone and choir creates an interesting sound world that plays with unconventional tuning systems. Try to experience yourself being inside the sound, and see if you can identify any particular emotions as you listen to the music. If you can, name the emotion.
[Unfortunately there’s no recording available yet of Gerardo’s work, but I’ll post a link here if one becomes available. Since it was written for and premiered by Fusion, we’re still working at getting an excerpt from the live performance online.]
I believe that all of the above can enrich the pleasure of hearing live music and make the experience more interactive. And the next time you are invited to a concert of new (or new to you) music, you can be confident that you’ll find the experience a more rewarding one for having a few basic tools to better appreciate what you’re tasting.
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I’m interested in your comments: What are some of the things you love about attending live performances? What are some of the things you find challenging? Is there a piece of music which you first heard live in concert that has stayed with you?