For a couple of weeks in May this year, the plastic pint glass became the scourge of my concert-going. Across genres, in London venues from the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room to Camden’s Roundhouse, above any volume of music, nothing else seemed to occupy the frequency of the sound a plastic beer glass makes when it is squashed by a human foot. So many carefully planned and executed musical moments were ruined as the flimsy polypropylene menace slipped underfoot once more with an outburst of sonic rudeness. Later in the summer, the Multi-Story Orchestra’s performance of Grisey’s Les espaces acoustiques in the cavernous poured concrete frame of Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park was accompanied by the ricocheting of beer cans being opened, over a drone of assorted South London traffic noises (though no less enjoyable for it). And I recall the sense of being in an avant-garde bowling alley at last year’s London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF), when beer bottles were felled intermittently with a hollow clunk on to the hard floor of an East End warehouse throughout a concert.
I am the first to have a drink or two during concerts from whichever receptacle is available and it is not my intention to criticise audience behaviour, but the interruptions which occur in less traditional concert settings do form part of the context in which composers’ music is presented to listeners. The quest for new audiences is one factor which has led an evolution in performance context, with the result that the already unclear distinction between art and entertainment becomes murkier still. The relationship between performance context and the listening experience merits a more detailed and lengthy consideration than it gets here; on a subtler and more pragmatic, “composerly” level, I will raise a question about the impact the eventual performance context might have on the composing phase of creative work itself (i.e. directly on the planned content), if that context is known when a piece is being written, with reference to my piano piece, 10.10.10.
10.10.10 has received eight performances to date, by four pianists, in three countries, all in fairly conventional concert scenarios, with audiences expecting to sit quietly while listening attentively to a highly-skilled piano performer play music composed by other people. Within this familiar framework, there was some variation in what I mean by context. Three venues were universities, three were churches and two were multi-use spaces hosting concerts outside the hours of another function – Spectrum in Manhattan being one, and a recital room in a London music shop the other. Four of the programmes consisted mostly of music by living composers, three included 19th and 20th century classical repertoire (one of those with a world music gig tacked on afterwards), and one sandwiched two of my piano pieces into a recital of vocal and piano music. The audiences for the performances I went to (five out of eight, for geographical reasons) included contemporary music specialists, particularly fellow composers; professional musicians, often friends of participating composers and/or the performer; classical music fans, students, schoolchildren, friends; and practising musicians or music aficionados in other genres who perhaps don’t often go to concerts of notated Western classical music, many also falling into the category of friends of participants. (Oh, and most audience members drank wine, with no noisy and disruptive breakages that I noticed.)
The only context I had in mind when I wrote 10.10.10 was the experience of listening to it: I composed it without a commission or plan for a performance, and I was so absorbed in the process of working with the ideas that any notion of how the music might fit into the contemporary classical or any other music scene was forgotten in my focus on creating music I wanted to hear. Had I composed 10.10.10 for a specific context, particularly a contemporary classical music event, would it have been a different kind of piece? The answer is probably yes. Is this a problem? The answer to that is I don’t know. Would the piece have received those eight performances so far if I had written it with a specific context in mind? I suspect the answer to that is no, it wouldn’t. This is not necessarily a reflection on the contemporary music scene itself, but on specificity itself – a factor in any sort of creative work which may be desirable at times, even unavoidable.
A visual artist once suggested to me that I create site or performer-specific versions of a piece I had over-tailored for one musician to the extent that it was not really possible for anyone other than the intended player to perform it. In principle, I find the idea of writing for a specific person or situation exciting and inspiring, but had I written music designed less well for the individual in this case – an extreme version of writing for a context – I could have kept the music’s options open, and mine.
So, back to those performance contexts which interact with the listening experience in a potentially intrusive manner. I would like to think that Grisey would have enjoyed some of the environmental sounds joining with the semi-outdoor urban performance of Espaces in Peckham. But concert venues of all kinds should only serve drinks in plastic glasses with a warning attached.