I hopped the Eurostar to Brussels this weekend to catch a concert in Bruges—part of the Ars Musica festival—featuring pieces by Varèse, Stravinsky, and Dillon. The Concertgebouw Brugge, built in 2002, is a stunning facility on the edge of a medieval plaza. The anachronism of the Concertgebouw in its ancient surroundings prompted me to consider that quirk of the relationship between human geography and cultural consumption that causes new music to be played in old places.
In the United States, most new places are suburban (although as principles of New Urbanism continue to inform urban development, this may change). The suburban pattern of cultural consumption is not especially welcoming to contemporary music: The high concentration of venues in old places like city centers (the very places to which many suburb-dwellers commute every day) and the ubiquity of mass media like television that coincided roughly with the cultivation of suburbs collude to keep suburban populations at home in the evenings. This gravity is even stronger in the more distant and affluent exurbs, where travel time to the city is measured in hours rather than minutes.
Contemporary music—one aspect of which, of course, is the continual revitalization of an archaic Western art music tradition—would be entirely alien in Chanhassen or Leesburg. But it seems to fit like a glove in a venerable city like Bruges, a place whose historical hue complements concert music beautifully even though the Calvinists and Anabaptists who used to run the show would have had nothing to do with it. (Even Leesburg is probably more receptive to new music than was Reformation-era Flanders.) But it’s not just the region or nation: It’s the salable quaintness, the notion that a piece of history can be bought, whether the history of Bruges or Back Bay. It just feels right to hear new music in old places because it cements the feeling that we are acquiring historically validated cachet, investing ourselves in a blue-chip tradition with a record of high cultural dividends.
This is disgusting. It makes me want to start a concert series in a strip mall. In fact, it makes me want to attend concerts of new music in strip malls to the exclusion of all others (slim pickings, I know). Am I alone in this ideological pathology, or does anyone else feel the same way? Maybe it’s totally cool to hang out in old places and listen to classical music, which sounds like an activity custom-made for stuffwhitepeoplelike.com to self-consciously lambaste. But I think it’s symptomatic of a big sociocultural problem, and it would make me feel saner if someone else agreed.