A Place for New Music: A Discussion on Concert Hall Venues

2. The Concert Hall as Legitimizer

FRANK J. OTERI: So then the question becomes, what function does the dedicated space serve? What is the purpose of a concert hall at this point in our history? What could or should a concert hall be? We know what a concert hall has been. Russell mentioned Carnegie Hall, which is this model that goes back to the way people have been listening for centuries. But is that still the model that is the right model for our society here and now?

COLETTE DOMINGUES: I think at the moment, the concert hall serves its well-established community and without its concert hall, that well-established community would find itself without live music. The people who go to Lincoln Center to hear a specific, Western classical music tradition concert are not going to be surfing the Internet looking for a live webcast. That’s their community. They know the people that are sitting next to them in their subscriber seats and the community is very solid. Without that particular experience of hearing music, they would be musically homeless. So, yes, those traditional concert halls I believe do a wonderful community service for Western traditional classical music, for their specific audience, and that audience is going to be with us for a long time. They don’t make the transition into another environment. That’s their environment; that’s their home.

FRANK J. OTERI: But is new work served by this kind of concert hall situation?

COLETTE DOMINGUES: New work is not served by that concert hall situation. Traditional work is served and that’s all.


The exterior of Lincoln Center, New York, NY
Photo courtesy Lincoln Center

LIMOR TOMER: We were talking about tuning out buskers or subway musicians. I’ve seen more people tuning out in the traditional concert halls—Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall—than on the subway platform. I mean, it becomes a whole other thing for many people when they go to a traditional concert hall. Sometimes it’s about the music and sometimes it’s not. I don’t think that music is necessarily served by the concert hall environment; I think the concert hall environment is something that emerged—I don’t know, maybe I’m completely off—that emerged from economic conditions, what was happening with the middle class demanding and owning something that was only available to a different class before that. And so the size just began growing and growing as more people were interested and demanding to be exposed to culture, you know, museums and that whole model of making important culture available to large numbers of people. But new music does not necessarily fit itself or develop along those lines. And its needs are very different and its audience is different and the way it needs to be nurtured is not going to fall into those existing structures.

FRANK J. OTERI: But in order to get people to listen, in order to make that leap, there needs to be some kind of message: “This is what you should be paying attention to out of the myriad of noise surrounding us.” So, you know, we have these barriers; it’s almost like a sanctioning. Somebody says, “Well, you know this guy has a gig at the Knitting Factory. Oh, well, the Knitting Factory must think this guy is good therefore I should pay attention to this.” Whereas somebody playing on the street, nobody says this guy is good, he’s just there in the street playing. So the question becomes, this barrier, this construct of the concert hall with its social context that allows you to listen to music in the foreground rather than the background. The questions become: Are these barriers the same for every kind of music? Are they different for different kinds of music? Why are they different? And what kind of barrier is minimally needed to listen to anything?

LIMOR TOMER: All right, so, the Internet, right? Everything is possible; everything is available. It’s like all the colors are there so everything becomes white. So an unsuspecting neophyte who wants to love music, who wants to engage, is lost. So then what becomes really critical is the role of the curator. The curator becomes someone a listener can trust and say, “O.K., lead me and I will follow. And I will trust your point of view. And I will take chances and I’ll spend money on what you tell me to buy and the curator can be a critic, it could be an artistic director of an institution, it could be an institution. It becomes a sanctioning and a curatorial entity that people can trust and follow. And that I think is a tremendous opportunity for people in institutions who are positioned to really advance great new music and new music that matters and people can sort of follow that. And the Knitting Factory is a great example. I mean, it’s such a terrible place in every way, acoustically and the floor and just the environment, and yet it has established itself as a curatorial entity of real importance. I don’t know exactly how this happened, a lot of it was by conscious action…

COLETTE DOMINGUES: A lot of it was created by the artists who wanted to form their own community and found the building to be in a geographic location that was suitable to their needs. So the artists putting up with the awful conditions, which we’ve learned, kept on coming together in this building that they called home. And obviously in the past few years, the artists have chosen to go their own way and to create new homes and new buildings.

FRANK J. OTERI: But that wasn’t really so much because of the acoustics so much as the environment, the culture, the personalities involved. To bring us into an acoustical dimension, you have musicians that are playing in halls with terrible sound, but there’s a scene there and there’s some sort of recognition, so the audience comes. There’s a legitimacy to the scene. From an acoustical point of view, is the music being poorly served in such a scene?

RUSSELL JOHNSON: I don’t think so. Forgive me for going back to the Knitting Factory. There, it’s something that’s established; it’s a routine, it’s established and if you don’t get that experience anywhere else in Manhattan, you’re going to go to the Knitting Factory whether the acoustics rate 3 on a scale of 100, or 82 on a scale of 100. So, acoustics is not by any means the dominating thing in performance.

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