Be Our Guest!
If you were to measure contemporary music as a socially constitutive quantity, what units would you use? The most obvious unit might be the piece (pc.)—as in, composer x produced y pc. of music over the past year, our national GDP of contemporary music is such and such thousand pc., and so on. But in the absence of performances, how useful is it, really, to know how many pieces are being written? That might be very informative vis à vis the practice of Western composition, but it doesn’t necessarily speak to the volume of contemporary music in production: For that, we’d need another unit—the concert.
The field of performance history is based on this very notion: To know how many, when, where, by whom, and for whom concerts are produced is to know a great deal about the social shape of contemporary music in a particular historical and geographic context. Concerts are where written music becomes music, period; they’re where listeners’ subjectivities can finally regard the objects we devise for them, objects which come to seem almost like subjects themselves. In short, written music is vivified into aesthetic experience by concerts and by concerts only. All of this goes without saying.
Conversely, if you’re in a position to decide when, where, by whom, and for whom a concert might be presented, you hold a great deal of power. You can make it easy or difficult for people to get to. You can make it at the same time as other things (other concerts, appointment TV viewing, Gophers hockey) or not at the same time as those things. You can facilitate dialogue between the musicians and the audience during the concert or prohibit it. You can decide what the space looks like. You can decide how large an audience you want to be able to accommodate. You can, in effect, decide how the people who spend their evening with you will spend their evening (or whatever time of day it is), and by extension you can exert some measure of influence over whether they’ll come back next time.
There is, in other words, no excuse to be careless with concerts—no excuse for unthoughtful programming, no excuse for allowing people to be noisy outside, no excuse for doing anything less than your utmost to make the concert experience competitive with anything else someone might be filling one’s night with. There are plenty of ways to do it right and plenty of ways to do it wrong. Musicians are accustomed to keeping their eyes on the prize—namely, a great performance—but it’s easy to forget that the prize, for the audience, is not having wasted one’s time.